SALT LAKE CITY—Taylor Cole had it all planned out.
Spend a year at the College of Southern Nevada improving his draft stock. Sign with whichever team drafts him, and finally embark on the dream he’d held ever since he could remember—playing baseball for a living.
“I thought that if I went and played junior college ball for a year, I’d be in a better position to get a better deal,” said Cole, who was thought to be a top-five-rounds pick out of Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High in 2007, but fell to the Dodgers in the 26th round due to outsized bonus demands. “For the first half of my junior-college year, baseball and getting drafted was all I wanted to do.”
But then a funny thing happened. Cole, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, met Baltimore Orioles righthander Jeremy Guthrie, also a member of the LDS church. Guthrie, a return missionary, counseled Cole on the benefits of serving a two-year mission, a practice that is customary, though not required, for 19-year-old LDS men. All of a sudden, signing a pro contract after his freshman year, once almost a foregone conclusion, wasn’t such a sure thing. “He didn’t tell me, ‘Definitely serve a mission,'” Cole said, “but he told me his experience and taught me the priority thing—put first things first and everything else falls into place. I took his counsel and thought if he could do it, so could I.”
As word spread that Cole was leaning toward serving a mission, his draft stock plummeted. Despite going 10-3, 1.37 with 87 strikeouts in 92 innings during his freshman year at the CSN, the righthander fell to the Diamondbacks in the 31st round. So Cole followed in Guthrie’s footsteps, spurning the lure of professional baseball to serve a mission in Toronto.
Cole, who is now enrolled at Brigham Young, returned from his mission in August of last year and is now facing the difficult challenge of trying to pick up his baseball life where he left off. However, it’s not a challenge unique to him. In recent years, notable players like Arkansas’ Chase Leavitt, BYU’s Sean McNaughton, Tennessee’s Eli Iorg and Alabama’s Cale Iorg have thrived after returning from LDS missions
Baseball Can Wait
Like Cole, Oregon State’s Garrett Nash didn’t always plan on serving a mission. But as the time to make a decision drew nearer, he knew it was an opportunity he didn’t want to pass up.
“It was kind of something I had always wanted to do, growing up in the church . . . but I wasn’t sure if I ever would,” Nash said. “As I got older and as I matured, especially once I got away from home, I started to really realize what things I was grateful for. I decided I was going to give back for the things I had been blessed with.”
Nash, who decided to attend Oregon State rather than sign with the Rangers as a fourth-round pick in 2007, put both collegiate and pro baseball on hold to serve in Tacoma. The Diamondbacks drafted Nash last year in the 39th round, before he returned to the field, but he returned to Corvallis, Ore. Despite not planning on Nash’s departure, the Oregon State coaching staff has been supportive of Nash throughout the process. OSU coach Pat Casey has had good experiences with players returning from their missions in the past, and expects the same with Nash.
“Every guy that I’ve had (return from a mission), they’ve been better than expected,” Casey said. “They’ve always done a great job. I guess when you’re a couple years older and couple years more mature, that’s definitely an advantage.”
Nash and Cole have had markedly different experiences since coming home from their missions. Nash, a switch-hitting utilityman, has found the transition back to baseball a bit easier than Cole, who has had to deal with the lengthy process of getting his arm back in shape.
“When I came back, I was most worried about hitting, but I was really surprised,” Nash said. “All the mechanics, the swing, everything came back just like riding a bike. I was shocked. I feel like I hardly missed a beat.”
Cole, on the other hand, has spent the last several months slowly rebuilding his shoulder muscles and core strength to ready his arm for the stress of a baseball season. As of early January, Cole still had yet to throw off a mound since his return.
“We want to be very careful with Taylor, because we know the potential that he’s got,” said BYU coach Vance Law, who noted getting hitters game-ready is typically easier than for pitchers. “We don’t want to take any chances on getting him hurt. We have a throwing program we put our guys in, and it’s a gradual thing to get their throwing muscles back in shape. We take our time with our pitchers.”
Both players say they will be 100 percent or close to it by the start of the season. Nash will play center field and fill the leadoff role for the Beavers, while Cole is slated to be one of BYU’s weekend starters.
A Reason To Sign?
As Cole will turn 22 shortly after the draft, and Nash will turn 23, spending two years on a mission has expedited their timeframe to sign professionally, and both players have given thought to signing after this season.
“Without a doubt, 100 percent, I want to sign. I want to make this a one-year stop,” Cole said. “BYU is a great place and I have nothing against coming back another year, but I want to sign and get going.”
Nash was more reserved when talking about the possibility of signing, but is still open to the possibility.
“I’ve always wanted to play pro ball, and I want to pursue that,” Nash said. “I want to have the best year I can at Oregon State, and I want to help the team win, but as the draft comes along, if I get a real good opportunity to play (pro ball), that’s something I want to do. I want to have a real good year, and then we’ll see how things go in June.”
No matter what the future holds for their baseball careers, serving a mission has given Cole and Nash unique outlooks on their lives and where baseball fits into them. “You kind of realize that there’s a bit more to life than baseball,” Nash said. “but playing baseball is what I’ve always wanted to do. Coming back not having played for a couple years, that fire (to play baseball) is as big as ever.” Cole echoed that sentiment, while adding that baseball could give him a platform to continue serving others.
“The importance of baseball has grown to me,” Cole said. “I feel that the Lord has blessed me with this ability, and I feel that he wants me to influence a broad group of people. I hope to be able to do as much good with baseball as I can. It’s become like, ‘Hey, you better make the most of this.’