BASEBALL '07: Back From the Brink

Cut just two years ago, Jeff Stoeckel is now the man at short

Two weeks before the start of the 2005 baseball season, infielder Jeff Stoeckel learned that he’d been cut from the Harvard roster.

Only one year removed from a decorated athletic career at Florida’s Vero Beach High, where he played quarterback and shortstop, Stoeckel was unaccustomed to such rejection. So the freshman they called “Stokes” did that next summer what any washed-up high school jock would do: he retreated into the citrus groves of central Florida to battle banana spiders and find himself.

“It wasn’t glorious,” says the affable Stoeckel, now a junior, with a resigned laugh. “Yeah, it was terrible.”

Eleven-hour days in the groves, where Stoeckel inspected the orange trees for canker and other diseases—“I just walked up and down the rows,” he says—didn’t really help his fitness. Nor did it help much of anything else, except maybe his pocketbook.

And so after his 11-hour days in Florida’s summer sun, Stoeckel willed himself through daily two-hour workouts at his home in Vero Beach. For the “pissed-off” defensive talent who had idolized Omar Vizquel, it was all a matter of choice.

“I made the decision at the beginning of the summer that I wasn’t going to get cut again,” Stoeckel says.

Things are different now, two years later. On a recent morning, Harvard assistant coaches Todd Carroll and Tom Lo Ricco are asked who will surprise spectators with the greatest out-of-the-blue improvement in 2007.

Jeff Stoeckel is that guy. Now Harvard’s starting shortstop after working his way into 22 games last season, mostly as a defensive substitute at second base, Stoeckel is drawing comparisons to former captain Morgan Brown ’06, who made last year’s All-Ivy team on the strength of his steady glove at short.

Stoeckel’s selling point, according to Lo Ricco, is his “quick, spectacular hands.”

“He doesn’t have the arm Morgan has, doesn’t have the speed Morgan has,” Lo Ricco says. “But [he’s] just doing a great job, doesn’t bobble balls—everything that comes to him he fields and gets rid of a little quicker—and that makes up for his arm.”

Harvard head coach Joe Walsh says Stoeckel improved from “in our minds, a utility infielder [whose] best thing was second base” to a potentially key component in Harvard’s run through the April Ivy schedule.

“I can’t wait to see him play shortstop,” he says.

Last summer, Stoeckel devoted himself full-time to baseball, swinging a wood bat at the IMG Academies’ Florida Collegiate Instructional League. He will have to hold his own at the plate, Stoeckel knows, to hold down the job at short.

Walsh will not shy away from mixing and matching lineups to reflect recent performance, a function of Harvard’s depth and versatility in 2007. Gone are the days when plodding mashers like Schuyler Mann ’05 and Josh Klimkiewicz ’06 occupied infield power spots and strong-armed specialists like Brown and Lance Salsgiver ’06 entrenched themselves in athletic-need positions that suited their talents.

Junior centerfielder Matt Vance, Stoeckel’s roommate and a former star shortstop at San Diego’s Torrey Pines High, could replace an ineffective Stoeckel as soon as his right shoulder fully heals from offseason surgery. With a career .402 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot, Vance, unlike Stoeckel (three hits in 20 career at-bats), has proved that he can hit Ivy League pitching.

With backup options like the speedy Matt Rogers capable of replacing Vance in center, Stoeckel could be squeezed out of the starting lineup altogether. So he understands the need to build upon a strong offseason.

“I’ve worked very hard on my hitting,” Stoeckel says. “I think I can offensively help the team. Not as much as the big guns like [third baseman Steffan Wilson] and Vance. But be a guy who can bunt, be a guy who can hit and run. Get hit by pitches. And then also scatter around some hits. There’s no reason why I can’t hit in the upper .200s and make a difference offensively.”

To focus on Stoeckel’s shortcomings, though, is to take an unlikely rise for granted. More talented players have given up baseball under similar circumstances.

“Looking back on it, if I hadn’t got cut, I wouldn’t be as good of a player as I am now,” Stoeckel says. “It really made me think about how hard I wanted to work.”

Credit the circumstances or credit the work. Or credit one summer among the orange trees, where Jeff Stoeckel learned that there are worse ways to spend your time than playing ball.

—Staff writer Alex McPhillips can be reached at rmcphill@fas.harvard.edu.

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