By Michelle Miller
---- — “Nothing worth having comes easy. And if it comes easy, then it probably is not worth having.”
Cooperstown Central School graduate Phil Pohl recently shared this advice, often given to him by his father, with students at his alma mater.
The 2008 graduate, home visiting his father for the holidays, shared his ups and downs when attempting to make his baseball dreams come true. He said his secret to success has been always trying to get an edge through hard work and dedication.
“I was never the biggest or the fastest, so I always had to outwork my opponents,” Pohl said.
The ballplayer, who picked up his first baseball at the age of 4, said his first really difficult challenge was moving to Cooperstown. Pohl said he did not want to leave his home and friends back in Bakersfield, Calif.
“I was 10 when my parents told me we would be moving. I was devastated of the thought of having to start over,” Pohl said while speaking to an auditorium full of middle and high school students.
Pohl said he is now proud to say he is from Cooperstown — known as the home and mecca of America’s pastime.
“I was 13 when I really sat down and decided I wanted to be something more than an average high school athlete,” Pohl said.
According to the Pohl, he was never anything out of the ordinary — just somebody with a dream who went for it.
His dreams began to come true when he was selected in the Major League Baseball amateur draft by the Tampa Bay Rays at age 18. However, the Cooperstown native decided to turn the offer down and opted for the scholarship offered by Clemson University.
When asked why he would do such a thing, he said it was not the way he was raised.
“My mom and dad were very big on education ... They really wanted me to go to college and pursue my education,” he explained.
Pohl was on his senior trip when he received a call telling him he was selected in the 44th round of the amateur draft.
“It was not like it was a first-round thing where there was a lot of interest invested in me. And I had the chance to go play for Clemson, which is one of the best Division I baseball programs in the country. I laid out my options and decided I could still play baseball and go get an education.”
Pohl graduated with a business management degree.
College was anything but fun and games for the aspiring athlete. In fact, he struggled on the field, something he really had not done before.
“I thought I would go to college and run the show, but I was hit in the face with a rude awakening,” Pohl said. “I had never struggled on the baseball field before and started to doubt myself. I wasn’t going to give up, though.”
Pohl said he did think about transferring to a smaller college, but thought he owed it to Clemson to stay since he was given a scholarship. During his sophomore year Pohl had to deal with the setback of a freshman getting the starting catching position instead of him.
“I was not having a bad day; I was having two bad years in a row,” Pohl said.
According to Pohl, his mother said something that helped turn things around.
“She said, honey — she always called me honey — you are there for a reason and you have to believe in yourself,” Pohl said.
The young athlete said he realized he hadn’t really had much faith in himself and needed to do so.
“I started doing something about the things I could control (working hard and keeping a good attitude),” Pohl said. “The positive attitude became contagious.”
The catcher/designated hitter’s game improved and his efforts were noticed. The 22-year-old was drafted again, in the 28th round, in June by the Oakland Athletics.
When he was notified, Pohl said he was willing to drive wherever to sign the contract no matter what it was worth because it was his dream coming true.
“I’ll fly myself out there if I need to,” he said. “Just give me a pen and show me the line.”
Centennial Field, located on the campus of the University of Vermont, is in the record books as the site where Pohl played his first professional baseball games; for the Lake Monsters managed by Rick Magnante.
It was not all about happy trails for Pohl even once he was drafted. Once signe , he was dispatched to Arizona. Then he was sent to Vermont to play short season Single A ball. Pohl said he was an older athlete among younger players and was told he was “pretty safe” there and would probably be sticking around for a while with a good chance of moving up. However, 11 days later he said he was told he would be sent back to Arizona. He finished out the summer there and started behind the plate in the last 25 games.
“Hopefully the one-on-one coaching and more playing time pays off and will help me slingshot up the ladder,” Pohl said.
His message to the students sitting in the same seats he once did: “If you want something bad enough you can go out and get it, you just have to work harder than your opponent.”
He added, “You are in the driver’s seat in the car of life.”
According to Pohl, the self questioning of who else was putting in the same kind of efforts as him is what gave him the ambition to get out of bed each morning and work toward his dream.
“If I wanted to be an average, just a normal high school athlete, I would have woke up and came to school and then maybe gone to the gym once or twice a week. I did not want to be the normal though. I wanted to be above average. I wanted to stand out,” he said.
Another thing Pohl did to pursue his passion on the diamond was give up other sports. As a freshman at CCS he played three sports — varsity football and junior varsity baseball and basketball. During his sophomore year Pohl cut back to football and baseball, and after that went to being an “exclusive baseball guy.”
“I remember talking to, I think it was Mr. Snyder, as a senior. He said he remembered when I said I didn’t want to play other sports. He said when I told him that he was kind of upset because he thought I would just go home and take those two seasons off and once baseball season came around just kind of show up and play. That was pretty much the exact opposite of what I did.”
According to Pohl, he used the time to go to Syracuse and work on his baseball skills and joined a fall league and was able to travel with the team. If it was not for that, Pohl said he probably would not have been noticed.
The experience also opened his eyes. Pohl said when traveling south and a little bit out west, he realized there were athletes much younger than him playing at a higher level.
“There were some kids I played against that were 15- and 16-years-old that were college-ready and I was way behind. The first time I saw that is when I said there is no way I cannot take football season off if I want to go on and play baseball. It drove me to come into the gym in the winter and work on my skills and push myself to be better. I knew my competitions outside of Cooperstown and outside of New York was extremely good and that they were working just as hard if not harder.”
The Cooperstown graduate’s goals kept growing — first it was to be a “more than average” high school player, then it was to play division one baseball, then to play in the Cape Cod league and then getting a shot to play professionally.
“Being able to get to do all these things is not only a reflection on what I’ve done, but is a reflection on what everybody else has done to help me get there,” Pohl said.
“I feel like it is not just my victory, it is everybody’s victory,” he continued.
He credits many people hometown for helping him get to where he is today.
“Right now, in this town and in this school, there are tons of people who are willing to help you in whatever it is you want to do,” Pohl said.
He advised the students to use their resources and not to be so excited to get away from the small-town life.
“It is a great place to start and a great place to grow up,” he said. “Don’t take things for granted and show respect where it is given and work hard. There are a couple of things you can control — you can control your attitude and how hard you work.”
He admits there was a time when he could not wait to get out of high school and move on.
“I was ready for something different, but looking back at it now, Cooperstown had so much to offer me. It still has so much to offer you.” he said.
If playing baseball was not possible for Pohl, he said he would stay connected to the game somehow. Pohl said he has spent the last couple years coaching at youth camps.
“That to me is truly rewarding,” he said. “Right now I am helping coach a winter program up in Syracuse … I can see myself, maybe after my baseball career is done, maybe staying in coaching.”
Pohl was asked what team he would play for if he had the choice. He joked and said he had to say Oakland or else he would be fired. But realistically, Pohl said, the organization is a perfect fit for an aspiring athlete because it uses its minor league system a lot and moves young players up to improve its major league team. It is not a big budget team like the Red Sox or Yankees, Pohl explained.
“I think I have a pretty good chance of moving up compared to others in my situation,” he said.