[catbird seat]
Double Play
Freshmen Brian Matusz and Josh Romanski opted to defer big league dreams in favor of a college education
by Tom Davis

Baseball players Brian Matusz (left) and Josh Romanski came to USD even though they both were heavily courted by the pros.

The Immaculata bells pealed last September, signaling the beginning of another school year for 4,968 USD students — and a dream deferred for Brian Matusz and Josh Romanski.

As Alcalá Park pulsed with the endless possibilities of a new semester, the freshmen who carried the future of USD baseball in their thunderbolt left arms seemed like most other students making their way through the knot of humanity on Plaza de San Diego.

Except these guys had escorts.

In all his years of coaching college ball, Rich Hill had never escorted a player to class, but he’d heard enough stories to feel uneasy about letting the cornerstones of the nation’s 12th-rated recruiting class go it alone. He knew current stars like Shawn Green and Alex Rodriguez had signed contracts just hours before their first class, lured away by the dream of playing professional baseball.

Under baseball rules, no drafted player can sign a professional contract after he attends his first class at a four-year college. So when Matusz folded his angular 6-foot-4-inch frame behind a desk in his world history class, he went from being the Angels’ fourth-round selection to the highest draft pick ever to attend USD. And the second Romanski scribbled his first note in his sociology class — poof! — the Padres’ 15th-round pick was now a cannon-armed college baseball player, just like his father before him.

Time to forget about the majors and pick a major.

Although each of the pitchers turned down an eye-popping sum, opting to defer their ultimate dreams, neither is given to second-guessing himself.

“It would be different if I could have made the big league club,” says Romanski, a pitcher and outfielder. “But I’d be in Class A or Rookie League if I’d signed. So, now I’m becoming better educated in all facets: school, life and baseball. To me, the minor league experience just doesn’t equate to what

I have here at USD.”

“It’s a good story for the future,” Matusz says, of being the second-highest pick in the 2005 draft to end up on a Division I campus. “But it doesn’t mean anything now because I have to go out there and prove I can compete at this higher level.”

That won’t be an easy task: To describe USD’s 2006 schedule as competitive is like calling Carnegie Hall a nice room. The addition of quality arms like Matusz and Romanski fits nicely into Hill’s “blueprint for success,” a plan that calls for building around core groups of players, seasoned with experience in the WCC and in top summer leagues. Anchored by juniors Josh Butler, Shane Buschini, Steve Singleton and Jordan Abruzzo, Hill felt the Toreros were poised to handle an “insane” schedule.

The insanity began with a three-game series against Texas, the defending national champion. Romanski went 6-for-12 at the plate in that series, sparking the Toreros’ first-ever three-game sweep of a No. 1 ranked team, earning Romanski WCC Player of the Week honors in the process.

The wins over Texas vaulted USD to the highest ranking in their Division I history. The Toreros stood 13th in the Collegiate Baseball Top-25 Poll when Matusz won his first start at UC Davis. USD had leapfrogged to eighth nationally by the time he struck out 11 in a 3-1 loss at Georgia.

“You really have to hit your spots here or they’ll make you pay,” the lanky lefty reports. “Against Cal Poly we were losing 3-0 after the first three batters, but coming back from adversity was huge for me.”

For his part, Coach Hill is pleased by the progress both have made. “These guys have shown a lot of guts to be thrown into the fire like this,” he says. “Everything we do here is geared towards improvement, so we don’t necessarily measure success by win-loss records or batting averages. We want to see how our players react under pressure and how they handle failure. Both Brian and Josh have done that against arguably the toughest schedule in the country.”

The amateur draft comes again in June, but it seems a world away for the pair. “That really isn’t a part of our lives anymore.” Romanski reports. “We’re proud to be here and we’re working on getting our team to the next level.” That next level is the College World Series this June in Omaha, Neb.

“Everyone on the team has it set in their heads that we’re going to Omaha this year,” Matusz adds. “There’s no doubt about it. We feel like we have the talent to do it and nothing is going to stop us.”

Once their freshman season ends, both are scheduled to play in the Cape Cod League, an elite summer league that counts nearly 200 current major leaguers as alumni. Hill also believes both have a shot at making America’s junior national team before breaking the bank when they are draft-eligible again in 2008. “I think a college education is worth millions over the course of your life,” Hill says. “But history shows us that bonuses escalate, and bonuses for college pitchers can escalate 10 times. So, if these guys continue to improve they can both be multi-millionaires. Multi-millionaires with college degrees.”

And you can take that to the bank.