Sports have long been scattering the Valaika family—parents Ilona and Jeff, daughter Briana and sons Chris, Matt, Patrick and Nick—across the country like dirt on a freshly groomed infield, especially so during the past week.
Chris, who plays for the Marlins, was in Florida rehabbing a broken wrist he suffered while sliding into second base.
Matt was in California and, as of Thursday, so were Briana and Ilona, but those two had just returned from watching Patrick play earlier in the week for UCLA in the College World Series in Omaha.
Then there was Nick, a shortstop from Hart High School in Newhall, Calif., down with his father in Cary, N.C., to play in the Tournament of Stars at the USA Baseball National Training Complex. Unlike his brothers, he has yet to prove himself on a college or professional stage, but his experience watching their development may give him the best tool out of all of them.
Chris is currently with the Marlins and has also played for the Reds; Matt, like Chris, played at UC Santa Barbara, was drafted by the Cardinals, spent a season in the New York-Penn League and currently coaches a travel team back in California; Patrick was just drafted in the ninth round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Rockies. Briana also played varsity and travel soccer throughout high school. While growing up, their games often intersected, and the family had to learn to adjust.
Nick is the youngest. The UCLA commit has a strong arm and quick feet in the field, good speed and is rarely an easy out at the plate.
He has the same natural talent for the game as his brothers, and he has supplemented that with the sheer amount of baseball he’s watched.
Nick was at games before he started playing himself, and the family has pictures of him and Patrick watching their brothers play, staring through the fence wearing batting gloves and hats that outsized their small frames. Through observation, learned about the game and all that surrounds it. Jim Ozella, his head coach at Hart, remembers Nick mingling with scouts when he was younger, learning about tools of the trade like the radar gun.
“You know, that’s like old hat for him,” Ozella said. “I mean, he’s been around and seen so much.”
And with the sheer amount of baseball that he’s watched while growing up Nick said that one area in which he specifically excels is the mental aspect of the game.
“I’m so thankful for that (being able to watch his brothers), because I’d go to all of their games and not only learn from them, but also just the good competition,’ he said. “I’ve probably watched more games than I’ve played in my life…I watch things, then I go try it out. That’s how I get better.”
To go with that, his brothers also helped Nick figure out where he wanted to go to college. He tagged along on Patrick’s visit to UCLA and gained an affinity for the school back then, making his choice of where to play his college baseball an easy one.
But his combination of talent and experience doesn’t mean Nick hasn’t faced doubts and obstacles. He hasn’t learned to hit for average as well yet and chokes up on the bat so as not to get cheated.
He struggled with injuries and missed nearly his entire sophomore season at Hart. And while his coaches were ecstatic to see another Valaika on the roster – “Holy cow, I wish there were three more of them,” Ozella said – he had to deal with other players doubting him and thinking he’s playing varsity just because of his name.
“I think, probably more than any of the other brothers, you know, he’s probably had to prove himself,” Ozella said. “Because, you know, there are doubters.”
Nick has learned to turn the doubt around and use it as motivation, though.
“I’m not here because of my brothers, I’m here of my own doing,” he said. “I try to focus on that.”
So while his older siblings first made a name for the family, Nick has clearly carved out a spot for himself. When he went on his recruiting trip to UCLA, one of the first things Bruins head coach John Savage told Nick was that his brothers weren’t the reason why he was being recruited, it was because he was a good player.
If that weren’t true, he wouldn’t have been called across the continent, along with the best players in his age group, to compete for a chance to represent his country.
“The boys have all had so much success competing, either at the college level or in the pros, that he (Nick) has just observed so many things and how to deal with certain things that I think he’s definitely got it up on them,” Jeff Valaika said.