Only 7.5% of high school baseball players continue their careers across the three NCAA levels. Even fewer college players, roughly 1,200 in 2019, get drafted by Major League Baseball teams each year.
Even so, If one University of Northern Colorado graduate was a betting man, he’d bet that his career would end in the majors.
Kyler Leroux graduated from UNC last May with a degree in physical education and a lifetime of athletic memories most people don’t know about.
Leroux tried to become a UNC baseball walk-on but failed to earn a spot. At first, it was disappointing and hurt his confidence. Would he be able to play professional baseball on any level if he didn’t play for the university team?
Leroux joined the Northern Colorado club team and turned that experience into an independent baseball league contract. But he didn’t do it alone. He’s got a whole system betting on his career.
“He has this quiet sense of leadership that he displays by doing the right thing, putting in the effort and asking the right questions,” said Jaimie McMullen, UNC associate professor of physical education and physical activity leadership. “When I think about his ability to be successful in a professional sport, I think that will translate really well.”
‘He wants to be better’
When people think of professional sports, the NFL, NBA, MLB and any associated minor-league teams may come to mind. There are, however, more opportunities to play professionally than typically advertised.
That’s how Leroux plans to continue his career. He will join the Tucson Saguaros this spring, almost a year after his final club contest and getting the offer. It’s all he’s ever wanted. It’s not the major leagues — yet — but someone wants to pay him to play a sport.
Leroux credits the UNC faculty for a lot, because his teachers’ impact goes deeper than homework and graduation rates. They invested in Leroux on a personal level, committing to his growth as a person, leader and, ultimately, athlete.
“I think Kyler has been used to people not necessarily believing in him, and it’s resulted in him not necessarily believing in himself. That’s something I’ve seen the most growth in — his confidence, his belief in himself and his commitment to upholding high expectations,” McMullen said. “Once he knew that the faculty at UNC were there for him and wanted him to be successful, it changed his trajectory in our program.”
McMullen said she taught Leroux in four classes and served as an adviser through his undergraduate career. Together, they worked through individual challenges and ensured he was on the right path to achieve his goals.
She doesn’t attribute his new opportunity to anything special she did. Instead, McMullen and her colleagues expressed confidence in his abilities and helped him recognize his capacity for success.
Chicago White Sox Midwest Area Scout J.J. Lally connected with Leroux in October and provided advice about how to make the most out of his time in Tucson.
“The reason I usually respond to those emails is because I was in those shoes and someone helped me out,” said Lally, who also spent two years with an indy league team. “I try to do the same. I think it’s only the right thing to do.”
Lally told Leroux to embrace any chance to play, even if it’s not on an MLB team, because that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road. He said roughly a dozen active major league players started as indy league guys.
Nick Anderson of the Tampa Bay Rays started his career playing independent ball while under a seven-year probationary period, just hoping someone higher up would want to sign him. He won the American League and was the World Series runner up last year. The Rays fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers, 4-2.
Lally helped sign pitcher Dylan Axelrod to the White Sox in 2011. Axelrod also got his start in the indy league, made a few stops with other teams, and he is now the Los Angeles Angels pitching coordinator.
There are even more who played in the majors and spent time on the lower level at some point during their careers. Both Jose Conseco did it after his expulsion from the league, and Miami Marlins pitcher Ross Detwiler in between MLB gigs. Detwiler signed a one-year contract with the Marlins less than a week ago.
Other athletes, including former MVPs, World Series Champions and Hall of Famers, have spent time on teams like the one Leroux will play for. The possibilities are huge.
“Mediocrity isn’t something he embraced. He wants to be better,” McMullen said. “When he told me (joining a pro team) was happening, I kind of teared up a little bit, because I know that’s a dream of his. That’s all we want is for our students to fulfill their potential. This is part of his.”
‘Various ways to accomplish that dream’
Leroux grew up in Mead before the widespread availability of the internet and smartphones. He spent hours swinging at rocks, developing a swing and work ethic that carried him to the place he is now.
He played for Longmont High School from 2012 to 2014 and etched his name into the record books. Leroux left the team as the all-time RBI leader (65 in his career) before being surpassed four years later, and he ranks in the top 10 for career hits (77) and doubles (21). But he graduated without a scholarship to play ball.
Then a freshman, Leroux tried out for the varsity team at UNC. He wanted to earn a roster spot — even if no money was attached — but he missed the cut. That’s not what he wanted; not when his dream was to play pro.
“(But) there are various ways to accomplish that dream,” Leroux said. “It doesn’t have to be through the varsity team.”
Leroux chose not to give up and tried out for a position on the club team. It ended up being a decision of unquantifiable value.
The team, part of the National Club Baseball Association, accepted him and pushed for his betterment. Older players welcomed the opportunity to share their athletic and leadership advice, allowing him to glean knowledge and new skills.
2020 was supposed to be a big year for the team. Obviously, COVID-19 ended that pretty quickly.
The Bears started 2-1, and they had seven upperclassmen. After several seasons at the bottom of the conference, they really thought they’d be toward the top of the standings. UNC competes against other teams from University of Colorado, Colorado State, Wyoming, Colorado Mesa and Colorado School of Mines.
“That was really tough, because this was the best team we’d ever had. Not getting to play with that team, it was a real bummer. I really wanted to show the rookies what it meant to play for the UNC club baseball team,” Leroux said. “While the varsity team was away, that was the highest level of baseball in the city. We took it as an honor to play at Jackson Stadium.”
Leroux’s participation on the club team and his own education taught him to be a harder worker, constant learner and overall better person. He appreciates every person who provided the support or advice to get him on the cusp of what he hopes is a memorable career.
He’s young, passionate and will work for what he wants, even if it means taking the long road.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from,” Lally said. “If you have the talent, teams will find you.”
That’s what Leroux is betting on.