May 22, 2010
Bishop O’Dowd’s Eric Jaffe isn’t the type to duck a question.
Ask him about his struggles as a freshman or a sophomore, he’ll happily revisit them. Ask about getting called out by his coach for failing to execute a routine drill during practice a couple of years ago, he won’t change the subject.
But there’s one inquiry that stumps him.
Given the choice between hitting a game-winning home run or striking out the side to seal a big win, which would you choose?
After pausing for what seems like an eternity, Jaffe settles on his answer. Kind of.
“Um, wow, that’s a good question,” he says. “I never really thought of it like that. Maybe the strikeouts, because I always thought of a pitcher as having more of an impact on the game. When I think of intimidating players, I think of Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan.”
And when you think of the best two-way baseball players in California, you think of Jaffe. That’s why it’s nearly impossible for him to answer that question. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior first baseman/right-handed pitcher, rated the nation’s No. 86 prospect by Baseball America, has the potential to be a star at the plate or on the mound. Last year, he hit .471 with eight homers and 25 RBIs while going 3-0 with a 1.91 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 33 innings pitched. He has signed with Cal, and the Bears plan to use him as a pitcher and hitter.
“I think when you hit the gun at 95, you’re a pitcher,” Bishop O’Dowd coach Chris Kyriacou says. “But if I was a GM, I wouldn’t make that decision too quickly. I know it sounds nuts, but I think the American League could be a good place for him where he could become a starting pitcher and DH the rest of the time.”
To be honest, it does sound a little nuts. But there’s no denying how far Jaffe has come in the past few years.
He arrived at Bishop O’Dowd as a 6-foot-2, 200-pound freshman who could throw nearly 90 mph and launch 375-foot homers.
While he may have had more raw talent than anyone in the program, he was immature.
On every play, he wanted to show he was the biggest and strongest guy on the field. But more effort didn’t always mean more success.
“He was too strong for his own good,” Kyriacou says. “He swung too hard, he threw too hard and he worried too much. Baseball’s a weird game. Trying hard isn’t always the solution.”
To ease Jaffe into things, Kyriacou put him on JV as a freshman before calling him up to the big club as a sophomore. There were several brilliant performances in his first varsity season -- most notably a five-inning no-hitter -- but there were also plenty of times when Jaffe would lose focus or make mental mistakes.
In other words, he was a typical sophomore. Kyriacou knew Jaffe had the ability to be a superstar, so he wasn’t going to take it easy on him.
Cameron Corwin, a senior outfielder at Bishop O’Dowd who has been tight with Jaffe since the eighth grade, remembers how tough it was for his friend.
“Coach would say, ‘I’m not gonna let a sophomore come in here thinking he’s the man,’” Corwin says. “Eric was frustrated, but it lit a fire in him and made him work harder.”
“It sucked at the time,” Jaffe adds, “but that was the year I grew the most mentally.”
One day in particular stands out to Kyriacou.
“May 1, 2008,” the coach says. “I remember the date because we were going over defensive drills and he kept getting them wrong and I just started yelling, ‘May 1. I can’t believe it’s May 1 and you still don’t know how to do this.’”
Jaffe doesn’t remember the incident specifically but is sure it happened the way his coach says.
“I’m guessing I was kind of spacing out and not really into the drill,” Jaffe says.
The reason Kyriacou remembers it so well, however, is because it was the last time he had to yell at Jaffe like that. The rest of his sophomore year set the stage for what was a dominant junior campaign.
“Last year was such a special year for him, as a hitter and as a pitcher,” Kyriacou says.
There was the early-season win over College Park (Pleasant Hill, Calif.) when he struck out eight in six innings. And the Arroyo game when he earned the victory and helped his own cause with a grand slam.
“It felt like the game slowed down,” Jaffe says. “I wasn’t thinking about anything, I was just playing.”
Jaffe finally learned to take a few miles per hour off his fastball in exchange for better command. At the plate, he did the little things like moving runners along when the situation called for it. Of course, that didn’t mean he lost any of his trademark power.
“Kids on other teams stop to watch him hit batting practice,” Corwin says. “The ball coming off his bat is the loudest sound you’ve ever heard.”
Opponents aren’t the only ones watching.
“There’s probably a 2-to-1 ratio of scouts to parents at our games this year,” Corwin says. “When Eric takes the mound, they all rush to the backstop with their radar guns.”
Those scouts are asking themselves the same question that vexes Jaffe: pitcher or hitter?
Everyone involved has an opinion on what position Jaffe will end up playing, except for the two-way star himself. In the end, after much waffling, Jaffe settles on a wait-and-see approach.
“Right now, I love doing both,” he says, “and I’ll just let my performance dictate which way I go.”
Photo & story taken from ESPN/Rise. Story written by Ryan Canner OMealy. Photo taken by Tony Avelar