Not Your Average Joe: Joey Mahalic’s journey from the minor leagues to Cal

Kore Chan/Senior Staff

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Joey Mahalic knew there was no way his parents would go for it, but he at least had to try.

After signing with the Cleveland Indians for a six-figure signing bonus, Mahalic had money to blow. His friend — Boston Red Sox centerfielder and fellow Oregon native Jacoby Ellsbury — offered the recent high school graduate his used $70,000 Cadillac Escalade.

“He said, ‘Hey, I don’t want this car, I shouldn’t have gotten it,’ ” Mahalic says. “I remember going home and telling my parents. They said, ‘You’re 18 years old. You’re not driving a Cadillac.’ ”

“I thought it was a little bit over the top,” says his father, Drew.

The Cadillac represented the whirlwind 12 months for the young pitcher. Thanks to a breakout performance at a national baseball camp in the summer before his senior year, Mahalic — also receiving attention from Pac-12 programs as a college quarterback — rose above the milieu of high-school prospects to become a top player in the 2007 draft.

At 18, Mahalic opted for a professional career over the allure of college life. Too tantalizing were those big-league bright lights lurking so certainly on the horizon.

“It was an agonizing decision,” Drew Mahalic says. “It wasn’t a fun choice.”

Six years later, 24-year old redshirt freshman quarterback Joey Mahalic finds himself on the Cal football sidelines, still contemplating just how he went from Cadillacs to dining commons. He’s humbled, his father says. But it allows him to understand the nuances of being an athlete in ways unique to those fortunate enough to play two sports at a high level.

“I’ll talk them through (bad plays) and tell (the other quarterbacks) how to respond to failure,” Mahalic says. “You come in as an 18-year old with a full scholarship. They’ve been so good that they’ve never dealt with failure before. I had to deal with failure at 18 years old, by myself, in the middle of nowhere. I just try to help as much as I can.”

It feels like an eternity ago, but his own experiences as an impressionable teenager are as vivid as yesterday.

He joined the rookie ball team in Winter Haven, Fla., shortly after signing in 2007. There, he met his best friend, current Tampa Bay Ray Chris Archer. In those small southern towns, there really wasn’t much for them to do except pick up girls.

“We’d be sitting in the bullpen, and we’d just look around and try to see a girl that looked good,” Mahalic says. “We’d go say hi and ask them if they could show us around and give us the tour. There’s a lot of towns where you could do that. Nothing wrong with making friends with people.”

The Indians organization took a liking to the young right-hander as he compiled further attention and accolades after a stellar 2008 campaign in low-A ball. Archer recalls Mahalic’s commitment to excellence.

“I was floating around,” Archer says. “We trained together, and Joey really taught me a lot about how to train and prepare for a baseball season. I followed it up with the best season of my career; it was partly because of the things he instilled in me.”

In spring training the next year, Mahalic would head to the clubs with Los Angeles Angels outfielder Torii Hunter and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

“It was crazy to be exposed to that lifestyle at such a young age,” Mahalic says. “They’d take me to dinner, be spending thousand of bucks a night like it was nothing. They’d say, ‘OK, we’re gonna try to keep it under a couple G’s tonight.’ ”

The good times didn’t last. An elbow injury derailed a promising 2009 campaign that saw Mahalic move his way up to high-A. He pitched through the pain, fearful that management would knock him off his rapid path toward the big leagues.

Eventually, the injury became too much to handle. The team shipped Mahalic to its rehab center in Arizona, where he spent the remainder of the season. Just like that, the shine had worn off. His career was never the same.

“I hate to say it, but I just kind of just got forgotten,” Mahalic says.

Two seasons went by, and not much changed. The organization shook him around, converting him to a reliever and then a starter. In 2011, spring training rolled around, and Mahalic felt he was pitching better than ever. The team didn’t agree — on the last day of camp, Mahalic was cut. With every other team’s minor-league rosters already finalized, he was unable to secure a spot.

“If it wasn’t for that elbow injury, he would be still pitching in the major leagues today,” Archer says. “On work ethic alone.”

It is hard to imagine a situation in which Joey Mahalic takes a snap in a Cal football uniform. He’s a 24-year old walk-on freshman. Jared Goff — in the same academic year as Mahalic — isn’t going anywhere soon. But that doesn’t stop him from making his mark on the Cal football program. When backup quarterback Zach Kline exited the Washington State game after a disappointing performance, Mahalic was there with an encouraging word.

“I didn’t do particularly as well as I might’ve wanted to,” Kline says. “(Mahalic) was right there to say, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it.’ It’s just the little things he does. When Joe talks, you listen.”

Mahalic enjoys his role as the elder statesman, but most of the time, he’s just one of the guys. He drives the quarterbacks to McDonalds and pays for it all, even when Kline once ordered $25 worth of breakfast. He entertains them for hours with unprintable stories from the minor leagues. They jokingly call him “Grandpa.”

Those big league dreams — so close, so palpable all those years ago — have quietly receded into the recesses of his memory. There are no regrets. The lessons learned on his journey are felt in different ways — just as Archer owes a part of his success to him, someday his fellow Bears may, too.

“You know how certain people just have an aura about them that you can just notice? That’s something that he has,” Drew Mahalic says. “He’s the residue of all of those different experiences.”

Michael Rosen is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @michaelrosen3.