Jonathan Searles, also a Pittsburgh Pirates minor leaguer, will have to wait until classes end before reporting for duty. Like many other Penn students, Jonathan Searles will be pining for Florida on March 8. But Searles' won't have visions of afternoons spent relaxing on the warm sand when Penn's spring break gets underway two days later. Instead, Searles will be dreaming of doubleheaders on the Bradenton, Fla., baseball diamond. You see, Jonathan Searles is no ordinary Penn student. The Wharton freshman also happens to be a professional baseball player. Drafted last June by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the eighth round, Searles spent the summer playing Rookie ball for Bradenton, where he posted a 1-0 record with a 4.15 ERA in 13 innings pitched. March 8 is the date Searles' Bradenton teammates have to report to Florida for spring training, but on that date Searles will not be packing his baseball gear into his duffel bag in Bradenton -- he'll just be packing for a trip back to his Huntington, N.Y., home. Yes, Jonathan Searles is no ordinary baseball player, either. His contract with the Pirates stipulates that Searles does not have to report to Florida until mid-May, so unlike his full-time baseball-playing teammates, he will finish out the school year before making the 1,000-mile trek to Bradenton. But although Searles says he doesn't regret his decision to finish out the school year before going back to being a baseball player, you can't help but notice his baseball yearning when he talks about Cliff Baek, his teammate at Bradenton. Baek has already reported to spring training and is using the extra time to hit in the batting cages and lift weights. "What's better than that?" Searles said. "He'll have a month's practice on everybody." To Searles, sports may not be everything, but they certainly take up much of his life. Sure, he's often found studying in his room. And sure, he parties and socializes like any other college student. But from college basketball games to football catches in the Quad, everything seems to come back to sports for Searles. "If it sounds shallow, sports are my love," Searles said. "I don't see anything wrong with devoting most of your time to what you love." Despite the devotion, Searles does nothing to broadcast his status as a Pirate. Quite the opposite. In fact, most of his friends didn't find out that Searles played pro baseball until more than a week after they met him. "He's one of the most modest people I know," said sophomore Blake Miller, who went to high school with Searles. "He just doesn't bring it up." Searles just wants to be ordinary. His favorite baseball player growing up was not your standard larger-than-life superstar -- it was gritty and unheralded Chicago Cubs' first baseman Mark Grace. "Mark Grace was consistent," Searles said. "Every day he played, and he always got a hit. Man, he always got a hit. And you never heard of him doing anything stupid off the field." In other words, Mark Grace is, through and through, just a baseball player. And that's exactly what Searles wants to be. He doesn't deny that he wants the fame that comes hand-in-hand with making the Show, but he wants that fame to come from what he does on the field, not off of it. Searles, like most people, calls what John Rocker said in the infamous Sports Illustrated interview "ridiculous," but he chastises Rocker even more for his antics inside the ballpark. "On the field, when he would flip off the fans -- there's no room for that in the game," Searles said. "You're a professional. Be a professional. The fans are there to watch the game. You're there to play. "The game of baseball is bigger than anyone that will ever play it." Searles seems a bit overwhelmed by the game at times. You can tell by the boyish wide-eyed enthusiasm he radiates whenever he talks about his summer in Bradenton. But maybe Searles is just overwhelmed with the joy he feels for the game. "I noticed a difference," said Searles' mother, Candice Searles, when discussing the changes in her son last summer. "We took a visit [to Florida] in July, and Jonathan was just happy. You could see it in his face." Of course, not everything in Florida was happy for Searles. The Huntington, N.Y., native had perhaps the most inauspicious pro baseball start possible. "The first thing [my teammates] said to me before I went out to the mound was, 'Don't give up a home run,'" Searles said. And what did the first batter Searles faced do? He homered over the left-field wall. "I put two fastballs by that guy and I said, 'Hey, why not, I did it through high school, let's just put a third by him, right?'" Searles said. "Whack," Searles said, laughing and shaking his head. "They were hysterical in the dugout." But Searles' youthful pound-it-in-there attitude -- though it hurt him that time -- is precisely one of the reasons Pirates scout Dana Brown courted Searles. "He's aggressive with his stuff," Brown said. "If you're going to pitch in the major leagues, you can't be intimidated by the batter." Searles didn't give up another long ball all summer, but he still showed much of the inconsistency of a pitcher just a few months removed from high school. In one game he walked the bases loaded only to come right back and strike out the side. "After that, I just sat down in the dugout and said, 'Damn, I've got to start making this easy on myself,'" Searles said. Maybe things would have been easier for Searles if he had decided not to sign with the Pirates. Instead of being on the lowest rung of the Pittsburgh ladder, he would have played varsity football for the Quakers, as coach Al Bagnoli recruited Searles as a quarterback. Searles could have played baseball at Penn too, as Quakers coach Bob Seddon tried to woo the 6'3", 195-pound pitcher after Major League scouts showed interest in him. Instead, Searles merely sits in the stands at Penn sporting events, seemingly still content with his decisions, yet still longing to be on the field. At the Quakers' first football game, Searles could not help but think about what could have been and reminisce about what was. "When the band was playing and getting ready for kickoff, I just tensed up, just like I used to do on the sideline before I get out for the first series," Searles said. "I know how everyone on that field was feeling at that time, and it was kind of frustrating." In baseball, too, Searles feels removed from the game when he's at Penn. Last semester, he long-tossed with freshman baseball player Paul Grumet, who was recovering from arthroscopic surgery. But now, as the snow melts, the Penn baseball team -- including Grumet -- is coming out of its winter hibernation, and Searles is again left pining for the baseball fields. "I say to Paul, 'Aw, man, you're so lucky. You get to go play right now. In the middle of school you can go play, relieve some tension, have some fun for a couple hours. I'm so jealous of you,'" Searles said. You can see the sentimentality of Searles as he holds on to his memories of high school baseball -- the same sentimentality that keeps a beat-up Eddie Bauer hat his ex-girlfriend gave him on Searles' head. You can see just a hint of superstition in Searles. He wore No. 14 on the seventh grade football team, when his team went 6-0. And after a switch to No. 11 the following year resulted in an 0-6 season, Searles went back to No. 14 for good. But most of all, you can see how Searles is just an ordinary person. He doesn't want to stand out of a crowd. He doesn't want to be known as "that Pirates pitcher." He just wants to be Jonathan Searles. "He's just a regular person, don't you think?" asked his mother, Candice. Regular, yes -- common, no.Comments powered by Disqus
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