By: Alexis Brudnicki
It was hard for Jeff Degano to fathom.
Just over two years ago, the 22-year-old southpaw couldn’t have been further away from the moment he got to experience on Monday night, when he was selected by the New York Yankees in the second round of Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft with the 57th overall pick.
“I was kind of in shock,” Degano said. “I had a fairly good year and everything, but you never think it’s going to be you.”
After undergoing Tommy John surgery on May 23, 2013, Degano started the long and arduous process of coming back after surgery, and it took longer for him than most. He had found success on the mound throughout his young career, but it wasn’t until his return to the game at Indiana State University following rehabilitation that a couple of mechanical changes made the biggest difference for him.
“It changed a lot,” the native of Surrey, BC said. “When I was finally done with the whole Tommy John rehab, I had to revamp my mechanics and everything. I had a different style of pitching, a different mindset on the mound, and that was what really contributed to how I did in everything…I got [my arm slot] so my arm was up and I was more on time, to simplify it as much as possible, and to have everything better in sync.”
The left-handed hurler carried a brand new mindset upon his return to the hill as well.
“I was excited more than anything,” Degano said. “When you have the game that you love taken away from you, you’ll do whatever it takes to get back to being the best you can. So that was the big turning point, and I was just trying to work as hard as I could to get back.”
This year, after spending some of last summer throwing some innings in relief, Degano completed his comeback when he got back into the starting rotation for the Sycamores. In 15 starts for Indiana State, the hard-throwing lefty with three solid pitches went 8-3 with a 2.36 ERA over 99 innings with 28 walks and 126 strikeouts, holding opponents to a .216 average.
“For the most part I tried to stay away from [the draft hype] because I basically had already done as much as I could,” he said of his college season. “I just tried to concentrate on what I could do in-season and then once the season was over I just talked to the people I needed to talk to and went from there.”
Degano knew his name had been thrown around as a possibility in the higher rounds of the selection process, but he didn’t know that New York was going to take him until right before the pick was made.
“Right when that one-minute clock started winding down was when they called me,” Degano said. “Then it was the longest minute of my life…I’m super excited about getting picked by an organization with so much history, and growing up I was a Yankees fan, so that was kind of a dream come true. Really I’m just trying to wait for it to really sink in.”
Another Yankees fan. But this one had good reason behind his choice.
“When I was nine years old I played for the [Whalley Little League Major] Yankees,” Degano said. “So when you’re with the Yankees at nine years old, you love the team you played for…I started becoming a Blue Jays fan a little bit, and the Seattle Mariners, even though they’re all in the same league, I always cheered for them on the side.”
Not feeling much pressure leading into the selection process, the craziest part of the whole experience was the moment the clock started on Monday and choices began to be made official.
“When the draft started it was probably the most hectic part,” Degano said. “Where people are starting to talk to everybody and trying to place you where you’re going to be. You never know, and everything was just going really quick at one time.”
While the whirlwind of the draft seemed to go incredibly quickly for the former Marshalltown Community College Tiger, the time each team was allotted between picks dragged on forever.
“Those were the longest four-and-a-half minutes of my life,” Degano said. “I never knew four-and-a-half minutes could feel so long, that’s for sure. It felt like an hour each pick. I honestly felt like the draft was 12 hours long [on Monday].”
Watching from home, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound redshirt junior was with his mom Sue, dad Dave, sister Christy, and Christy’s boyfriend when the call was made. Degano was happy to share the moment with the people who have helped him the most along the way.
“We all had it on TV just watching and waiting,” he said. “My mom went wild and started screaming. I had to plug the ears for a little bit. But they were very surprised and very happy that it finally happened. The road we took was a long one, but at the end it was all worth it. I’m very proud, and very excited…
“My family had a lot to do with where I’m at. Whenever there was a rough point, I turned to them. They’ve always supported me 100 per cent and they were always there for me.
“Then I had a few coaches along the way, like my pitching coach [Jordan Tiegs] at Indiana State now and the head coach [Mitch Hannahs] at Indiana State, they both had a really big part in me coming back. And then my coach in junior college [Rich Grife], he was also one of the guys who was always there for me when I needed someone to turn to.”
Now that the draft is done and out of the way, Degano is looking forward to moving onto the next chapter of his baseball career, joining the Yankees in Tampa, Fla., this week to work out the details.
“Absolutely this is a relief,” he said. “You just want to start playing professional baseball, and finally being able to start that journey – I know it will have some rough patches and everything – but it’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for my whole life and I’m really excited to get it going.”
Degano is especially proud to be able to represent the country north of the border as the third-highest selection in this year’s draft, following power-hitting first baseman Josh Naylor (Mississauga, Ont.) who went to the Miami Marlins 12th overall, and right-hander Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.) who was taken by the Atlanta Braves with the 28th pick.
“It means so much to me,” he said. “Growing up, I idolized the older guys when I was younger like Adam Loewen (Surrey, BC), Jeff Francis (North Delta, BC), Brett Lawrie (Langley, BC). They started everything with basically putting down the foundation, and I’m just happy to be a part of that and help with laying the foundation to get Canadian baseball players on the map.”