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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Leaving Baseball Was Not a Minor Decision for Trio

May 07, 2000|ERIC SONDHEIMER

It's decision time for the wonderful high school baseball class of 1993.

Brad Fullmer of Montclair Prep, Jeff Suppan of Crespi, Gabe Kapler of Taft and David Lamb of Newbury Park made it to the major leagues, but others from the talented class of '93 who were stuck in the minor leagues have made difficult choices.

Three of the best players from that '93 class, outfielder Ryan Stromsborg of Notre Dame, catcher Stacy Kleiner of Taft and infielder Dan Cey of El Camino Real, left the game in the past two months.

Stromsborg, 25, Kleiner, 25, and Cey, 24, were successful college players before signing professionally in 1996. Each concluded this spring they did not want to become career minor leaguers.

"This has been something I've been struggling with the last couple of years," Stromsborg said. "The game of baseball has changed. It's gotten away from what I always loved and wanted to do."

Said Kleiner: "Last year was the hardest I've ever worked. I wasn't hitting like I used to. They lost confidence in me. It's just hard to go through that again. The whole off-season, I thought about it. I went down to spring training to verify my decision."

Said Cey: "It really came to the point I didn't want to do it anymore. The things that make me happy in my life, baseball doesn't have anything to do with it. I'm always going to have a passion [for baseball], but once you see the course it takes as a professional, it's not heartwarming. It takes a turn kids who want to grow up to be players don't know about."

It's a traumatic, gut-wrenching decision to give up something you've cherished since childhood. The most challenging moment comes when telling family and friends, many of whom have been living their own baseball fantasy through the player. Their dreams have been shattered, just like the players.

But it takes a special kind of courage to face the truth. These three have accepted their decision with few regrets.

"I just want to take some responsibility for my actions and my future," Stromsborg said. "I think that's what everyone should do."

Stromsborg was a fourth-round draft choice of the Toronto Blue Jays after playing three years at USC. He earned his business degree from USC and had job offers outside of baseball, causing the Blue Jays to joke, "Are we going to see you on Wall Street or at spring training?"

Stromsborg said he is not closing the door on a return to baseball if another club expresses interest, but he's not waiting at home for his phone to ring after reaching as high as double A.

"I'm trying to take control of my business life," Stromsborg said. "It's not that my window of opportunity is gone. Living a minor league career might be perfect to somebody else, but it's not my idea of living a life. How far can you drag it on? How far can you wait to decide what's best for you?"

Kleiner was a 16th-round choice of the St. Louis Cardinals after playing three years at Nevada-Las Vegas. He was selected to the Texas League double-A All-Star Game in 1998. But no matter how hard he worked, he never felt comfortable as a professional.

"For some reason, I was miserable," Kleiner said.

Kleiner began substitute teaching in Las Vegas in November. He plans to return to school this fall or next spring to earn his degree. He might stick with teaching or study hotel management.

"I'll be fine," he said. "I'll find some way to make a lot of money. I don't know what yet. I've always worked my butt off."

Kleiner said he's happy for his former Taft teammate, Kapler, the Texas Rangers' right fielder.

"Good for him," Kleiner said. "He's worked hard. He deserves it."

Cey faced a different type of pressure. He's the son of Ron Cey, one of the most popular Dodgers of the 1970s.

Rarely did a week go by growing up when somebody didn't ask, "Are you Ron Cey's son?"

Cey was a third-round pick of the Minnesota Twins after playing three years at California. He was in his second year playing for triple-A Salt Lake City when he decided last Sunday to retire.

"I'm 24. If I stuck with this, I would have made it," he said. "It came down to, 'Is this making me happy? Do you have a desire? Do you want to do this 10 more years?' Honestly, I wanted to do something else. I'm not doing this for money. I never have. I never did this for fame or popularity. I was doing it for fun. All that changed and I had to change."

Cey plans to return to school.

His father said, "I'm in total support with what he's doing."

Stromsborg, who was married in November, was concerned how his father, Eric, a successful Encino businessman, would react.

"He's probably the most perfect person I could think of," Stromsborg said. "I wanted to move up in baseball because it's something he never got a chance to do. I wanted to say, 'Hey, I made it.' "

Stromsborg quickly learned from his father that baseball wasn't as important as family.

"My family made it clear to me it doesn't matter what I do as long as I'm happy," he said.

There is a future without baseball, and these three will prove it.

"What I'm going to miss when I think about baseball are the high school days and college, not the professional days," Cey said.

*

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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