It’s January as I write this, but when I think about baseball, it’s always May or June, the early part of the season when hopes are high, prospects bright, and anything is possible.
I grew up in Northern Nevada, where early spring can come in cold and crisp. “Spring training,” no matter what level you’re playing at, no matter what age you are, never comes soon enough. When you hear Nevada, you probably first think of Las Vegas, warm and dry. But in the Reno area, where I come from, when you begin baseball you often find yourself playing in snow flurries and eager to get back into your jacket.
My dad, Nick Jannis, was a baseball coach, and almost from the day I was born he introduced me to America’s pastime. He eventually coached at the high school level for more than 30 years, but Dad began when he was 18, coaching his younger brother in Little League. He likes the strategies behind baseball, the competitiveness of the sport, and bringing younger players to the same love of sport that he has.
I’m much like my dad in that way. I love the strategy involved in baseball games, I relish the competition, and there’s nothing better than seeing the faces of youngsters learning the game.
Maybe it was inevitable that I love baseball. My dad always cheered for the Yankees and grew up cheering for Mickey Mantle while Mom was a Dodgers fan. When my parents found out they were having a boy and started thinking of names, Dad suggested Mickey. No way, my mom said. But when I was born, Mom picked me up and said, “He looks like a Mickey.” Of course, Dad immediately agreed.
After tagging along to Dad’s games, I began playing T-ball when I was 4. I couldn’t wait. Videos from that time show that no matter where the ball was hit, I went and chased it, no matter what position I was playing. I couldn’t help myself, I loved playing that much.
As I progressed through T-ball, Little League, and Babe Ruth, joining a traveling team when I was 12, I did learn to stay in my own position. Shortstop was my favorite, although I spent a lot of time at third base. I played a position until my sophomore year in college when my coach told me I was too valuable on the mound and turned me into our closer.
Almost from the beginning, I knew I wanted to play professionally. I know that’s the dream of many kids. I was determined to make it happen, though, and I received encouragement from family, friends, and coaches. To this day entering my 10th professional season, they all support me as much today as they did in the first season. It’s funny: I don’t think I was ever the best pitcher on any team, probably always second best. That’s OK, though. It IS a team sport, after all, and I just wanted to give it my best.
From my freshman through junior years I played on the team at Spanish Springs High School, then before my senior year I transferred to Arroyo Grande High School in California. I knew I was going to attend college in California, and I wanted to establish residency, which was made possible by living with my grandfather. It also made it easier for coaches in California to come see me play.
At Spanish Springs, we made it to the state finals my junior year but lost. As a senior, my team returned to the state playoffs, but we lost the first game. I was the pitcher. That’s not easy to say, even all these years later, but you learn from it, you get better, and you move on.
As a high school senior, I gained 4 to 5 miles an hour in velocity, and a few Division 1 colleges expressed an interest. I decided to attend junior college, though, so I could get more playing time and be seen more. I spent my freshman year at Cosumnes River Junior College in Sacramento, Calif. That’s where I realized that offensively I wasn’t good enough to play or hit and pitching was where I did best.
My sophomore year at Allan Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, Calif., I really took off as a prospect as I started to learn who I was as a pitcher. My sinker and slider were my bread and butter, with my slider being my best pitch. I also gained another 3 to 4 miles an hour in velocity.
My college career finished at Cal State Bakersfield. It was the program’s first and second years, and we literally built it from the ground up—we would go out before class started and lay the grass for the outfield as a team. I earned the first start and threw the first pitch in program history. Ironically, knowing that I had a good knuckleball, teammates, family, and friends recommended that I throw a knuckleball as the first pitch in program history, I declined thinking that everyone was crazy. Years later I still regret not throwing the knuckleball.
Those two years flew by. Before I knew it, it was the spring of 2010 and my college career had ended in mid-May. I had been contacted by a couple of scouts, but the future was unsure. Draft Day was June 9, and all I could do was wait.