By Sam Fisher
For the past two seasons, every time senior Mark Appel stepped out onto the mound on a Friday night and looked towards home plate, he saw dozens of scouts with radar guns pointed right at him.
Appel was such a can’t-miss prospect that not a soul expected to see him back at Stanford for his senior year. But when Appel fell to the eighth overall pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in Major League Baseball’s Draft this past June, everything changed.
“I think it was probably a week or two before the signing deadline,” Appel said about the time he realized he might be coming back for his senior season. “From the draft — well from the end of the season — all the way until a week or two before the signing deadline I was going back and forth, making lists, writing out pros and cons for both returning to school and signing. It ended up being a very, very tough decision.”
In the end, Appel chose a return to Stanford over a reported $3.8 million signing bonus offer from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Last year’s fellow juniors Kenny Diekroeger, Stephen Piscotty, Jake Stewart, Eric Smith and Tyler Gaffney — before announcing Monday that he is returning to Stanford for football — all signed after being drafted. Yet Appel, the biggest prospect of them all, is coming back.
“It is a little weird because you see guys like Stephen Piscotty and Kenny Diekroeger walking around campus and going to class — at least in the fall — and you don’t see them at the field,” Appel said. “So they have all this free time and, you know, we’re all still grinding and working hard … I miss those guys but I’m really glad to be back with all the guys that are on the team this year.”
On Friday evening in Houston, Tex., Appel will start for the second time since the draft. His first time was the worst start of his career. Appel lasted only four innings, allowing seven runs — five earned — as Stanford fell to Florida State 17-1 in game one of the NCAA Super Regional. Eight months later, Appel has an opportunity to finally put that start behind him.
“It’s been on my mind,” Appel said of the start at Florida State. “I haven’t dwelled on it too much. It’s one of those things where you just had a bad game and that’s part of baseball and part of life.”
If there’s any place more comfortable for Appel than Sunken Diamond to help move on from Florida State, it’s Houston. Appel lived there until high school, when his family moved to Northern California. In a few weeks, Appel will call Houston home again, as his parents are moving back there from Beijing — where they’ve lived for a little over a year — in the next few weeks. In fact, the Appels are using the Rice trip to hunt for houses.
“I’m really excited to play Rice and go to Houston,” Appel said. “I get to see a lot of friends and family and everything and also get to play baseball. First and foremost, it is a business trip, but getting to see friends and family is a benefit.”
Last June, many thought Appel would be going back to Houston for a very different reason — the Astros had the first overall pick in the MLB Draft and were thought to have Appel at the top of their draft board. However, the Astros went in another direction, and for the second time in his young career, Mark Appel had to overcome being spurned by one of his favorite teams — The University of Texas for college and the Astros for professional baseball.
“I grew up the biggest Longhorn fan,” Appel said. “I think I had a different Longhorn t-shirt for every day of the week. Both my parents went there and I grew up wanting to go to Texas, wanting to go to UT, and when we moved to California things kind of changed. I sent my recruiting video there and everything and I never really heard back from them. They don’t really need to recruit out of Texas. There’s just so much talent there. And so, I remember that first time freshman year when I got to pitch against them there, out of relief, and it was just so surreal. It was kind of like a dream come true except I was on the wrong team.”
For Appel, this season’s quest for redemption will be about a lot more than just one game. Not making it to the College World Series of Omaha, Neb., last season was an enormous disappointment for Appel and everyone on the team. If he can help lead Stanford to Omaha, he will probably be looking at another big signing bonus offer in June, and his decision to come back to Stanford could look pretty good — certainly a lot better than Texas head coach Augie Garrido’s decision to not recruit Appel out of high school.
“I think a lot of people will determine whether the decision was a good one or not based on the results of what happens,” Appel said, “but I’m focusing on just the process. One of the most important things was I just want to play baseball, whether it’s at Stanford or with the Pirates organization.”
In a few weeks, baseball will be the only required part of Appel’s days. The senior is on track to graduate at the end of winter quarter in a little over a month and is still trying to figure out what he’ll do when he’s not playing baseball.
“I’ve thought about that and I’ve tried to think of some cool ideas,” Appel said. “I know I’m going to try to catch up on sleep — I’ve been generating quite the sleep debt here at Stanford so I’m going to try to catch up a little bit on that. But I’m going to try to stay pretty active. I don’t think I’m going to try to do an internship or a job or anything like that but just try to see if the are are any community service options in the spring.”
Contact Sam Fisher at email@example.com.