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ISSUE 119 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 4/14/2006

From Division III to the pros: Sprout and Ruud keep baseball dreams alive in minors

By Ryan Maus
Staff Writer

Friday, April 14, 2006

Professional sports? St. Olaf College? At a glance, any connection between these two institutions may seem rather curious. While St. Olaf boasts one of the more robust athletic programs amongst NCAA Division III schools, it is hardly a breeding ground for elite athletes. For the overwhelming majority of St. Olaf's more than 500 varsity athletes (as well as the 136,000 other Division III athletes nationwide), the dream of being paid to play is just that - a dream. Many sports do not have professional leagues or associations, and even for those that do, the odds of ever "making it" are staggeringly slim for any college athlete, let alone those in Division III.

The sport of baseball, however, is unique in the sense that the playing field is leveled - if only little bit. Minor league baseball is a thriving institution in the United States, with a whopping 246 teams in existence, over 200 of which are affiliated with one of the 30 Major League Baseball organizations. Unlike sports such as basketball and football (where only .04 percent of all college athletes will ever play professionally), baseball's expansive minor league system ensures that a slightly higher percentage of NCAA participants will have the opportunity to compete at a higher level - as high as 10 percent, according to NCAA-provided statistics.

However, the vast majority of the approximately 600-700 college athletes signed or drafted into professional baseball each year have two main things in common: They attended school in the southern half of the United States (where college baseball is far more prominent) and they were a member of an NCAA Division I team.

St. Olaf's Brian Sprout '02 and Charlie Ruud '03 are amongst the few lucky (and talented) enough to defy the odds. They are the two former St. Olaf athletes currently playing professional baseball: Sprout in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization and Ruud (also St. Olaf's pitching coach) with the St. Paul Saints of the independent American Association.

Sprout, a native of Lake City, Minn., is quite possibly the most talented ballplayer the college has ever produced. He holds numerous St. Olaf and MIAC offensive records, was named to the All-MIAC team four times and was the conference's "Player of the Year" three consecutive seasons. After graduating he played in the independent Northern League (formerly the Saints' league) for two years before being signed by the Dodgers in late 2003.

Once given the chance in affiliated professional baseball, the former Ole shortstop excelled. He hit .282 with 12 home runs and 45 RBI with the Dodgers' "High-A" affiliate Vero Beach (Florida) in 2004, and was promoted to organization's AA team in Jacksonville last year, where he was receiving regular playing time as a utility player during the first part of the season.

"My experience [in professional baseball] so far has been good," said Sprout. "The Dodgers have the best minor league system in baseball and treat us very well. The pay is never good for us in the minor leagues, but we get to go to the park everyday and play."

However, Sprout suffered every baseball player's worst nightmare part way through last summer: A season-ending injury to his throwing shoulder.

This season, Sprout's future with the organization is in question. Although recovered from the injury, the Dodgers have placed Sprout on what is known as the "phantom" disabled list, a loophole that allows teams to keep players who do not have roster spots. The Suns, Sprout's 2005 club, were named Baseball America's minor league "Team of the Year" and posses a number of high-profile (and expensive) prospects, leaving little room for a relatively unheralded player like Sprout.

"Our minor league team of the year was absolutely loaded," said Sprout about the 2005 Suns, who also won their league championship. "It makes it difficult to play here when we have so many prospects that have to play. I realize that and understand that's why I am on the [disabled list] right now. I'm not happy about it, but I understand."

Ruud's situation with the Saints, on the other hand, is quite a bit different. The Saints are not affiliated with any major league team, but an independent member of the newly-formed American Association.

Ruud, who had been playing with an amateur team in Richfield, Minn., was signed by St. Paul to make an "emergency" start August 24. He pitched well enough in his two starts that the team elected to sign him to a contract for 2006.

"My experience last year was fun, but also a little overwhelming," said Ruud. "I joined the team when they were already 80 games into the season, so I was just trying to get on board as quickly as I could."

"I'm glad to start [2006] with the team, but I gotta admit I'm still a little anxious."

In addition to Sprout and Ruud, several other relatively recent Ole graduates have played professional baseball, including current St. Olaf Sports Information Director and former first baseman Mike Ludwig '03 (2003-2004 in the Dodgers organization), catcher Dan LaManna '02 (2002 in the Northern League) and pitcher Colin Brackeen '97 (1997-2002 with the Toronto Blue Jays organization and in the Northern League).

Brian Sprout knows that in an arena as inherently competitive as professional baseball, opportunities like his don't come around that often.

"Right now I am 25 years old. I figure that I can sit and watch baseball in 20 years when I'm done playing... Just not right now," Sprout said.

In the end, differences between level of play (high school, college, professional) really matter very little. Whether you're being paid to play or not, the game of baseball is just that'a game.

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