Getting Vaq in the game

For nearly four years, Chris Stroh rarely bothered to pick up a baseball.

Having played baseball for many seasons, including starring at Crescenta Valley High, Stroh had become "burned out" and wanted to head in another direction. Stroh opted to focus on earning a bachelor's degree in international business at Long Beach State.

Walking from one classroom to another, Stroh realized that his passion for baseball still tugged at his heartstrings and he wondered during that stretch of inactivity if he would ever leave the door open to possibly play the sport that he grew up thriving in. What, for example, would it be like to face live pitching, run from first to third on a well-placed single to the outfield or make a perfect throw to a cut-off man to nab a runner trying to score?

Stroh had to be honest with himself, knowing he would have to relearn certain aspects of the game and do so in a hurry if he was going to revive his career.

While the odds might have been against him making the powerful Long Beach State program known for churning out Major League Baseball All-Stars such as Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria and Jered Weaver, Stroh had another idea and texted Glendale Community College Coach Chris Cicuto about trying out for the Vaqueros. It was a decision Stroh is glad he made.

"I didn't play any baseball from the summer of 2006 until the summer of 2010 and I felt like I was on autopilot," said Stroh, who graduated from Crescenta Valley in 2006. "I asked myself what I should be best off doing and I thought for a while that I didn't have any baseball left in me.

"I contacted Coach Cicuto about the chance to come to Glendale and I took a chance in trying out. If it didn't work, then at least I gave it my best shot. I wanted to put the path in front of me and just try my best."

Stroh, a left fielder, became the quintessential player the Vaqueros were searching for entering their historic 2011 season. It took some to time to make the proper adjustments, but Stroh, who is dual enrolled at Glendale college and Long Beach State, found a way for things to click. Batting ninth in the lineup, Stroh batted .261 and was 25 out of 26 in stolen-base attempts en route to earning All-Western State second-team accolades.

The Vaqueros won the conference's South Division for the first time since 2002 and advanced to the California Community College Athletic Assn. State Championships for the first time in the program's history. The Vaqueros might not have advanced that far had it not been for Stroh, who delivered a two-out single in the bottom of the ninth to give Glendale a 9-8 win against Cypress College in the third and deciding game of the regional playoffs.

"It was hard at first to get back into baseball," said Stroh, who plans to graduate next winter. "There's a lot of great talent out there and it's certainly a huge step up from high school.

"The coaches here helped me out and we worked on a lot of different things. People couldn't tell that I hadn't played in four years. We go out there and win the division and have what turned out to be a Cinderella season. It made it that much sweeter for me that I was able to come back and help play a part in the team doing so well and a team that had lots of heart."

In 2012, the Vaqueros find themselves in the hunt for another division crown with Stroh occupying the lead-off spot and using his range to track down fly balls in an outfield also consisting of Edgar Montes in center field and Cameron Gardner in right field.

Entering Tuesday's Western State Conference South Division road contest against West L.A., Stroh is batting .327 (36 for 110) with eight doubles and 12 runs batted in. Stroh leads the Vaqueros (18-8, 9-4 in the division) with 17 stolen bases, five triples and 28 runs.

Cicuto said he's been able to count on Stroh handling himself at the plate and in the field.

"He's been a very big part of our success and he's been that sparkplug," said Cicuto, who was named the conference's South Division Coach of the Year, the Southern California All-American Team's Coach of the Year and the American Baseball Coaches Assn. Diamond Sports Co. Pacific Assn. Division Coach of the Year last season. "He took walks and stole bases to get us in position for big innings.

"His presence and maturity brought a lot to our team. That's been the case again this season."

Stroh's contributions have garnered notice this season. In a division home game against rival College of the Canyons on March 29 at Stengel Field, Stroh made a perfect relay throw to infielder Ruben Padilla, who threw out the runner at the plate in the Vaqueros' 1-0 win.

He's also been adept at beginning rallies for the Vaqueros.

"That's part of my job, trying to get on base and getting us out to that 1-0 lead, which can be pivotal for the rest of the game," Stroh said. "I know we have a lot of good players who can drive me in."

Vaquero sophomore shortstop Matt McCallister said Glendale has flourished for a second season in a row with Stroh serving as a chief catalyst.

"He always got on base for us last year and he's doing the same thing this year," McCallister said. "His attitude sparks us and we want him to get on [base] so we can get him in.

"I know he missed baseball and it's his love. He'll do the little things to get us going. He wants to leave it all out there."

In all likelihood, this season will likely be Stroh's last as a player, but whether that comes to fruition or not, the former Falcon and all the current Vaqueros are happy that he made the decision to put his cleats back on.

"I realized that it's a game that you just can't leave," Stroh said. "I have good relationships with my teammates and coaches and I'm just glad that I came back after four years.

"Certain things happen for a reason."

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