The quote under Ryan Jaroncyk’s senior picture in his high school yearbook read, “I play for God.”
More to the point, Jaroncyk, a bright, quiet and introspective teenager, played shortstop for God, and for his father, and for his mother. He was a first-round draft pick of the Mets in 1995, but Jaroncyk does not play baseball for anybody anymore.
At 20 years old, Jaroncyk retired from the sport on May 8 for reasons he outlined in a letter that he handed to Joe McIlvaine, the Mets’ general manager.
Baseball scouts agree that Jaroncyk has the hands to be a major league shortstop. He is fast, he can throw, he is a hard worker.
There is just one problem. He does not like baseball. He can’t remember ever liking baseball. “I always thought it was boring,” said Jaroncyk, one in a series of first-round picks by the Mets whose careers have been sidetracked.
Rarely does a player as highly rated as Jaroncyk simply quit, completely healthy. He played for his parents, and ultimately, he walked away in spite of his father’s longtime wishes. There are echoes here of the relationships seen in other sports, of parents pushing for athletic success and children desperate to meet those expectations.
Jaroncyk, a graduate of Orange Glen High School in Escondido, Calif., near San Diego, walked away from the Mets with an $850,000 signing bonus already paid to him and a $100,000 college scholarship fund arranged when he agreed to his baseball contract. “This is final,” Jaroncyk said in a phone interview Wednesday.
As of Friday, the Mets have no plans to ask for a return of the money, a team official said.
Jaroncyk said he began playing baseball at age 5, at the behest of his father, Bill Jaroncyk. Ryan played baseball through Little League, and soccer, and never thought about playing anything else as a child. “I don’t know what I would’ve done,” he said. “I don’t want to blame anybody, but I didn’t feel I had many choices.”
He stood out on baseball diamonds, as a Little Leaguer, through junior high school, into high school. But he tired of waiting for the next ground ball, tired of waiting for the next at-bat. There was not enough action.
Jaroncyk tried football as a teenager, but he got hurt, and his parents, he says, reminded him that injuries could damage his baseball career. He tried to quit as a high school junior.
“I love my dad very much,” Jaroncyk said. “He really wanted the best for me, but he went about it the wrong way. That may have been part of the reason I felt that way about baseball. I went to Dad and Mom, in my junior year, and they were upset. I felt a lot of pressure to keep playing.”
San Diego is thick with amateur baseball talent, and scouts began tracking Orange Glen’s lanky shortstop. Jim Woodward, an area scout for the Mets, was among them. He liked Jaroncyk’s athleticism and thought he could develop into a decent player. Woodward checked around and found that Jaroncyk had a perfect grade-point average, and Stanford had offered him a baseball scholarship.
Woodward heard some other things that are not uncommon. Bill Jaroncyk occasionally yelled at his son while he was playing. Woodward saw that during games, Sally Jaroncyk, Ryan’s mother, would stand away from Bill.
“At the time we just thought he had an overbearing dad and Ryan just needed to get away from the house,” Woodward said. “Once that happened, he would be fine.”
Woodward said he got to know the family better, and once asked about how much pressure Ryan was getting, and that the family acknowledged that yes, there had been some yelling. Woodward took the admission as a good sign, that there had been conflicts and that the Jaroncyks had dealt with them.
Then, in the months leading up to the June 1995 draft, Bill Jaroncyk wrote a letter to Major League Baseball, withdrawing his son from the draft. Shortly thereafter, the Jaroncyks asked that he be reinstated. Woodward, now serious about recommending Jaroncyk to the Mets, said he went to meet with the family at their home and asked Ryan flatly: What do you want to do?
“The kid looked at me,” Woodward recalled, “and said, ‘I want to be a professional baseball player, and I have no problem giving up the Stanford education.’ The kid is a straight-up kid, a Christian kid, and I believed him.”
The Mets picked the 6-foot, 150-pounder with the 18th selection.
Ryan Jaroncyk, who did not like baseball, signed his contract on the day he was selected.
Jaroncyk reported to the Mets’ short-season affiliate in Florida’s Gulf Coast League and felt all right, playing in 48 games. That fall, however, he began feeling “burnt out.”
The following spring, he discussed briefly the idea of retiring with Mets officials. Instead, they granted him a leave of absence, and he returned to California and married his longtime girlfriend. He rejoined the Mets’ organization, felt better for a while, then began having the same ambivalence toward baseball, and the lifestyle, which he called “real empty,” citing “the food, the traveling, the garbage that goes around the clubhouse.”
Jaroncyk rededicated himself to baseball following the 1996 season and lifted weights. He played in 24 games this season with the Columbia (S.C.) Bombers in the South Atlantic League - at the low-level Class A - batting .174.
Jaroncyk finally decided to quit, and when he sat down to pen his letter to McIlvaine, he needed only 45 minutes to write four pages.
Shortly after he returned from South Carolina, Jaroncyk and his wife, Monique, gathered his baseball equipment, his gloves, hats and bats from Little League and high school, and packed them in a box. They drove to Kit Carson Park in Escondido and pushed the box into a Dumpster.
“I feel very happy,” he said.