RICHMOND, Va. – Ryan Farrar needed some time to think. His professional baseball dream was dangling in front of him like a carrot on a string, and he had a potentially life-changing decision to make. He walked out of his parents’ kitchen and onto the front porch and buried his head in his hands.
The Pittsburgh Pirates had called in 11th round of last year’s amateur draft and made the VCU left-handed pitcher an offer. It wasn’t run-out-and-get-a-Rolls money. It wasn’t even what Farrar had mentally set as his minimum requirement, but it was a chance to play baseball for a living. On the other hand, Farrar still had one year of eligibility remaining, another year of college, another year to polish his skills.
A lot of players would spring out of their cleats for a shot at pro ball. But Farrar was waging an inner war.
“It was awful,” he says. “I just sat on my front porch by myself. I didn’t want to be around anyone, and I was pulling my hair out of my head and thinking, ‘How can I turn down this kind of money to go play baseball?’”
Farrar looked his boyhood dream in the eyes and said, “No thanks.”
He told the Pirates it was about the money, but Farrar says that was a convenient excuse, his “out pitch”, if you will.
“I was just thinking about everything I talked about with Coach [Paul] Keyes and my parents and Coach [Shawn] Stiffler, and I just came to the decision…I wasn’t really ready, mentally, to go,” said Farrar, a Business Management major. “But I was excited to give that phone call to Coach Keyes that I wasn’t going to go.”
It was a decision of advanced maturity for a 21-year-old, to gamble on long-term success over the immediate, short-term gain. It also spoke to a growth in emotional maturity that had mirrored, if not out-paced, his growth as a pitcher.
“That’s as mature a decision as anyone I’ve ever seen anyone make,” said Stiffler, in his first full season as VCU’s head coach. “If you’re not ready, and you go out into that world, you’ll be home pretty quick. For him, pitching in pro ball wasn’t about just pitching in pro ball. It was about making it to the big leagues.”
Three years ago, Farrar couldn’t have imagined making such a decision. Early in his career he says he wasn’t mature enough to handle the pressure and the day-to-day commitment to be successful at the collegiate level, let alone mature enough to make tough choices about his future.
Farrar’s shortcomings showed up in the box score. In his first two seasons in a VCU uniform, he was 4-6 with a gaudy 7.79 ERA.
“It also had a lot to do with growing up and being at school and having to be responsible for everything by myself. I struggled with that, definitely, at the beginning,” he said. “When I went to baseball practice I was working hard, and then when I was out of baseball practice, I had some friends here from high school that go here, I was just trying to hang out with them, and I kind of was just trying to do too much besides worrying about just school and baseball.”
In addition, Farrar’s curveball, his best pitch in high school, went AWOL. No matter how hard he tried or how often he threw it, he couldn’t rediscover the pitch. But it forced Farrar to reinvent himself as a pitcher. He developed a devastating change-up and added velocity to his fastball, which is now regularly between 87-90 mph.
After two frustrating seasons with VCU, Farrar spent the summer of 2011 played in the prestigious Cal Ripken League, where he posted an eye-opening 1.13 ERA and struck out 36 in 24 innings of relief. He walked just five batters. Baseball America labeled him the second-best professional prospect in the Cal Ripken League.
Success not only boosted Farrar’s confidence in his abilities, but renewed his commitment to the game.
“I found my passion again,” he said. “And it kind of opened my eyes to, if I just work hard like I used to do and stopped worrying about outside things besides baseball and school, there’s no telling how far it could take me.”
Farrar responded by becoming VCU’s top starting pitcher in 2012. In 14 starts, he fashioned a 3.67 ERA and a 4-3 record. In 88 1/3 innings, he struck out 64. Although it seemed as if he morphed into an ace overnight, Farrar’s transformation continues to this day.
“His stuff was always pretty dynamic,” said Stiffler. “It was never a question of ability. It was never a question of adding another pitch. It was never a question of anything other than mentally understanding the day-to-day process and the day-to-day work to be successful on weekends. And really, last year, he really bought into [it]. He really changed his whole outlook. And he continues to fight it, and he continues to wrestle with it.”
This season, Farrar is living at home with his parents in Mechanicsville, where he enjoys his mom’s cooking and what he says is a distraction-free atmosphere – one he hopes will pay off in an Atlantic 10 Championship and then, another shot at pro baseball.
“Of course I want to do well personally, but a lot me growing up made me realize, I’m not going to go anywhere if this team doesn’t do anything,” he said. “I want to lead these guys. I want us to win a championship, not [just for] me to win a championship.”
In 10 starts so far this season, Farrar is 4-4 with a 3.73 ERA in 62 2/3 innings. Opposing hitters are batting a team-low .231 against him. He’s also started to regain confidence in his curveball. Perhaps just as important, midway through the season Farrar looks and sounds like a player at ease with his draft decision.