They’ve been up and down more than yo-yos this season, but UCLA baseball players Alex Sanchez and Billy Haselman can now enjoy the fruition of a dream that weeks ago seemed more like a nightmare.
Sanchez, a pitcher and last season’s Pac-10 co-player of the year, and Haselman, a catcher and preseason All-American, were picked in the the first round of the major league draft, making UCLA and Georgia the only colleges to have two players chosen in the first round.
The Toronto Blue Jays picked Sanchez as the 17th player in the first round and the Texas Rangers selected Haselman the 23rd round.
For both, the good news capped a season they would rather forget.
“Both had a slump,” said Coach Gary Adams. “Alex’s slump lasted all year. Billy’s was just that one period of time.”
Last season Sanchez was on top of the world. He posted a 16-3 record with a Pac-10 mark of 8-1. He struck out 142. Those three categories broke UCLA single-season records and he was named first team All-America by Baseball America. He was dominating.
Then came 1987. Sanchez, a junior, was 6-7 overall and 1-3 against Pac-10 competition with an inflated 7.49 ERA. There were no records. No honors. Just numbers, which weren’t pretty. In 12 years at UCLA, Adams never saw such a turnaround.
“It was just one of those years,” Adams said. “Last year you’d have the bases loaded with a 3-2 count and Alex would strike the batter out. This year with a 3-2 count, Alex would walk him.”
There were no arm problems. Sanchez felt fine. The problem was control. He couldn’t find the groove.
“All year my arm’s felt good and I’ve been injury-free, so as far as any excuses, I can’t give you any,” Sanchez said. “But as far as analyzing it, I think I threw a lot of innings last year, probably the most I’ve ever thrown in my life. I threw 145 here and went to Cape Cod (in the summer) and threw another 90-95 innings there. That’s a lot of innings.
“When I came back in the fall, my coaches didn’t want me throwing. I just ran and worked out.”
Sanchez said that when he started throwing, his arm felt strong, but he didn’t have “the feel.”
His pitches were frequently high, he said, and when he tried to adjust he’d overcompensate. “I never really had the good feel out there the first half.”
Toward the end of the season, Sanchez said things began falling into place.
“I started believing in my mechanics and my release point. I didn’t have the dramatic control problems I had in the beginning of the year.”
Despite the off season, Toronto still regarded Sanchez highly.
Says Gord Ash, Toronto’s personnel director: “Certain mechanics and his delivery may have gotten away from him. But we believe they are still there.”
Sanchez is unsure where he’ll be assigned. He has not signed a contract, but he’s certain about one thing: what he wants from himself.
“I can’t wait to get out there and start throwing because I feel I have to prove something to myself and a part of me has to prove something to the organization and a few other people who may have had their doubts about me this year,” Sanchez said. “I’m glad all the talk is coming to an end and it’s time to show rather than tell.”
Haselman was never recruited to play baseball at the collegiate level. Instead, he accepted a football scholarship to the University of Nevada-Reno. Upon arriving, he was informed that he could not try out for the baseball team, so he told the school that he wanted out of his letter of intent. He wanted to play baseball.
In July, the summer before he was to begin college, his father called Adams. Adams said Haselman could walk on. No scholarship, no guarantees.
“To be honest, I didn’t think he was a very good player,” Adams said. “I thought he wasn’t more than an average player.”
Haselman redshirted his freshman year, but while sitting out that spring he decided to try out for the Bruin football team as a quarterback. He made the team and found himself in a dilemma. Both Adams and football Coach Terry Donahue asked him to choose one sport. He chose baseball.
“I’m happy with the way things turned out,” he said.
An outfielder in high school, Haselman was converted to catcher in his redshirt year. He began the season on the bench, stepped in at catcher for a while and impressed the coaches enough to remain in the starting lineup later in the season as a right fielder.
He led the Bruins with a .364 average while batting .453 in conference play. He had 44 RBI and 11 home runs in only 129 at bats.
This year, as a sophomore, he batted a respectable .304 with 51 RBI and 9 home runs in 257 at bats. In Pac-10 play, his average dropped from a 1986 mark of .453 to .250.
“I wasn’t happy this year at all. I wanted to live up to what I had done last year even more so,” says Haselman. “I felt like I had a very, very average year. I could have done much better. I don’t know what it was--thinking of the draft or looking at the scouts all the time--I just felt I could have done much better.”
Adams said that Haselman started off fine and then went into an “exaggerated slump” during the middle of the year. But toward the end of the season, everything began clicking. Adams, skeptical of Haselman’s defensive abilities as a catcher, was now a believer.
“There were times I wondered if he could be a big league catcher,” Adams said. “But at the end of the year he showed me he does have those qualities.”
What Haselman has going for him is a strong arm, quick feet and size (6-3, 200). Ranger assistant general manager Sandy Johnson sees a player who can be molded into a major leaguer with experience.
“He’s a strong physical specimen,” Johnson said. “And a good athlete for a big man. He’s got lots of raw talent.”
So now, Haselman and Sanchez, who are friends and roommates, are prepared to embark on the long and winding road of minor league baseball in hopes that they will someday end up in the majors.
They’ve heard of the long bus rides, the small towns and the loneliness. They know it won’t be easy. Yet both are excited.
“There’s no doubt it’s going to be tough,” Haselman admitted. “But if you want to fulfill a dream you’ve been dreaming your whole life--watching these guys on TV that you grew up with and admired--then nothing should stand in your way. If you want something badly enough, you can do it.”
For Sanchez, it’s hard to imagine anything worse than this past season. After the year he’s had, he’s learned to take things in stride.
“There’s not a whole lot of things that get to me,” Sanchez said. “I think as a pitcher you almost have to have that attitude. This year obviously was the most frustrating for me. But I learned to handle adversity more than I ever have.”