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Jaroncyk Learns It’s Better to Receive

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This story could be all about promise unfulfilled and then lost in the undertow of the minor leagues. The underlying subplot could include the supposed field of dreams turning from a safe haven into a prison, the sport that brings fathers and sons together doing the opposite instead.

But it’s not.

Professional sports do not confer instant happiness, of course. Nor does life on the outside mean lasting despair. , Ryan Jaroncyk will provide compelling testimony ... if you ask him.

Jaroncyk, the New York Mets’ first-round draft pick in 1995 who first retired from professional baseball at 20, has reinvented himself at 24. Now, he is getting the first-class education he always wanted but delayed by turning pro, turning down a full scholarship from Stanford to sign with the Mets. Thousands of miles from New York, he is catching balls again, only this time on the football field for Division III Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.

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The baseball lifer is a football rookie, running routes and jamming his thumb and hurting his fingers.

The journey has gone from shortstop to center field to wide receiver. Jaroncyk’s improbable route to Claremont started in Florida’s Gulf Coast League and went from Columbia, S.C., to retirement to the Dodger organization to Yakima, Wash., and finally, to San Bernardino, where he finally closed the door on baseball because of an arm injury.

“After I retired from the Dodgers, I still felt I had a lot of athleticism to offer,” said Jaroncyk, a 6-foot, 184-pound junior. “Just because I couldn’t throw didn’t mean I couldn’t do something else. I always wanted to try football, but I had always been committed to baseball. So I just thought it was the right opportunity. I had heard a lot about Claremont. Great education.”

There were other reasons.

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Someone doesn’t make it as a first-round draft pick in Cincinnati and the news gets buried behind the local golf scores. But the highly visible Mets are different, and the organization had a steady stream of No. 1 disappointments in the ‘90s. Suddenly, Jaroncyk became a symbol of the trend, a healthy retiree who simply did not like the game of baseball and essentially played to please his parents.

Football became a new, intriguing challenge in the aftermath of his recent divorce, and the chance to run another route, staying under the radar.

“To kind of get away from the public spectacle too,” he said. “I was drafted out of high school, a lot of expectations and lots of questions about that. This is the chance for me to escape that a little bit.”

Claremont’s idyllic campus is ideal for those purposes, provided you can get in. Coach Rick Candaele rattled off the general parameters of entrance requirements.

“About 1,400 [SATs]. My score twice,” Candaele said, joking. “The only reason I’m here is they hired me to coach football.”

If it didn’t quite come across that this is a laid-back setting, the point came through as soon as you walked through Candaele’s office door. First thing you see is a stroller, holding a happy toddler. Reggie Retzlaff is under the watchful guidance of Candaele while his father, assistant coach Steve Retzlaff, is down the hall and until mom, the tennis coach, Maxanne, returns.

You have to get a little creative recruiting against the Ivy League. Candaele works the phones, selling the program. There is something to work with, as the Stags opened 3-0 before losing their next two games.

But Jaroncyk, who went to high school at Orange Glen in Escondido, was the one who did the courting, calling the coach. He hadn’t played organized football, joking that flag football was the extent of his resume.

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“He’s going to be a good football player, never played a down in his life until he got out here. He’s a natural,” Candaele said. “I kind of relate, watching him as a receiver, to some of the same things he probably did in center field or some of the same things he did playing shortstop. He goes back on the ball, good hand-eye coordination. He knows where the ball is coming down.

“He’s fast, really fast. He’s really taken to it, looks like he’s played receiver all his life. He’s still learning the intricacies of the whole position.”

Jaroncyk had three receptions for 145 yards in the opener against Grinnell College, including a touchdown of 62 yards. La Verne held him to one reception for 15 yards in the second game. Overall, he has eight receptions for 326 yards--a 40.7-yard average--and two touchdowns in five games.

“When we get him the ball, he’s pretty productive,” Candaele said. “When we started off, not many teams knew about him. But people learned about him. That’s what scouting and film does. It’s a little tougher for him to get open. But football season is a long season. It can be taxing, especially when it is your first one. I expect he’ll be a real threat in our last three games.”

Said Jaroncyk: “I’m starting to learn some of the nuances of the game. When I first started, I would just run like a chicken with its head chopped off.”

His experience playing professional baseball has carried over. One bad practice, one bad game in the minor leagues would stay with him for days. Then, expectations were high and the $850,000 signing bonus was more like 50 extra pounds on his shoulders.

“I was a young man with a lot of problems,” Jaroncyk said. “I just needed get away from the game and get my head straight. I had a lot of pressure growing up all the time, to be the best, to be the best all the time. My home life was just focused on me being the best baseball player. A person can only take so much of that and they break and that’s what happened to me.”

His parents divorced and Jaroncyk said the family is still working on its problems. His father, Bill, played cornerback for USC in 1966 and ’67--the national championship team--and was a New Orleans Saint draft choice. Jaroncyk said that baseball bored him as a kid and that he played because his parents pushed him. Bill had little to say to the New York media when Ryan retired from the Mets, and now, Ryan asks a reporter to respect his request not to contact his father.

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Most important, father and son have gotten closer. Baseball may have pulled them apart and football has brought them together. Bill comes to his games and is supportive.

“He just doesn’t want to see me get hurt,” Ryan said. “He’s had a lot of fun watching me so far. It has brought us closer. He’s been very positive with me.

“My dad and I have never directly talked about [the baseball experience]. He’s expressed some regrets how he did some things. But I’ve told him I’ve forgiven him and we’ve all made mistakes. We have a better relationship than we did. He felt I was wasting my talent by quitting baseball. But when I went back to the Dodgers, he was very supportive.

“I love my dad. A lot of fathers and sons have problems. Mine just happened to be a little more amplified because of the situation.”

Candaele has helped. His brother, Casey, played major league baseball, and almost the whole family is athletic. He said his mother Helen, one of the players on whom the movie “A League of Their Own” is based, may have been the best athlete of the family.

“He’s like a second dad,” Jaroncyk said. “I was able to be open with him about what happened with baseball. He was able to give me advice because his brother had played. He’s married, has children and has been a very positive influence. He’s been very patient with me. That’s one thing, the coaches here have been very patient with me and I appreciate that....

“I take it step by step. Every game is different. I just want to improve each game and hopefully by the end of the year, I can be one of the best receivers in the league.”

Jaroncyk has traveled a long road, literally and figuratively, since his first retirement in 1997.

He and his former wife, Monique, packed up his baseball equipment from his childhood and tossed it into a trash bin at an Escondido park.

Now he can watch baseball and wants to coach it someday, along with football. He never held any animosity toward the Met organization, which, he said, treated him fairly.

“I don’t have any bitterness,” Jaroncyk said. "[Relief pitcher] Grant Roberts is one of the guys I roomed with. I’m happy he made it.”


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