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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on July 28th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 21 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 21

Yankee warrior: Righetti High School graduate Matt Sauer was drafted by the New York Yankees, setting him on the path to the majors

By KRISTINA SEWELL

Matt Sauer seems to be adjusting well to his new life in Florida. The Ernest Righetti High School graduate sounded content and sure of his path during a recent interview with the Sun, and despite his teammates in the background making him laugh throughout the phone call, Sauer exudes a maturity that belies his age.


Sauer, a right-handed pitcher and four-year varsity player for the Warriors who graduated this year, was drafted as the 54th pick in the second round of the Major League Baseball (MLB) draft in early June. What’s more, he was drafted to one of baseball’s oldest and most notorious teams: the New York Yankees.

From a small town to the big time, Sauer joins the ranks of Central Coasters who have gone on to the pros. But for Sauer, it’s just the beginning of a lifelong dream.

The phone call

On Monday, June 12, in Orcutt, it took only one phone call to change the course of Sauer’s life. Surrounded by numerous friends and family, the Yankees contacted Sauer’s representative to offer him the 54th pick if he was willing to take it.

He was ready.

“It was crazy looking at my parents in that moment, we all got a little emotional,” he said. “It is such a blessing and I’ve been working for this a long time.”

Typically, 54th picks are offered a signing bonus of $1.3 million. But, according to ESPN, the Yankees were willing to more than double that signing bonus to $2.5 million to secure Sauer’s position.


ON THE RADAR
Sauer’s pitching skills drew the attention of many radar gun-wielding Major League Baseball scouts at Righetti’s home games this season, helping fill the stands.
PHOTO COURTESY OF TAMI SAUER

Prior to the draft, Sauer had been committed to play baseball on a full ride scholarship at the University of Arizona; they had signed him in his junior year of high school.

“The money was the deciding factor,” Sauer said with a laugh.

For Sauer’s mother, Tami, she couldn’t be more excited and proud of her son’s accomplishment. The love and tears were clear in her voice during her interview with the Sun.

“We are very excited for him,” Tami said. “He has worked very hard, and since he was a little kid, this has been his dream.”

While she admitted that deciding between the pros and college was difficult, she knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her son.

“All we hoped for was for him to be successful and get a college education,” she said. “It was a tough decision, but it’s what Matt wants and deserves.”

For Tami, the reality of the situation hit home when the Yankees flew the family to see their night game against the Angels in Anaheim. The Monday after the draft, Sauer said good-bye to small-town Orcutt and embarked on his journey to the Big Apple.

The first stop on the way is Florida.

Life in Florida

Sauer said that his new life still seems surreal at times, but he is starting to settle into the routine, which is long and grueling.

“I wake up at 6 a.m. every day and am to the field by 6:30 a.m.,” he said. “We start with conditioning, then work in the bullpen. Games are from 12 to 3 p.m., and I have the rest of the day to myself after that.”

He currently resides in an extended-stay hotel with a room to himself, but he said there are nine other teammates there with him and he has already made several friends.

“The training and conditioning is a lot harder than in high school, plus there are much higher expectations,” he said. “But being surrounded by so much talent is amazing, these guys are really legit.”

While Sauer’s journey to the pros will be a long one, his current baseball goals are simple, direct, and not out of reach for an athlete with his level of potential.

“Right now, I’m playing rookie ball, after that I would go to Advanced A ball, then Double A, Triple A, and finally the majors,” he said. “My goal is to become a big leaguer, award winner, and future hall of famer.”

But to get to this point, the young athlete had to display serious discipline during his high school career.

Final days as a Warrior

Sauer played on Righetti’s varsity baseball team for four years and finished his senior season on top. On the mound this year, he held it down with a 1.16 ERA, a pair of shutouts, and he allowed only 42 hits. His pitching clocked in at a high of 97 miles per hour, but consistently maintained a speed of 94 to 95 mph.

His talents aren’t only relegated to pitching—Sauer is also a skilled short stop, first baseman, and hitter, having led the team with a .448 batting average. Given that pitchers aren’t normally successful hitters, his average is impressive. But for Sauer, it’s really very simple.

“I just love to play baseball, I think of it as being a baseball player,” he said.

On the field, Sauer said he strove to be the hardest worker and turned to his faith for everything else. He’s pitched since he was 12 years old, but position didn’t matter to him then because he was just happy to be playing baseball.

As his skills developed, pitching became his greatest strength, he said.

“As a pitcher, I enjoy the fact I have control of the whole game when I have the ball in my hand,” he said. “Nothing really gets under my skin when I’m on the mound.”

To throw consistently at speeds of 90-plus miles per hour, Sauer said it’s important to take care of his arm during the off days.


BALLING FOR THE BIG LEAGUES
Nipomo High School graduate Jeff McNeil currently plays for a New York Mets minor league team, and like Sauer, is working his way to the majors.
PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFF MCNEIL

Brian Tomooka, 17-year veteran varsity baseball coach at Righetti, said that Sauer is very athletic and was a major component of their success this season.

“On the field, he is a competitor and we will miss his defense and offense next year,” Tomooka said.

But for the Warriors’ baseball coach, players like Sauer are few and far between.

“In all my years of coaching, I haven’t come across a lot of kids like Matt. I would say he is one of the top players in the area and in the program overall,” he said. “You don’t very often come across athletes who have both talent and character.”

Tomooka said that Sauer’s ability to maintain humility throughout the season was admirable. Despite the attention he received, he said that Sauer was always 100 percent committed to being the best possible player for the Warriors.

“He had the respect of his players, opponents, and coaching staff,” Tomooka said. “As a coach, you appreciate guys like that.”

Alongside the humility, Sauer is also a fierce competitor, according to his mother, Tami. Her son always brings everything to the mound or home plate, she said.

As Righetti’s athletic director and veteran coach Kevin Barbarick put it, athletes like Sauer are a true rarity.

“I’ve coached for 20 years, and maybe two to three times in a career will you encounter a kid like Matt,” Barbarick said.

Barbarick has known the Sauer family for a long time, he said, and he’s enjoyed watching the high schooler excel this season. He also said that the young pitcher isn’t just an athletic wonder, but a humble and positive person of character.

“Talking to him this season, you wouldn’t know he was facing down that kind of contract,” Barbarick said.

Sauer asserted himself that character is more important than talent when it comes to athletics.

“The talent takes care of itself, but it’s important to represent my community on and off the field and give back to my area,” he said. “My parents also instilled faith in me and it helped to keep me grounded as a player.”

Getting noticed

Baseball has been a part of Sauer’s life since he could walk and pick up a baseball. Even as a young kid, he made the decision to “aim for the pros,” he said.

“Once I hit high school, it became a dream that I could make reality,” he said, “and I just worked really hard for it.”

Tami revealed that her son never had a pitching coach and received a lot of guidance from his father, David, and his little league coaches when it came to developing and improving his pitching skills.

Much of his progress was from his own self discipline as well, she said.

“Matt spent many nights throwing a baseball at a brick wall in our backyard,” she said. “Over the years, I could hear the pop grow louder.”

But his dad was always there to push him to strive and get better, Sauer said.

“He has taught me a lot of life lessons and has taught me how to be a man,” he said.

However, the real battle is just beginning for Sauer, as reaching the pros is a feat of patience, hard work, and determination.

According to the NCAA, of the high school seniors in the U.S., fewer than 11 in 100 (10.5 percent) will go on to play professionally. As for high school players who eventually get drafted to MLB, the odds become even slimmer at about one in 200 (0.5 percent). That pretty much makes those who reach the pros as rare as lottery winners. Couple that with being an athlete from a small town, and the odds are even slimmer.

But that isn’t to say it’s impossible, especially for an athlete like Sauer. It also helps to have a family just as dedicated to his success, Tami said.

“In Los Angeles, there are a lot of opportunities, but here there aren’t as many,” she said. “We had to drive him to LA all the time to get him exposure.”

Jeff McNeil, a 2010 Nipomo High School graduate and former baseball player at the school, is in his fifth season with the New York Mets rookie team. He was drafted in 2013 and currently plays second base.

For McNeil, the road to pro exposure was longer than Sauer’s but required the same steps. He was drafted during his junior season at California State University Long Beach.

“You have to go to showcases and be exposed nationally, the scouts are more likely to find you in bigger cities,” McNeil said. “But if you’re good enough, they will find you no matter where you are.”

For McNeil’s younger brother, Ryan (who was unavailable for comment), his journey to the pros was more like Sauer’s; he currently plays for the Chicago Cubs’ Double-A team.

McNeil said that his brother was also discovered through a club team and ended up on a “scout list,” which drew them to the Central Coast to watch Ryan play.

“The odds of making it are pretty crazy, but possible,” Jeff said. “Every day is a grind, but I still love playing and am moving up.”

Sauer played for the Wahoos, the same team the McNeils played for, which is a club team out of Santa Barbara.

Tami said that they took her son to a lot of showcase tournaments, which helped with his exposure. The tide turned for Sauer when he played for the USA 17U National Development Team, she explained.

“He was discovered at an MLB sponsored tournament,” she said. After that, things started to explode during his senior season.

According to Barbarick, there were 10 to 20 MLB scouts at every Righetti game this season. Interest mounted when Sauer was clocked at 97 mph during the second game of the year.

“It was quite a spectacle to see all the radar guns go up,” Barbarick said. “But if you’re a player that has velocity, they will find you.”

Tomooka said that Sauer’s notoriety was due to a combination of playing on successful teams and playing at the right tournaments.

“When I talked to the scouts, they said that if the player is good, they aren’t going to be missed,” Tomooka said.

But for Sauer, he could only focus on one game at a time.

“I did some traveling and got my name out there and the rest took care of itself,” he said. “You just have to work hard and stay humble.”

Going pro

Looking at Sauer, he has all the physicality of a baseball player. Scouting reports make note of his 6-foot 4-inch, 205-pound frame, his tremendous athleticism, and arm strength.

While regularly throwing in the 90s, he also carries a nasty slider that’s clocked in the mid-80s. Already pitching between 92 and 94 mph, Sauer is throwing harder than some current starting pitchers in the majors.

Aside from all that, Barbarick said that scouts wanted to look beyond simple statistics.

“When they called me, they wanted to know what kind of person he was,” Barbarick said. “At the games, the scouts were there to see how he composed himself on the field.”


WINDING UP
Matt Sauer played varsity baseball for Righetti High School in Orcutt before being drafted to the New York Yankees this year just after he graduated. He pitches consistently between 94 and 95 miles per hour.
PHOTO COURTESY OF TAMI SAUER

With Sauer, they saw the complete package—character and athleticism. For Tomooka, he was impressed by the young athlete’s ability to remain unchanged and humble despite all the attention.

“His personality and team attitude never changed, and that says a lot about character,” Tomooka said. “That’s what the scouts wanted to know—what kind of person is Matt?”

Tomooka added that when he ran programs, Sauer was the perfect example of a student athlete committed to representing his team and community positively.

Sauer joins the ranks of local players Jeff and Ryan McNeil, Danny Duffy, and Robin Ventura who have all gone on to play professionally. Ventura was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 1988 and played for the Yankees in 2002 and 2003. Ventura came out to watch Sauer play this season, Barbarick said, and was blown away after seeing Sauer hurl just three pitches.

The promising pitcher is also at the start of a newer era in professional sports. Small towns are quickly becoming incubators for some of the nation’s most talented professional athletes. According to the Journal of Sports Sciences, professional athletes are over-represented in cities of fewer than 500,000 people. Studies show that this is possibly due to the accessibility of sports in small towns, cultural emphasis placed on sports in those areas, and the fact that athletes are less likely to experience burn out.

Sauer’s popularity also brought lots of locals together, Tomooka said.

“He drew a lot of attention at home games, and it was good to see the people pack the stands,” Tomooka said. “How successful he was had a positive impact on the community.”

While the number of small-town professional athletes continues to grow, Sauer hopes that his success serves as an inspiration to others back home. His mother, Tami, said that this was an important moment for the community; her son wants to encourage other kids to follow their dreams and to show them that it can happen.

“I want to show other small-town players that it doesn’t matter where you’re from or how small it is,” he said. “There is always a chance if you work hard and stay humble.”

Sports contributor Kristina Sewell can be reached through Managing Editor Joe Payne at jpayne@santamariasun.com.




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