A Different Kind of Professional

Annelisa Leinbach
Annelisa Leinbach // WEEKEND

Left-handed relief pitcher Craig Breslow ’02 backed up his catcher as the ball came sailing in from the outfield to try and make a play at home. As the ball squirted past the catcher, Breslow saw an opportunity to end the inning as he picked it up, firing it up to third base to beat the runner. But his throw was off-target and the runner scored, giving the Cardinals the lead they would maintain to tie the series before heading back to Busch stadium in St. Louis.

Many speculated Breslow’s error cost the Red Sox the Series; it was also particularly poignant since the Wall Street Journal had named Breslow the smartest man in baseball in 2009. But by game six, the Sox had taken the championship and Breslow became the first Bulldog to win a World Series since 1986.

But while this accomplishment — winning the World Series — represents the pinnacle of success in professional sports, it’s a rarity at a school like Yale. At an institution known for funneling the majority of its graduates to large firms, places like Teach for America, JP Morgan and McKinsey & Company, Breslow is an anomaly. He did not follow the traditional Yale paths, instead deferring medical school at NYU to pursue his dream as an MLB pitcher. For Breslow, a molecular, biophysics and biochemistry major, the road to a successful career in medicine was well set. But his prospects for achievement on the baseball diamond were less certain: Drafted in the 26th round of the 2002 MLB draft, Breslow has since floated through six teams before finally landing on the Red Sox.

Breslow’s teammates — players from schools like Arizona State University, San Diego State University and the University of Florida — were largely primed for an MLB career long before their freshman year in college. Indeed, at perennial athletic powerhouses such as Alabama, Auburn and Oregon, there are definitive tracks in place to ensure that the most promising athletes land a coveted spot in the professional leagues. All aspects of a student-athlete’s life are optimized — from sleep schedules to specific meal plans — in order to prepare them for competition on the field.

Yale, by contrast, establishes a completely different framework for its student-athletes. Unlike schools with a robust focus on athletics, Yale has no training tables to optimize students’ diets, leaving each Bulldog largely responsible for maintaining a dietary plan conducive to peak performance. And while athletes at a school like Alabama are often assigned personal tutors to ensure that their GPA stays intact, Yale athletes are held to the same standards as their nonathletic counterparts. Students like Breslow are thus faced with the task of adhering to Yale’s rigorous academic standards while simultaneously balancing a competitive practice schedule.

Nevertheless, all Yalies interviewed felt that there was no significant disconnect between their athletic schedule at Yale and the one they experience now in their respective professional teams. In spite of the overwhelming difference in tracks between schools like Yale and ASU, they felt mostly prepared for the challenges posed by the professional level.

According to Antoine Laganiere ’13, who currently plays center for the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League, practice times and the performance level expected from coaches largely mirror those he experienced as an undergraduate. The biggest difference, he noted, was in the “style of play,” but the pressure to perform was just as palpable. “The environment [at Yale] prepares you well,” he concluded.

In fact, several interviewed claimed that they perhaps felt more prepared for the professional environment than their teammates from more sports-centric schools.

Greg Mangano ’12, who has played professional basketball throughout Europe since graduation, has found this to be true. Mangano’s resume is nothing to scoff at: He finished his senior year with 213 blocks — the most in Yale history and the third-most in Ivy League history. Upon graduation, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound center participated in several NBA camps and, in order to pursue the goal of landing in the NBA, signed a deal to play with Antalya in Turkey before moving to play for Forca Lleida in Spain. He signed a deal in August and recently returned home to Orange, CT after playing for Ratiopharm Ulm of Germany’s BBL League.

Throughout his European experience, Mangano felt adequately prepared to balance the responsibilities of being a professional athlete and living abroad as an independent adult. “I chose Yale because I wanted to get an education because my career could end tomorrow if something went wrong; it’s what I would tell my son,” Mangano said. “Going to an Ivy League school is the best of both worlds.” Ultimately, he said, the people directly responsible for forwarding his athletic career at Yale — including his parents, coaches and advisors — considered not just what would be the best fit athletically to further his career, but also what pathway would prepare him for the rest of his life.

Given this unique ethos for what it means to shape a student athlete in his undergraduate years, Yale, according to Director of Athletics Tom Beckett, attracts a specific type of player.

“Our coaches and programs are looking for extraordinary student-athletes, and the mission of the institution is to prepare our students to work and enjoy their experience at Yale. We’re not trying to do something outside of that,” Beckett said. “We are trying to have the collegiate experience for that student-athlete and that is our objective. We want them to have the academics, athletics and social aspect. All of that is our primary concern.”

Because Yale attempts to bring multitalented student-athletes into its fold, as opposed to recruiting the very best athletes in a given sport, funneling students into the professional ranks is an infrequent process. While athletes at other schools eyeing a professional career are in constant conversation with multiple parties — including the entirety of the athletic department — Yalies converse with a much smaller contingent. According to Beckett, those conversations remain largely between the athlete and his coach, and external administrators mostly provide support from afar.

“If the student is talented enough to have a professional career, our coaches are our people best situated to advise them,” Beckett said. “Those are conversations always taking place with students about the next best step to take and when to take it.”

This framework has fostered incredibly close-knit relationships between Yale athletes and their coaches. Ultimately, it is the coaches who ensure that their players have contact with and exposure to their sport’s most prominent scouts, the most essential ingredient to acquiring a contract or a draft spot.

“[The hockey coaches] were super supportive throughout all of the processes,” Laganiere said. “Before I signed, they helped me choose what was the best fit for me. They were often the ones contacting me and encouraging me during the summer and they’ve been there all throughout the transition.”

Mangano cited the aid of head basketball coach James Jones as a driving force in helping him gain exposure and attain his goal of playing professionally. From helping Mangano work out with the Celtics to helping him earn a spot in the team USA tryout camp, Jones leveraged his experience and contacts in the basketball community to help one of his players chase his dream.

“He got me the tryout with the USA team through someone that he knew, and halfway through my senior year he was getting contacted by agents from different teams,” Mangano said. “He had some NBA guys come watch practice.”

Similar support from head coach Keith Allain and the hockey coaching staff helped Edmonton Oiler Mark Arcobello ’10 achieve his goal of playing professional hockey.

“Keith Allain was a big part of it. He helped get me started in pro hockey. He’s always pushing me along the way,” Arcobello said. “He has a lot of contacts and spent a lot of time in pro hockey. He’s always putting his players names out there and trying to help us get to the next level.”

This is not to say, however, that Yale’s administrators, detached as they may be from the recruitment process, are not supportive of a student’s decision to embark upon this track. Beckett noted that it is a source of tremendous pride for the athletic department to see their athletes move on to the professional or even Olympic ranks.

For the administration, the Red Sox victory in the World Series with Breslow, along with fellow Yalie Ryan Lavarnway ’08, went far from unnoticed.

“Our student-athletes, while they are here and after they leave Yale — no matter what careers they choose — are a source of pride for all of us,” university president Peter Salovey said. “I personally was very proud … I heard several commentators refer to their Yale education during broadcasts, which was terrific for all Yalies who are also baseball fans.”

And as Yale sports continue to climb the ranks in multiple fields, it’s likely that such moments will not go as few and far between. Indeed, as Yale hockey continues to blaze forward on the tail of their 2013 national championship, the 15 Yalies in pro hockey today are hopeful that more students will join them upon graduation. Mangano echoed this sentiment, noting that, for Ivy League athletics as a whole, “the competition level is definitely increasing, so it’s not a league that you look at as a second division any more.”

Even so, Beau Palin ’14 was careful to point out the major gap in professional exposure afforded to hopeful Yale athletes.

“Athletes at [schools like] Alabama, Auburn … are given more credibility as they have performed against the highest level of competition,” Palin said. “An equally talented athlete at a lesser-known school does have more to prove to scouts because he has not necessarily competed against the nation’s best … it is more imperative for them to demonstrate their athletic potential than it would be for athletes at big-time schools.”

But current Yale athletes, in spite of this, cling to the hope that sheer talent will outweigh their school’s reputation for producing lower quality athletes.

“If you’re good, you’re good,” Bulldogs centerfielder Brent Lawson ’16 said. “If you’re good, they will find you.”

 

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