Alumnus Francis Larson’s Angelic End to His Soul Searching

After quarterback Kurt Warner graduated from Division II University of Northern Iowa in 1994, he wasn’t drafted by an NFL team, but he still attempted to make the Green Bay Packers’ roster. Warner was eventually cut by Wisconsin’s beloved team, who sided with a young man named Brett Favre.

Without a job, Warner turned to bagging groceries at Hy-Vee, a convenience store in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. From there, he played for the Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers, while making $5.50 an hour stocking shelves at Hy-Vee.

Today he’s retired as one of the best playoff quarterbacks of all time, a 12-year veteran of the NFL, with one Super Bowl ring, a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award and two NFL Most Valuable Player recognitions.

At UC Irvine, former catcher Francis Larson graduated Magna Cum Laude last spring. He doesn’t need to be a professional athlete to accumulate wealth. He doesn’t play football, but baseball. He doesn’t work at a market, but studies market trends. And he hasn’t won any professional athletic awards – just yet. But Larson has done something that Warner never could: get drafted.

Last spring I was confused when Larson, UCI’s all-time home run king – a 23-year-old catcher with a cannon and exceptional signal-calling abilities – told me it’d take a high draft pick and a hefty signing bonus to pull him away from studying abroad for his master’s at the London School of Economics. Even some of his professors were trying to convince him not to go to London.

The former Anteater backstop scored in the 90th percentile on the LSATs and tied for the team lead with eight home runs in 2010, but he preferred an international, academic perspective to Minor League Baseball.

Nevertheless, his head was elsewhere, and it had to have affected his draft status. Admitting that baseball may no longer have been his priority, Larson was selected in the 22nd round of the 2010 Major League Baseball draft, 684th overall, by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – fitting for a hometown kid that attended Esperanza High School in Anaheim and grew up in Yorba Linda, minutes away from the stadium.

The last we saw of Francis Larson, he went 0-fer in UC Irvine’s 6-2 season ending loss to the eventual National Championship runner up, the UCLA Bruins, in the Los Angeles Regional on June 6, 2010. His last game wasn’t reflective of his stellar tournament, however. After hitting three home runs, knocking in eight runs, batting .353 in four games and receiving a selection to the All-Regional team, Larson hung up his cleats … and that was it.

Or so we thought. Larson has decades of work ahead of him before the senior special kicks in at Denny’s. At 23, he’s young. Larson had never missed a spring baseball season since beginning the game at the age of 4. But when October rolled around, his signature still hadn’t appeared on a contract with the Halos, and instead of squatting behind the plate, he was seated at a desk. Larson attended the London School of Economics from October to March. Famous for producing Nobel Peace winners and Fortune 500 CEOs, the school is a one-year master’s program that dismisses students from March through June to study for final exams and prepare their theses that are due in September.

Throughout his time in London, Larson missed the game. “I had pretty close friends playing in the minors,” he said, “and I was seeing guys my age in London playing professional cricket and soccer. I started to want to give baseball a shot.”

Larson hadn’t played since the Regional loss, until late February. Longtime family friend and father of UCI’s senior outfielder Sean Madigan, Mike Madigan got into contact with Larson overseas.

“Mike is a great guy and an old coach and he’s pretty connected with the Angels,” Larson said. “He told me the Angels still had an interest in signing me. And we ended up getting into contact with the scout who drafted me. Once I heard that there was still interest, I started training right away and got in touch with the British Baseball Federation to work out with those guys.”

Angels scout Bobby DeJardin told Larson that if he was in baseball shape, they’d sign him. After classes ended, Larson returned home and trained at UCI for six weeks. On Tuesday, May 10, Larson was flown to the Angels’ spring training complex in Arizona, where the team tried him out.

“They had me take [batting practice], throw to the bases, catch a bullpen session and I did some running,” Larson said. “And on Thursday, I signed at Angels Stadium.”

The former Anteater didn’t receive a signing bonus, which is customarily minimal for a 22nd-round pick, but Larson is allowed to leave the team for a couple of weeks on June 2 to travel back to London for finals. For those whose eyebrows aren’t raised, this is your cue.

That’s rare! Although his team’s schedule has a coincidental hiatus from games throughout the stretch in which Larson will be overseas, he’ll still miss weeks of practice, conditions that the Angels were willing to agree upon.

Larson has been in Tempe, Ariz. on the Angels’ extended spring training and rehab team, living out of a hotel room. The catcher’s economics studies would likely emphasize that his opportunity cost of playing minor league baseball for a meager salary is the amount of money he could be making in the real world. Despite the lack of a bonus, Larson explains, “I’m getting all the bonus I need. The fact that they’d pay you any money to hit a ball and throw a ball … is nuts! This is the easiest job in the world. I’d do it for free.”

As for his intellectual future, Larson said, “The cool thing about baseball is there’s a six-month offseason. I’ve realized that you can make a lot of different stuff work. I won’t let anything get in the way of baseball now though. I’m young. I have a long time to live, but more school is on the horizon.”

Having experienced the London School of Economics and the decision to distance himself from baseball last year, his childlike exuberance for the sport is back.

“If you don’t know what it’s like to live somewhere else,” Larson said, “I feel like it’s hard to make a good decision in what you do with your time. At a certain point in London, I realized I had enough perspective. I have the ability to play a sport for money; it was as simple as that. I had gotten what I wanted out of London, now I’m free to play a game that I love.”

With athletes like Mark Sanchez, Derrick Rose, John Wall and possibly UCI’s junior ace Matt Summers (a potential selection in the June 6 MLB draft) leaving their educations behind early to make millions as professional sportsmen, Larson is doing quite the opposite. In a world filled with future teachers, businessmen and police officers putting their futures aside for a chance to make millions as professional athletes, Larson might just be putting millions aside to play professionally. With time on his side, Larson has the freedom to seek out a Major League at-bat, an All-Star game and a World Series ring before he decides between CEO and lawyer.