‘Eaters in the Minors

Marlon Castillo | New University

Marlon Castillo | New University

Someone once asked, “How many moments in life can you point to and say, ‘That’s when it all changed?’”

For UC Irvine graduate and former ’Eater shortstop (2008-2012) D.J. Crumlich, a moment of such importance presented itself while the business economics major was in class just days before his graduation in June of 2012.

As his cell phone rang, Crumlich excused himself from the lecture to answer the call that athletes dream of receiving — the news that they have worked hard enough to ensure that his or her days of taking the field, or the court, are not over.

On June 5, 2012, the Pittsburg Pirates drafted the 6-foot, 195-pound infielder in the ninth round and welcomed the Big West Defensive Player of the Year into their program.

“He’s got good hands and a strong arm on defense,” Tim Williams, the editor-in-chief of Pirate Prospects, wrote the day that Crumlich became a Pirate. “He had excellent plate patience [in 2012], with a 9.9 percent strikeout rate, and a 10.2 percent walk rate.”

The Pirates had their eye on Crumlich for a while and had previously drafted the shortstop in the 38th round in 2011. However, the then-junior opted to return to UCI for his senior season.

Crumlich kept in contact with the Pirates’ area scout following the 2011 draft and, after an impressive senior campaign where he hit for a .324 average while leading the ’Eaters with 72 hits, 39 runs scored and 16 doubles, the 2012 Big West Scholar-Athlete of the Year was confident going into the draft in 2012.

As soon as Crumlich received the official news, texts from friends and family flooded his phone with notes of congratulations.

“A lot of my friends have been forced to stop playing […] and I really realized how fortunate I am to have been given this opportunity,” Crumlich said. “I’m not going to let it go to waste.”

Crumlich was asked to report as soon as possible to State College, Pennsylvania, where he would be playing for the State College Spikes in the New York-Penn League. Crumlich would play in front of about 5,000 fans a night at home, at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park located on the University Park campus of the Pennsylvania State University. The 2012 season was the last summer the Spikes were affiliated with the Pirates, who are now the Short-Season A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Reporting immediately to Pennsylvania meant leaving for State College the Sunday following his Friday graduation. Crumlich celebrated his diploma with his flight to the East Coast for a first look at the ballpark he would soon call home for the long summer.

Marlon Castillo | New University

Marlon Castillo | New University

Just hours after walking across the stage in the Bren Events Center, Crumlich suited up and took the field in Stage College and began the whirlwind that is the life of a minor leaguer.

With 76 games in 80 days, stamina plays a large role in having a successful summer. With a steadfast work ethic and a fervent determination, Crumlich took the season one game at a time.

“If you start counting the games and realize you have 30 or 40 to go, it’s a little bit overwhelming,” Crumlich said. “Enjoy each day. You have to play hard every game because you don’t know who’s watching. There could be a scout in the stands. Or a coordinator in the stands, you never know.”

As an athlete living with a host family for the summer, Crumlich was lucky to have a host mother that would prepare breakfast for him and his two teammates also living in the same home.

Every morning Crumlich’s alarm would sound, he would enjoy breakfast and head out to the field to arrive by 12:30 p.m. sharp for batting practice in the cage. After BP, Crumlich would take early ground balls before taking infield, followed by a fundamental team practice and then batting practice again until 5:00 p.m. The team would then have time in the locker room before heading back out onto the field at 6:30 p.m. for a 7:00 p.m. start time. While some would watch TV, Crumlich often used that quiet time before the storm to read — his two favorite books over the summer being John Grisham’s “The Firm” and a biography of his favorite player, Derek Jeter.

Games wrapping up around 10:30 p.m. every night meant eating around 11:00 p.m. and getting to bed around 1:00 a.m. at the earliest, and repeating the same routine the next day.

“It’s a grind. It tests your endurance,” Crumlich said. “It’s definitely not what you see on TV with the major leagues. You don’t really see the six-to-eight hour bus rides that you take. Some of the fields you play at, some of the club houses you have to be in … the aspect of playing a game every single day can get to you.”

When it seemed like a long timeout before returning home to California at the end of the season, or when the thought of only having two off days all summer seemed a little bit daunting, Crumlich would look at the inscribed initials “A.B.F.,” which belonged to his late grandmother, on the underside of his hat and batting helmet.

“My Mom’s Mom, always used to tell me to ‘Just do it.’ If I ever said, ‘Oh I’ll try’ or ‘I’ll do my best,’ she would always tell me, ‘No, you’re going to do it.’ She taught me to have that mindset, that if you set a goal, don’t be satisfied coming up short.”

As an All-Star this summer and the State College Spikes MVP, Crumlich’s grandmother would be proud to see her grandson fearlessly making strides towards his goal of playing in the major leagues.

Crumlich was one of the Spikes’ best hitters this season, with more at bats than anyone else on his squad, with 257 in 69 games. Crumlich hit for a .292 average with a .389 slugging percentage and a .357 on base percentage. The shortstop totaled two home runs, 29 RBI and led the Spikes with 19 doubles.

Dave Turgeon, Minor League Field Manager for the Pittsburg Pirates, believes Crumlich “will play baseball for a long time.”

Having started playing at just four years old, Crumlich began preparing long ago for the chance to take the field as a professional.

It was more than just long hours at practice that shaped Crumlich into the kind of player Turgeon compared to former MLB utility player Tony Graffinino. It was self-motivation and a genuine love for the game shared with him by his parents and days spent in the stands at Anaheim Stadium cheering for the Halos.

“I remember when I was young, I used to throw tennis balls against our garage. I used to swing those little bats, like the kind you would get at Angels games and toss myself the ball,” Crumlich said.

Crumlich also stresses the importance of being coachable, flexible and willing to break bad habits.

As the starting quarterback at Irvine High School, Crumlich led his team to a 8-3 record in the 2007-2008 season and shares that it was his time on the football field in high school, as opposed to the baseball field, that taught him the invaluable lessons necessary for being successful as an ’Eater and now as a player in the minor leagues.

“The team aspect of football, it’s not replicated anywhere else,” Crumlich said. “That Friday night football feeling is awesome and [as] the quarterback there’s a lot of pressure. [Learning how to handle] that helped me a lot in baseball.”

Applying the lessons Crumlich learned both as a quarterback and as the UC Irvine starting shortstop under Coach Gillespie, whom Crumlich said taught him how to play the game, Crumlich has a unique, grounded view on his future that stems from taking nothing for granted.

While most athletes in Crumlich’s position would say that baseball is life, Crumlich says, “In order to keep playing, you do have to remember that it is just a game. That’s when some guys really psych themselves out when they think something like, ‘This is my life, what am I going to do if I don’t do well.’ I found myself doing that sometimes this summer, like if I was in a slump. But you have to remember that it is just a game and it’s the same game you’ve played your whole life, just at a faster pace.”

Crumlich is looking forward to the opportunity to move up to a high level in the minor leagues and to rise to the challenge of a new season.

The shortstop leaves for Florida on March 3 for spring training and has been diligently training everyday in the hopes that one day he will get another call, and will say as a professional ball player looking back on that moment, “That’s when it all changed.”