Arizona State pitcher Josh Spence never has been interested in living life in the fast lane.
Not even overtures from the Los Angeles Angels this summer changed his approach to life both on and off the baseball diamond.
Spence isn't your typical college baseball player. He was born in Australia and has been in the United States for only a couple of years. He researched Arizona State as a teenager in Australia and experienced enough success as a player to get a look from the Sun Devils out of high school. But Spence began his college career in 2007 at Central Arizona, where he spent two seasons and tallied earned run averages of 1.10 and 1.69.
When Spence arrived at ASU last fall, coach Pat Murphy raved about his new left-handed pitcher from Australia. I was wary. After all, Murphy has a tendency to be quite the joke artist. He once told me Mike Leake, the staff ace and a first-round Major League Baseball draft pick, would be a full-time shortstop last season. Yeah, okay, right.
But when spring arrived, it was obvious Murphy's words were the truth: Spence wasted little time in mowing down opponents and he equaled Leake's numbers for most of the season. Spence finished the season with a 2.37 ERA in 102 2/3 innings. Leake, meanwhile, had a 1.71 ERA in 142 innings.
Well before the draft, Murphy said he thought Spence could get chosen around the fifth round. Given Spence's velocity, that seemed like a stretch. But he had all the intangibles and big-league quality off-speed stuff.
Months passed and Spence continued to cruise. He suffered a hand injury that appeared to be a huge obstacle, but managed to miss only a couple of weeks before returning to the weekend rotation.
Then came the draft. The Los Angeles Angels selected him, and well before Murphy had predicted – he was chosen in the third round.
After the Angels offered him over $200,000 to sign with them, almost everyone thought he'd join Los Angeles.
Spence never signed the contract.
"Getting drafted in the third round was nice and a little bit of a surprise, but I just realized that once you leave college, it's over. I just really want to enjoy my last year at Arizona State," Spence said. "I felt like my best baseball was here and you're only on this planet once, so being a good player and getting my degree is important to me."
Murphy had mixed feelings about Spence's decision.
"No question it surprised me that he decided to come back. But then again, in a way it didn't surprise me. He's a man of integrity that can make decisions for himself," Murphy said. "He's not necessarily going to do what a normal person would do in every situation. He's very unique, to say the least."
Most talk about Spence's success deals with what he has accomplished on the field. But off the field, the left-hander has some goals he wants to fulfill. He is majoring in sociology and education and plans to graduate next May.
"He's an off-the-charts student, I'd say he's excellent. It's evident that he wanted to come back and finish his degree," Murphy said. "He's just a guy that will bend over backwards to take care of business while also helping out his teammates."
With his return official and academics in order, Spence will spend the fall helping ASU's newcomers acclimate to big-time college baseball. The Sun Devils will have some important holes to fill. Leake is long gone and position players and high-round draft picks Jason Kipnis and Carlos Ramirez will be tough to replace. But with Spence's return, and the addition of freshman and third-round pick Jake Barrett, the Devils once again should compete for the national title.
Some critics believe Spence made the wrong decision declining to sign with the Angels. Only time will tell if that assessment is accurate. But in the game of life, Spence believes he made the right decision.
Murphy, meanwhile, says Spence will be even stronger by next year's draft.
"He's going to be much more prepared for pro baseball after spending another year learning about how he can pitch and what he can do," Murphy said. "I think he'll improve on his pickoff move and his fastball. I think you'll see him into the 90s this spring and he'll elevate himself to a first-round selection."
Spence came to the United States to experience a dream that eventually would end on a mound in the big leagues.
For now, though, he's soaking in everything he can. He's taking his time.