Still Here: Fate brings Mark Canha back to the Bay to save his baseball career

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff
Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

Mark Canha’s days start the way most people would expect they would for a professional baseball player.

The Oakland Athletics’ first baseman/outfielder starts his days at the crack of dawn, quickly gets dressed and prepares for the red-eyed, traffic congested commute from his San Francisco home toward the East Bay to put in a long day of work.

But after exiting the Bay Bridge, he doesn’t merge right onto the Nimitz Freeway toward Oakland like he would have in 2015. He isn’t heading to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, where he slugged 16 home runs his rookie year. He isn’t going to hit the weight room before taking batting practice for a 1:05 p.m. Wednesday game against the Baltimore Orioles or a 7:05 p.m. marquee matchup against the New York Yankees.

He instead turns left and heads to Berkeley, where he must quickly find parking to be on time for his 8 a.m. Spanish class, or else he can kiss his morning coffee goodbye.

“Typically, by the end of the day I feel like I haven’t stopped moving,” Mark says. “It’s all worth it.”

He joins the thousands of other students who are, themselves, rushing not to be marked tardy by their instructors. For fall 2016, Mark Canha is making the return to where it all started for him nearly a decade earlier — UC Berkeley.

Cal head coach David Esquer takes pride in being an instrumental part in his team’s recruiting, making sure that future players know exactly what they’re getting into when playing under him for the Bears. So when faced with the task of recruiting Mark, a dual-sport athlete who had just completed his 2007 baseball campaign by hitting .427 with 11 home runs at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, he knew he had to have him. But luckily for Esquer, getting Mark to wear the blue and gold wasn’t going to be nearly as hard as anticipated.

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

“Believe it or not, I didn’t have that many choices,” Mark says. “I was kind of trying to decide between (UC Berkeley), UC Santa Barbara and maybe Irvine was in the mix. It was kind of a no-brainer for me in choosing Cal.”

On April 24, 2007, Mark made his commitment to Cal and did not look back.

Although he did not play much as a freshman — he only appeared in 35 games — he benefited from being teammates with highly touted prospects such as pitcher Tyson Ross, outfielder Brett Jackson and first baseman David Cooper. During most games, it seemed like the only people that made their way into the seats of Evans Diamond were either players’ parents or the hordes of Major League scouts hoping to record every seam rotation of Ross’ Vulcan changeup. Mark began to grow accustomed to the scouts that crowded behind home plate, even though they were not for him.

Mark’s time to shine didn’t come until his sophomore year, when he started to make the best of his increased playing time. With more time on the field, Mark slashed .366/.450/.634 with 12 home runs. In addition to his rising batting average, his leadership role continued to increase at Cal. And by the time Mark was a junior, he was one of the main cogs in the Cal lineup that was helping the team live up to its “winning on and off the field” motto.

Even after he was drafted in 2010, Mark’s contribution to the team was seen so significant that Esquer credits him for Cal’s highly publicized 2011 playoff run, when the team made it to the College World Series after nearly being disbanded at the beginning of the season because of budget cuts.

“To be honest, I remember the next year (after) Mark signed as a junior and we went to Omaha. I remember texting Mark on my phone as we were bussing into the new stadium,” Esquer says. “(I told) him that we were arriving at Omaha on his shoulders because of what he did for the program just a year before.”

During his junior year, Mark nearly replicated his 2009 results with the bat by slashing an equally solid .319/.423/.520 line. With elite talents Ross and Jackson drafted in the 2008 and 2009 MLB Drafts, respectively, scouts were now turning their attention to Mark for the 2010 Draft. In meetings with area scouts leading up to the Draft, Mark made it clear that he would sign with a team if chosen in one of the first three rounds. But the scouts had something else in mind.

On the big day, Mark followed the Draft with his then-girlfriend and now-wife, Marci Canha, and was sorely disappointed. His name failed to pop up during the Draft’s first three rounds, but the two continued watching, hoping he would be called in either the fourth or fifth. After he remained unclaimed, Mark assumed that he would simply not be drafted and stopped watching.

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

It wasn’t until the seventh round when he was finally chosen, picked 227th overall by the then-Florida Marlins.

“It was pretty draining. I felt like I was certainly good enough to play professional baseball and I had a lot of belief in myself. It felt like a ‘what went wrong?’ kind of feeling,” Mark says. “And then now, a couple of hours later, I’m getting text messages from my friends saying ‘Congratulations.’ It was a roller coaster ride that day.”

But even after the cloud of getting drafted passed, Mark was faced with yet another dilemma: deciding whether or not to sign.

“He really thought long and hard about coming back (to Cal) and playing his senior year because of that,” Esquer says. “But I think he used that as fuel to inspire him to pass all the players that were picked ahead of him.”

Mark decided to forgo his fourth year at Cal and signed with the Marlins on Aug. 6, 2010.

But Mark soon found out that being a professional baseball player was not all that it’s cracked up to be. Shortly after being drafted, he was assigned to the Marlins’ Short-Season A team, the Jamestown Jammers, and was met with the harsh realities of being a minor leaguer.

“Not everybody on the team had a locker, so people had their big baseball bags in the middle of the floor and were kind of just piled into this dilapidated clubhouse,” Mark says. “And then I remember, I think the first day, my post game spread — like my post game meal that they feed everyone — was a crock pot with chili, and that was it. So I was kind of like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ It was eye opening, and I knew I had to buckle up.”

But despite the harsh working conditions and the fact that he was being paid less than minimum wage as a minor leaguer, Mark kept at it. He earned a promotion from Jamestown to Single-A Greensboro in 2011, then again to Advanced A Jupiter in 2012. Mark continued advancing a full level every year until 2014, when he was made available to the rest of the league in the Rule 5 Draft.

Because he was in the Marlins minor league system without being put on the 40-man roster in his four years in the organization, any team — from worst to best, as with the regular MLB Draft — was able to claim him, with the condition that he had to stay on the team’s active 25-man roster for the entirety of the season or else be returned to the Marlins.

“I think the first day, my post game spread — like my post game meal that they feed everyone — was a crock pot with chili, and that was it. So I was kind of like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ It was eye opening, and I knew I had to buckle up.”

It was also around this time that Mark started questioning whether or not he actually belonged in baseball.

“A lot of people don’t believe this when I tell them, but (Marci and I) decided that I was going to quit if that Rule 5 Draft didn’t work out for me,” Mark says.

On Dec. 11, 2014, the day of the Rule 5 Draft,  the Canhas had already begun to pack their bags. No matter what the result, the pair had already decided that they were moving back to the Bay Area after spending the past four years on the East Coast. The news soon came that Mark was claimed by the Colorado Rockies. But moments later, Mark received a phone call that would forever change his career.

“We checked Twitter and saw that the Rockies had taken him, then he gets a phone call. Maybe it was (A’s manager Bob Melvin), I’m not sure because I was too busy freaking out, but it was the A’s and we were confused,” Marci says. “The A’s had to explain to us that they had made a deal with the Rockies for them to pick him up. I was jumping up and down on the bed.”

The A’s contacted the Rockies almost immediately after they claimed Mark and traded them pitcher Austin House to bring the San Jose native and former Bear back to the Bay Area.

“We had decided that if I didn’t get picked up in the 5 that I was done with baseball. And then, not only to get picked up by somebody, but it’s the A’s. It’s like, could something with a greater power than me be responsible for this?” Mark says.

With their bags already packed, Mark and Marci headed back to the Bay for a new chapter with the A’s. He made the 2015 Opening Day roster out of Spring Training and quickly showed everyone that he belonged in the Show.

In his first game wearing the Green and Gold, Mark went three-for-five with four RBI. He once again went three-for-five two days later, except this time, he added his first Major League homerun. At the end of his rookie campaign, Mark had swatted 16 home runs and had an American League rookie-leading 70 RBI.

“Not only to get picked up by somebody, but it’s the A’s. It’s like, could something with a greater power than me be responsible for this?”

“My rookie year was the perfect way to have a rookie year because I started off really hot, which was great … but I also had my slumps and stuff like that. So I got to experience playing really well and struggling in the big leagues, all in my first year,” Canha says.

But, unfortunately for Mark, he was unable to carry his successful rookie campaign over into his sophomore one. He was placed on the disabled list May 10 with a strained back, and on May 17, it was announced that he would undergo season-ending hip surgery.

With his season now in the books and with a lengthy rehab schedule in front of him before he can resume any sort of baseball activity, Mark was given an opportunity that would not have been available to him otherwise.

After a successful surgery, Mark decided that he would return to UC Berkeley for the fall, knocking out a semester on the way to receiving his degree in political economy that he started working toward almost 10 years ago.

“I feel kind of like a freshman again,” Mark says. “It’s kind of like my first time back on campus. The first week, I looked at my schedule just trying to remember where the buildings are and all that stuff. It’s a little bit weird coming back as a 27-year-old.”

And just like a freshman, he faces the dreaded task of waking up for 8 a.m. classes and looks forward to the end of class so he can hit up the Golden Bear Cafe for some breakfast. The only difference is that he heads to Oakland during his gaps to work on his hip rehab before returning back to campus for the rest of his afternoon classes.

Although Mark has the ability to focus on baseball as his long-term career or even pursue his love of food by choosing a culinary-based career path when he decides to move on from baseball, his choice of returning to UC Berkeley for his degree displays the determination that has led him to where he is today.

“I was super proud of him for making that decision. A lot of players at this point, their dreams are just to make it to the big leagues,” Marci says. “I completely support him at being the best athlete in the world, and I think it’s even better that he thinks so highly of getting a diploma, especially at (UC) Berkeley.”

Contact Chris Tril at [email protected].