Stanford degree in hand, Jack McGeary can focus on baseball

Back in 2007, the Washington Nationals drafted Jack McGeary in the sixth round out of Roxbury Latin in Massachusetts despite his staunch avowal that he wanted to attend Stanford University. They enticed him to sign by offering a $1.8 million signing bonus and, more significantly, an unprecedented promise: McGeary could attend college and pitch in their minor league system at once.

Late this winter — after he handed in a paper on the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium — McGeary earned his degree in classics from Stanford. His unique, solitary life ended. For the first time, he became a full-time baseball player. He is also an injured baseball player, having reached the middle stages of recovery from the Tommy John surgery he underwent last summer.

With his college experiment finished, McGeary said he harbors “not even the slightest regret” about the arrangement. He admits his life — “trying to live in both worlds at the same time,” he said — included challenges he did not anticipate. He also revels in what comes next.

“I can dedicate everything I have to this,” McGeary said Wednesday, standing outside the Nationals’ minor league complex. “Not that I didn’t give my all before. But there’s nothing else out there right now except baseball. It’s a great feeling.

“Mentally, you want to be able to put everything into here. This is your job. It’s just hard mentally. You’re tired and you just want to relax a little bit. I’d say that was the hardest part. At the end of the day, you don’t want to have to go back and write a paper on Socrates.”

McGeary arrived with the Nationals equipped with the life experience of a typical 18-year-old with a 3.5 GPA from suburban Boston, saddled with the expectation of one day becoming an elite starter in Washington. McGeary arrived at spring training this year high on experience, low on expectation. He is a 22-year-old yet to make it past Class A Hagerstown, trying to come back from surgery.

“It absolutely is a fresh start for him,” said Brodie Van Wagenen of CAA Sports, the agency that represents McGeary. “I think it was incredibly difficult. It was unprecedented for a player to truly make that commitment to both sides. . . . He was effectively on his own in both ventures.”

Van Wagenen did not mean to say McGeary received no help – the Nationals supported McGeary, and Stanford professors understood his unique circumstances. But no one else experienced exactly what McGeary did. He could talk to coaches about baseball problems and friends about schoolwork. No one could share the challenge or playing baseball and going to college at the same time.

Every year following his first season, McGeary would leave Stanford with two weeks remaining in the winter quarter so he could participate in spring training. McGeary took 20 units per quarter, the heaviest course load Stanford allows, in order to finish on time. He watched his teammates go golfing and fishing in the afternoons while he slinked back to his apartment to study.

“What are you doing for dinner?” a teammate would ask.

“Writing this freakin’ paper,” he would reply.

But that first season was the hardest. He went back to Stanford after spring training and attended school the whole year. He watched the Stanford baseball team play and knew his teammates were starting their season. He wasn’t playing.

For a while this year, he’ll endure a similar feeling. Early last season at Hagerstown, McGeary began feeling dull pain in his elbow. “It would be there, but it would feel normal,” he said. “I had it in the past and didn’t think twice about it.”

The pain worsened, though, and by the final two innings of his eighth start of the season, on May 20, it had become unbearable. He went to coaches in the clubhouse and told them, “I need to do something.” He received an MRI exam. On June 8, he underwent ligament-replacement surgery.

Following the operation, McGeary heard a familiar refrain: “Thank God you went to college.” The implication was obvious: If the injury would force him into another line of work, he’d be prepared. He recoiled from the sentiment.

“I haven’t approached it like that at all,” McGeary said. “Especially now that I’m done [with school], I can totally focus on my health and on baseball and not even have to worry about anything else. It doesn’t enter my head that, ‘Oh, it was a good thing I went to college.’ ”

McGeary has been throwing bullpen sessions for several weeks. On Tuesday, he will pitch live batting practice, his first time throwing to a hitter since last year. “I can’t wait,” he said. He has also gone golfing and fishing this spring, and that felt awesome.

Stanford’s commencement ceremony will take place in June. McGeary will be on a baseball field somewhere wearing a uniform, not a cap and gown. McGeary has resigned himself to not marching. It bothers his mother. He’s okay with it.

“I’ll be playing,” McGeary said. “That’s what I want to be doing.”

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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