Livin’ on a prayer

Last year Danny Oh went from MLB prospect to benchwarmer. Although his bat wavered, his faith never did.

Cal Baseball
Michael Tao/Staff

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When the Cal baseball team reconvened for practice this fall, senior Danny Oh hadn’t worn his baseball cleats for nearly two months.

The last several times he had put them on, they were stuck in the Cal dugout rather than patrolling right field or digging in at the plate.

Oh’s picturesque left-handed swing served him well his first two years at Cal, making him an everyday starter and consistent contributor. His batting average hovered around .300 as an underclassman, a mark he continued the summer before his junior year when he earned all-league honors in the notoriously challenging Cape Cod League.

Then something changed his junior season. A slow start snowballed into a prolonged slump he couldn’t shake. Soon Oh lost his starting job in right field.  He finished the year on the bench with a .209 average, a far cry from the prolific hitter he once was.

“After the games, I’d go into the batting cage and try to figure out what was wrong with me,” Oh says. “Maybe I thought it was my swing, but it really wasn’t. It was really all in my head.

“I was just anxious at times and wasn’t really patient at the plate, had a bad approach.”

Rather than throw himself further into the sport after his tumultuous season, Oh made a bold decision. Instead of playing in the Northwest League, he traded in his spikes for dress shoes to intern for a law firm near his home in Mill Creek, Wash. He ceased baseball activity altogether.

“The least amount of hitting I do, the better,” Oh says. “If I think about my swing and my technique, I’ll overwhelm myself with too many thoughts in the mental game. I decided just not to play at all and get away from baseball.”

Everyone expected so much from the player that was heralded as “The Natural” and Washington’s top high school prospect. If his junior campaign at Cal proved successful, it was expected he would hear his name called in the Major League Baseball draft that summer. His disappearance from coach David Esquer’s lineup killed his chances that year, forcing him to return to Berkeley for another shot.

Playing professional baseball has always been a dream for Oh, but his life has never been solely about baseball. It’s about being a strong person first and foremost, and trusting that everything else will follow.

Oh’s upbringing was steeped in Christian religious teaching and character-building. He went to church every Sunday with his parents and two older sisters, prayed every night and participated in church activities. Faith had always helped Oh stay balanced and optimistic, allowing him to see the bigger picture.

“Whatever happens to me, I’ll be okay with it in the end  — if it’s playing baseball or not — because I know God has a plan for me,” he says. “That’s where faith comes in.”

At times, his religion has drawn him away from sports. After his senior year of high school, Oh could’ve chosen to play summer ball like he did every year, competing against other top up-and-comers to get ready for college in the fall. Instead, he took the summer off baseball to prepare for a three-week mission trip to India, where he and his fellow young churchgoers connected college students there with a growing Christian church.

Oh says playing college baseball at Cal has made it difficult to regularly attend Sunday services, but he stays in touch with local pastors and friends from church. He still prays every night and before games with some of his teammates.

Oh’s unwavering faith has always kept him grounded. He approached every situation with same level-headedness, preferring to keep to himself. The highs were never too high, and the lows were never really low, an attitude that carried over to the diamond.

“When he plays, if he’s 5-for-5 or 0-for-5, you couldn’t tell the difference,” junior second baseman Tony Renda says. “I don’t think he’s ever been in a bad mood.”

It was the first time the lefty had ever really struggled with anything in his life, but he handled it with the grace and humility his upbringing had instilled him.

“I had to keep my composure and not let my emotions out,” he says. “Guys on my team always say, ‘I don’t care if you get mad.’ I always tell them, ‘There’s no reason to get mad. It’s just a game in the end. Have fun with it.’”

When Oh put his cleats back on, it was like his junior year had never happened. Fall practices saw a refreshed Danny Oh that looked like he hadn’t stepped away from the field at all. He felt like he did as an underclassman, ripping balls and watching them fall for hits as he made his way around the bases.

Oh says his approach changed: he was more patient at the plate, carefully selecting his pitches. He had to simplify the game in order to execute its complexities. But he didn’t emerge from his junior year woes a changed man. He doesn’t work harder or love the game any more than he did before. Oh never let the game overtake him.

The senior was named the opening day starter in right field, and 26 games into the season, he has already started 20 games, just three games shy of the number of games he started his entire junior year. He’s hitting an even .250, a marked improvement from a year ago.

“I believe everything happens for a reason,” he says. “Maybe I didn’t have a good year last year so I could come back this year and prove otherwise and finish my school.

“I see this year as a blessing in disguise.”

Blair Field in Long Beach, Calif., is not exactly a hitter-friendly park. It’s 348 feet to the fence in left and right field, 387 to the power alleys and 400 feet to dead center.

No one hits it out of here, the Cal baseball team notes from the dugout as they watch the Bears’ late-February game.

Oh steps to the plate in the sixth inning, almost one year to the day since his last slow jog around the bases. He waits on the first offering, called a ball. Oh’s eyes get big as the next pitch comes toward him. He doesn’t think, he just swings.

It’s the effortless motion that no amount of time or coaching could manufacture. There are no pauses or tweaks, just one fluid movement. As Oh brings his shoulders through the swing, the ball sings off his bat as he guides it a good 30 feet beyond the right field wall.

Senior pitcher Matt Flemer turns to his teammates and smiles.

“Danny’s back.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Chang/100002014809798 Steven Chang

    Go Danny!!!