PULLMAN — For many children, the classroom is an unwelcome quarantine, time that must be spent away from the sandlots and dugouts where they can live out their big league dreams of becoming professional baseball players.
Jason Monda spent his time on a baseball diamond and dreamed of textbooks and ink-covered desks. The pitcher/outfielder for Washington State grew up aspiring to a career in hospitals, rather than ballparks, and still aims to be a doctor.
A lot of college athletes say they value their degree. Few who get the chance are willing to give up $200,000 to prove it. But that’s what Monda did last spring after the Philadelphia Phillies made him their sixth-round pick in the 2013 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Monda, who was drafted in the 32nd round out of high school, was one of just two 2013 sixth-round picks not to sign with the team that selected them. Every player selected in that round took the money in 2012.
“To get a player back like Jason, you don’t get that, it doesn’t happen very often,” WSU coach Donnie Marbut said. “So we’re stoked to have him back, and there is a lot of stress on him because he’s playing a position and he’s starting-pitching now and he’s got a full class load.”
Monda’s decision was informed in part by the professional baseball experience of his father, Greg Monda, a two-time All-Pac-10 player for the Cougars in the 1980s who played six years of minor league baseball and made it to the Triple-A level of the Cincinnati Reds organization.
The Mondas said that Greg was able to illuminate the realities of minor league life: the small towns, frequent travel on cramped buses and uncertain futures for a player and his teammates. His dad’s memories provided insight into Jason’s future.
But only when Jason asked.
“You’d think since I went through it I would have had more influence on that and input, and I gave it when needed, but that wasn’t a big part of the decision,” Greg Monda said. “He’s been around some of the players who got drafted prior to him, guys that came back, and they give him perspective that may be more up to date than my experience.
“He kind of knows the lifestyle, he’s gone back a couple summers and played in the Cape Cod League. It’s kind of the same I guess; you’re thrown in with a bunch of guys you don’t know and you’re traveling. I don’t want to say it’s the same thing but it gives you a taste of what to expect.”
Monda was unsure what he would do when the Phillies selected him, but ultimately a number of factors ushered him back to Pullman. Apart from his desire to earn his degree — the Phillies did offer to pay for his final year of college — this year will likely be his last chance to play with his twin, Michael, a WSU utility player.
Jason and Michael have played baseball together as long as they were able, which is just slightly longer than they played with WSU pitcher Kellen Camus, who attended elementary, middle and high school with the Mondas.
“I don’t think when we were in first grade we ever would have imagined that we’d all end up in the same spot,” Monda said. “So obviously it’s a one-of-a-kind experience and I wouldn’t have it any other way, just having those guys around.”
Perhaps more than anything else, Monda wanted to atone for last year’s disappointing season. Despite Monda’s success at the plate — he hit .294 with seven home runs and 40 RBIs — and on the mound — a 1.57 ERA in his first year pitching since high school — the Cougars lost 10 of 11 games late in the season and finished 23-32 overall.
“I think that’s the overall thought about last year is that we kind of underachieved when things started going the wrong way and we weren’t able to turn it around,” Monda said. “I think we had a lot of great guys on that team, I don’t think (our record) was reflective of the kind of people we had last year. … Hopefully, we don’t ever get to the point this year where we’ve got to turn it around, or else.”
Early in the season, the Cougars may already be at that point. Hampered by shaky pitching and a tough schedule, WSU is just 2-7. WSU was one inning away from taking a series from No. 1 Cal State Fullerton in its first series, but gave up 21 runs in a pair of losses to Western Carolina.
In WSU’s first six games, the pitching staff allowed eight or more runs five times. The hurlers have responded to allow just five runs in three games against Cal State Northridge, but the bats went silent and WSU lost the series, 2-1.
Although the wins have not yet come for the Cougars, Monda is happy in his decision to return to WSU. While putting off the majors for another year would be a dream deferred for many, for Monda it’s actually taking him one step closer to his goals.
“I think it keeps everything in perspective to know that there are other things in life other than baseball,” Monda said. “We put a lot of time into it and obviously it’s very important to us but it’s definitely good to keep that perspective when you play a game like this.”
By the time the Gonzaga baseball team finally takes the field in Spokane it will have played more games than many athletes do in a season. The Bulldogs are beginning 2014 with a 25-game road trip and won’t play in Spokane until March 28.
For the young Bulldogs, that time away from home has come with some growing pains and GU has stumbled to a 3-8 record. Part of the problem is that GU, which is starting three new starting pitchers, has played in three consecutive national tournaments featuring opponents like No. 2 Oregon State and No. 11 Oklahoma State.
“We’re trying to play really, really good teams on neutral sites and that’s what I think we have to do to get our team ready to play in conference,” coach Mark Machtolf said. “And you do run the risk, especially in a year like this where we are (young) and the weather didn’t help us in terms of getting a look at these new players.”
The team has just five seniors but has gotten a boost from junior Mitch Gunsolus. The infielder is hitting .432 while starting every game. The rest of the team is hitting just .232.
“He’s started off great and that’s huge because offensively, with so many new starters we have been a little erratic,” Machtolf said. “We haven’t had a lot of live reps (because of the weather) and it’s going to take us a little while to get those guys up to speed, and it’s nice to have that leadership and have him leading the way. I don’t want to jinx him, and he’s been great.”
After a barrage of early games the team has a bit of a break, not playing again until Saturday at UC Irvine. The team will use that time to try and build off Sunday’s win over Oklahoma and fix what hasn’t worked so far this year, starting with the bullpen.
While three of GU’s starting pitchers boast ERAs of 3.32 or lower, the Bulldogs have just one reliever with a sub-3.00 ERA and have four 9.00 or higher. Those relievers each have opponent batting averages of .350 or higher.
“Overall, I’ve been really satisfied with our starting pitching,” Machtolf said. “We have three new starters and they’ve done a good job. We haven’t pitched in relief very well and that’s something I think we’ll shore up because the guys in the bullpen have pitched well in the past, they’re just not pitching well right now. If they had we would have three or four more wins I think.”