San Bernardino, California —— The JuCo bounce-back isn’t ideal.
Imagine you’re a high-profile baseball prospect wrapping up a stellar high school career in a baseball hotbed like Florida with a can’t-miss future in front of you at a program like LSU. Always a star in youth, the Southeastern Conference is just the next step on the way to a baseball coronation that ends in the big leagues, right?
Maybe not. At least, not if you’re Michael Barash.
The Los Angeles Angels catching prospect had that fantasy life at his fingertips a few years ago, heading off from a successful prep career to transition into what should have been a starring role at LSU… only to abruptly find that the fairy tale he thought he was walking into wasn’t meant for him. As it turned out, washing out from LSU ended up being the best thing that could’ve happened to Michael Barash. He just didn’t know it at the time.
“I didn’t have a good [freshman] fall,” Barash recalled before a game this summer while playing for the Inland Empire 66ers in the California League. “When I went in to fall meetings, Coach [Paul] Mainieri said ‘hey, you’re not going to play as much as maybe you think you will. We’d love for you to stay, but we understand if you have to do what you need to do.’”
Barash paused, shaking his head at the memory of that moment. A few months into what should’ve been his perfect college baseball experience, it was all over; in not so many words, Michael Barash had been told he wasn’t good enough to play at LSU. Time to look elsewhere.
“Things just didn’t work out,” he continued, shrugging. “So I walked out of the office, called my mom, and went ‘well, I’m coming home.’”
Nobody intends on going the junior college route. Guys can tag their social media posts with ‘JuCo route,’ and ‘JuCo product,’ and boast about making it out of JuCo ball once they bounce back to another big school where, this time, they’ll be more equipped to stick, but it’s all really just lipstick on a pig. Nobody wants to be at JuCo in the first place. But when LSU fell through in the middle of the school year, the now-Los Angeles Angels prospect had to devise a new plan to continue playing baseball. Fortunately, once he got back home to south Florida, he didn’t have to look very far.
“The stars kind of aligned,” Barash remembered. “A guy I knew growing up, Kyle Forbes, is the head coach at Palm Beach State College. He even recruited me a little bit out of high school, so when I called him up he immediately said ‘yeah, come on board, we have an open spot. We actually need a catcher, we just let go of one.’”
Just as Barash had been nudged out of LSU, so had a catcher before him at Palm Beach State. A spot was on the table here just as easily as it’d been taken away there. The baseball circle of life.
There’s a harsh reality to junior college ball, though: it’s a world away from Division I. Facilities fall far behind. Funding for gear? Forget about that. Fans? Good luck.
“My first day at Palm Beach,” Barash recalled, “one of the coaches told me ‘this isn’t LSU, there aren’t going to be 12,000 people at our games. There are going to be 12 people at our games, and six of them are my family.’”
No-nonsense to its core with a relentless focus on pushing as many kids as possible back to major four-year programs, JuCo ball runs at a different pace: less of the glamour, more of the grind. Even the idea of limiting practice hours is different in the JuCo realm; stringent rules at the NCAA level are a little more, um, relaxed at the two-year level. Take a few classes in the morning to stay eligible, and then spend the rest of your day (or life) on the field. If you’ve ever seen the Netflix series Last Chance U — yeah, it’s kind of like that.
“At big Division I schools, you get all the cleats, gloves, shoes, whatever,” Barash said. “But at Palm Beach, I was going to Play-It-Again Sports, or to the Superstar Sports in West Palm. I was living on campus. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have anything. I just went to school every day, and then went to practice, and stayed after practice for hours, and hours, and just put in work.”
It’s not just the practice time that lags. JuCo games — attended by a handful of people, akin to watching a Gulf Coast League game on the backfields in late July — make a huge step down for family members of ballplayers like Michael Barash. Just a few weeks before, mom and dad had been gearing up to spend a few spring weekends at one of the best college baseball environments in the country. Now, suddenly, they’re driving up to Palm Beach with lawn chairs to see their son play at a place they never thought he’d land.
“The hardest transition was with my parents,” Barash said. “They didn’t understand why it happened and it was hard for them to watch me play [at Palm Beach] for a little bit. I think they were nervous about what other people would say.
“Eventually, I had a sit-down with my mom, dad, and brother, and I said ‘this is about us. Nobody else cares about what we do. It’s only about us,’” Barash continued. “Right after that, I think a light bulb went off in my parents’ head, and they realized all we have is family.”
Pretty soon, it all started to turn around in Palm Beach.
“All of a sudden, I look around and all my best friends, all the guys I grew up playing with as a kid, they were all playing on the same JuCo team as me, and suddenly we’re all getting recruited by all these schools, too. It all started to come together.”
Barash paused and smiled, able now to make light of his bounce-back year.
“Truly, JuCo was the best thing for me,” he continued. “I think I took things for granted a little bit at LSU. I worked hard there, but you get to junior college and it really opens your eyes on what you need to do to get back to that level. It made me learn to love baseball again. I am so thankful for that experience, and the way it played out.”
That’s the beautiful thing about junior college baseball: sure, it’s un-glamorous, but it’s temporary. If you’re a bounce-back guy like Barash, you’ve got one season to prove yourself at Palm Beach State while simultaneously finding a four-year school for a second (and final) shot at major college baseball. Put in your work, do your time, and you’ll be back somewhere you actually want to be… if you’re lucky.
For Michael Barash, that second chance came with Texas A&M, who recruited him hard out of Palm Beach State that spring. But as luck would have it, the deal wasn’t sealed in College Station until Paul Mainieri and the LSU staff got one more shot at their former catcher.
“The only weekend I could take a visit to Texas A&M was the weekend LSU was in town,” Barash recalled. “I was like, ‘man, really? I want to take this visit. This is a school I really want to go to. I can’t not take this visit.’ Sure enough, I get there, and the first day I see [Texas A&M] coach [Rob] Childress and Coach Mainieri talking. I found out after I left that the coaches had been talking before, and Coach Mainieri had been like ‘you need to take this kid.’ That was incredible.”
That’s right: the same program that pushed him out in December was recommending Michael Barash to his soon-to-be new home a couple months later. That, too, is the baseball circle of life — and for Michael Barash, it also turned out to be a kind of happily-ever-after ending to his Palm Beach detour. The catcher played 120 games over the next two seasons for the Aggies before becoming a ninth round draft pick of the Los Angeles Angels in 2016. Now, he’s two seasons into his pro career and armed with the perspective and hindsight to fully appreciate what he went through in JuCo ball.
“Palm Beach was the best thing that ever happened to my career,” the catcher said confidently. “It opened a door to Texas A&M, which opened a door to the Angels. If it weren’t for Coach Forbes and [assistant coach] Neal Henry at Palm Beach, I’m probably sitting behind a desk somewhere working a 9-to-5 job right now wondering what might have been.”
Fortunately for Barash, he’s still a ways away from a 9-to-5 job after reaching Double-A Mobile with the Los Angeles Angels at the end of the summer. The catcher put together a solid second pro campaign in 2017, playing 87 games behind the dish and slashing .241/.332/.389/.721 with 19 doubles and ten home runs. He’s also fast building the exact reputation you’d expect from someone who battled his JuCo demotion with class and perseverance.
“Michael Barash is one of my all-time favorite teammates that I’ve ever played with,” former Texas A&M teammate Logan Taylor said in September. “Talk about a competitor, talk about somebody that loves the game. He’s very intelligent behind the dish, and he’s someone who really knows how to call a game.”
Taylor, an infield prospect in the Seattle Mariners’ system who played against Barash in the Cal League in 2017 as a member of the Modesto Nuts, perked up immediately when asked about the JuCo product and fellow Aggie alum.
“Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about Mike,” he continued. “He’s one of my best friends and one of my favorite teammates I’ve ever played with, and it’s awesome to play against him now. I want only the best for that guy. I think he’s going to have a long career. I love that guy.”
A reaction like that from a teammate-turned-opponent like Taylor says quite a bit about the catcher and his circuitous route to pro ball. He’s here now, though, and suddenly Michael Barash is in the driver’s seat with the Los Angeles Angels. Poised to spend 2018 in the high minors, he’s now one step closer to the biggest goal he had when he first stepped foot on campus back at LSU so many years ago.
If only he knew what he’d go through to get here.
“I see a lot of high school kids now who are pretty good, and all they think is ‘I need to go Division I, I need to go Division I,’” Barash mused. “You know what? Don’t be too cool for JuCo. You can still go Division I if you go to JuCo first. Yeah, it’s a different way of life, and it’s not luxurious. But the guys who took the route I did, the guys like me who had to be knocked off our feet a little bit, there’s something good about our path. There’s something more to the guys that have been knocked down. And the way things are now, I’d go right back to Palm Beach again. I wouldn’t do a single thing over.”
Maybe, if you do it right, the JuCo bounce-back is ideal.