Minor struggle, major payoff

Joc Pederson ('10) has spent the past four years since graduating from Paly playing Minor League Baseball. After working his way through the minor leagues, he has now been called up to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Minor struggle, major payoff

Jon SooHoo

Zoe Bhargava and Bryn Carlson

With a tradition of athletic excellence and success, it is not a surprise that dozens of Paly graduates continue with their sport at the collegiate level every year. However, few athletes manage to surpass the collegiate level and continue to the professional level. Joc Pederson (‘10) is one of the few exceptions.

On Sept. 1, 2014, former Viking J. Pederson was called up by the Los Angeles Dodgers and on Sept. 2, 2014 he made his first career start. As early as Little League, many young baseball players dream of making it to play Major League Baseball (MLB), a dream which J. Pederson is now living out. Getting to this point, however, has not been an easy process.

Four years earlier, in his senior year at Paly, J. Pederson decided to sign with the Dodgers as an 11th round pick in the 2010 MLB draft, giving up his spot to play ball at the University of Southern California (USC). With that decision, he entered himself into four years of playing Minor League Baseball (MiLB).

While his classmates were deciding between which colleges they would be attending, Pederson was deciding between two options that would lead to two very distinct paths.

“I had to choose if I wanted to play football and baseball in college or go play pro [baseball],” J. Pederson said. “It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made.”

However, the choice to sign with the Dodgers has not completely ruled out the opportunity for an education, in the future.

“He was scheduled to go to USC, and the nice thing about getting drafted out of high school now is that they will give you the equivalent of your scholarship for education,” his mother Shelly Pederson said. “That is set aside, separate. He doesn’t get to touch that money until he goes to school. If the baseball doesn’t work out, he has the opportunity to use those funds and pursue his education.”

J. Pederson’s decision to pursue a professional baseball career path was not a first in his family. His father, Stu Pederson, was a part of the Dodgers’ organization and played MiLB from 1988-1992 and played in the MLB in 1985. His older brother, Tyger Pederson (‘08), just completed a season playing for an independent team, the Rockford Aviators in the Frontier League in the Midwest, after playing at the University of the Pacific as well as in the MiLB affiliates of the Dodgers.

The opportunity to play professional baseball was earned by J. Pederson because of the immense talent that he showcased and built throughout his years playing baseball. In his senior year at Paly, he led off for the team and had a 0.466 batting average, a 0.577 on-base percentage and a 0.852 slugging percentage. He also stole 20 out of an attempted 22 bases throughout that season.

“He was a tremendous athlete,” Paly baseball coach Eric Raich said. “Joc was a good guy to have there when [I came] to take over [the] program – ability wise he was pretty special.”

In addition to J. Pederson’s natural ability, he spent countless hours training to enhance his performance. Besides the regular practices and workouts for both Paly and club teams, J. Pederson would often spend his lunchtimes in the batting cages hitting with his dad before going to his afternoon classes.

His athletic talent came not only from years of being a committed baseball player, but also from years of being a multi-sport athlete. During his years at Paly, he played football and basketball in addition to playing center field for the Vikings. At wide receiver, he had 30 receptions for 650 yards in his senior year at Paly.

“In high school I played all three [sports], but my summers I always spent playing baseball,” J. Pederson said.

However, it was only late in his high school career when it became clear that baseball was what he wanted to focus on.

“Baseball has just been a love,” S. Pederson said. “Joc finally figured out that he really wanted to pursue baseball [his junior year], and he also really excelled at it.”

As he pursued his passion for baseball, J. Pederson sacrificed a lot to make it to the dugouts he stands in now. By choosing to play in the MiLB instead of at USC, he gave up the standard college experience that his peers were embarking on.

“It is a long process,” S. Pederson said. “It is not like he’s going out and partying, he has bypassed a lot of that. He has missed out on a lot of opportunities that you get when you’re in college and all those social interactions. That’s his path and I’m happy for him because that’s what he’s chosen, and it’s sometimes hard to know that he’s grown up so fast and missed some of [those] opportunities.”

With the decision to play baseball in the minor leagues, J. Pederson took on an arduous, full time job. With little pay, long hours and none of the glitz and glam of the major leagues, it is both a physically demanding and mentally straining profession.

“A lot of people don’t understand the grind of the minor leagues,” T. Pederson said. “It’s not very glamorous like some people think. [Pro ball] is basically just [run] as a business, and you kind of have to understand that it’s a profession and some people don’t really look at it as a game anymore.”

Having over 100 games a season, MiLB players get very little time off amongst their long days spent at the fields practicing or playing.

“It is very long and it’s baseball every day,” S. Pederson said. “They have maybe a day off every month.”

With over 170 teams in the minor leagues, there is a large number of athletes that are working towards the goal of making it on to one of the 30 MLB teams in North America.

“In the minor leagues there are so many people, we had probably 120 guys in spring training, so it’s just a lot of numbers and you’re just one of a number.” T. Pederson said.

With the large number of athletes in the minor leagues, it is imperative that athletes play to their best ability to make it to the next level, and players often have to play through pain and even injury.

“You play over 140 games so I’ve played through fatigue and soreness… it’s a grind,” J. Pederson said, “The travel is tough, but at the end of the day no one cares how you feel. It’s all about how you perform.”

Due to the harsh truth that only a minute number of MiLB players make it to a MLB team, playing professional baseball at the minor league level most definitely does not lead to a debut on the TV screens at home.

“Just because you play professional baseball and you are in the minor leagues, there is never a guarantee that you will make it that far,” S. Pederson said. “Every year the percentage gets lower and lower to make it to the next level.”

It takes only the most dedicated athletes to persevere through the extensive and unpredictable journey towards playing on a MLB team.  Besides the taxing stipulations of the minor leagues, there is also an element of uncertainty for each player in the MiLB.

“There are a lot of people who lose focus just because there is such a small percentage of people who do make it [to the major leagues],” T. Pederson said. “It is a very difficult path.”

Not only are players uncertain of ever setting foot on the big league fields, but players also have to worry about maintaining a spot on their minor league team roster.

“It’s not like in college where you are part of a team for four years, there is a lot of change,” T. Pederson said. “You have new guys coming in and out every week—there are guys getting released, guys getting signed and you have guys from independent ball who are coming, you have young guys, you have old guys. You could have a teammate for a week and then never see him again.”

In order for J. Pederson to continue a linear progression through the minor leagues and beat the odds of making it the major leagues, he has undergone strenuous conditions in his four-year journey of playing professional baseball. Apart from playing baseball during the minor league season from February to September, J. Pederson also participated in additional ball leagues in the traditional off-season making the sport a year-round event.

“To get to the level that he’s at, he has sacrificed a lot,” S. Pederson said. “With a lot of minor leaguers you will play fall or winter ball, so your season continues [past the standard MiLB season]. He’s done all of that. Maybe he’s home for Thanksgiving and the holidays and then he starts up again.”

In comparison to other players, J. Pederson had a fairly rapid advancement through the minor league levels. Older brother T. Pederson, on the other hand, has experienced progress at a more typical rate as he entered the minor leagues in 2013 after playing Division I baseball at the University of the Pacific.

“Tyger has had a more standard [progression through the minor leagues],” S. Pederson said. “Joc has had a pretty rapid ascent, which is fortunate for him.”

Advancing to a higher level roughly every season, J. Pederson quickly made his way from Rookie Ball to MLB, earning honors at each step along the way. In 2012 at only 20-years-old he was named the Dodgers’ “Minor League Player of the Year” while playing A ball. In 2013, J. Pederson was ranked the Dodgers’ #1 prospect by Baseball America. And in his 2014 season in AAA ball, he was named the 18th-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America, and he hit 30 home runs and stole 30 bases in one season.

With his quick progression through the minor leagues, J. Pederson is now playing for the Dodgers at the age of 22. With teammates ranging up in to their late thirties he has had to adjust to a level of maturity in the sport above the standard for a player his age. J. Pederson has acquired this maturity over years of playing up in leagues.

“He has always been the youngest player [on his teams],” S. Pederson said. “He has to carry himself in a manner that shows that he belongs and that he has the ability to be there. He takes it pretty seriously.”

While his Paly classmates are commencing their first jobs after college, J. Pederson is one step ahead as he has already been at work for the last four years. However, like his classmates, he has recently made an advance this past September when he stepped on to the plate against the Washington Nationals for the world to watch.

Despite J. Pederson’s now nationwide viewership, a part of J. Pederson’s audience remains the same: his family. They have supported him since he was a young player and are proud to see him make this new step in his career.

“It’s pretty amazing seeing him out there with superstars like Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford, and guys like that who are well established baseball icons,” T. Pederson said. “You look up to those guys growing up and all of a sudden my brother is on the same field as they are, so that’s a pretty cool feeling to know that all of his hard work has paid off and he is actually getting an opportunity to live out his dream.”

The support of his family has played a huge role in J. Pederson’s journey to the major leagues.

“My family had been by my side through good and bad,” J. Pederson said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without them. I am blessed to have come up in a baseball family, it has helped me tremendously.”

Despite standing under the bright lights and new levels of pressure and distractions, J. Pederson has kept his focus on the job at hand.

“It’s been a learning experience; it’s a whole different life style up here,” J. Pederson said. “But at the end of the day, it’s how you perform on the field.”

Just as baseball is America’s pastime, the journey of baseball players through the minor leagues mirrors the American dream. While many young athletes aspire to make it big one day, only the lucky and dedicated few like J. Pederson realize this dream. Only four years ago, however, he was a Viking just like us. While we may not all be able to reach the level of skill needed to play at a professional level, we can be inspired by the diligence and work ethic of J. Pederson that led to his great success.