Volume 28 · Number 2 · Winter 2011
Daniel Descalso may have been the first Aggie position player to reach the major leagues, but he is not the only St. Louis Cardinal to call UC Davis his alma mater. Sig Mejdal ’89 serves as a senior quantitative analyst for the ballclub. More…
Alum infielder hits a major league milestone for UC Davis’ century-old baseball program.
Former Aggie batting star Daniel Descalso earned a special place in UC Davis history in a quiet way this fall — not with a hit, but with a harmless groundout to second base during a scoreless inning in Miami.
In that moment, the St. Louis Cardinal rookie infielder became the first Aggie alum to swing a bat in a major league game.
The only other Aggie ever to reach the big leagues was right-handed pitcher Steve Brown, who played for the Aggies during 1975–78 and took to the mound a total of 15 times for the California Angels in 1983 and 1984. But as an American League pitcher, Brown never batted.
Descalso, 24, who played for UC Davis from 2005 through 2007, was called to the Cardinals’ active roster as part of the annual September roster expansion after four seasons with the club’s minor league affiliate teams, the last two as the starting second baseman for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. During the 2010 season, he posted a .282 batting average and carried team highs in runs (86) and doubles (32). For his efforts, Descalso was named to the All-Pacific Coast League Team.
While at UC Davis, Descalso finished his junior season with a .397 batting average, which still stands as second-best in a single season in Aggie history. He was named to the American Baseball Coaches Association All-West Region First Team, and selected by the Cardinals in the third round of the 2007 amateur draft.
On Sept. 20, two days after reporting to the Cardinals, the infielder was summoned by manager Tony LaRussa to pinch-hit for starting pitcher Chris Carpenter in the top of the seventh inning against Florida. Facing a 2-1 count, Descalso made contact on a sinking fastball. Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla scooped the grounder and threw to first for the inning’s second out.
“I didn’t go into the field so I sat there in the dugout,” said Descalso. “I looked up and thought, ‘It’s official now.’ I was in the boxscore with an at-bat. I didn’t get a hit, but at that point I knew I had made it.”
In fact, Descalso had made his official MLB debut on Sept. 18 against the San Diego Padres. In the bottom of the sixth, LaRussa called on Descalso to bat for relief pitcher Jason Motte. But before he saw one pitch, visiting San Diego opted to bring in a left-handed reliever. In response, LaRussa replaced the lefty Descalso with a right-handed batter, Nick Stavinoha.
Though he never faced a pitch, the mere fact that he was announced into the lineup — even if for less than a minute — counts officially as a game played.
“It’s not the way you envision your major league debut, but it’s going to be a good story to tell down the line,” says Descalso. “When I got back to the dugout, there were a lot of high fives. The guys had fun with it.”
The anticlimactic debut notwithstanding, Descalso made his mark during his two weeks with the Cardinals. In 11 games, he made nine starts, hitting 9-for-34 with two doubles for a respectable .265 batting average. In the field, Descalso committed no errors in 17 chances, one of which was a spectacular lunging grab over the home dugout railing. On Sept. 22, he made his first big-league start and earned his first hit in the process.
To reach the major leagues is a dream for many ballplayers. At UC Davis, where the baseball program dates to 1911, dozens of players have signed with or been drafted by major league organizations in the past 40 years. But so far only Brown and Descalso have made it to “the show.”
Aggies baseball coach Rex Peters said Descalso’s “intangibles” — his character, consistency and grit — set him apart from other players. “He has tools, but he’s not more physically gifted than a lot of players at this level. He just had a determination and desire to be good, and he was probably one of the most competitive players that I’ve had the privilege of coaching.”
Peters, who played three years for Los Angeles Dodgers minor league teams, said players’ success in climbing the professional baseball ladder depends on their ability to handle defeat. “Baseball is a game of failure. You have to learn to deal with that and keep moving forward. Danny has done that. He’s the guy who has that little edge that separates him from the pack.”
For Descalso, playing for the Cardinals carries special meaning. His favorite team as a youngster growing up in San Carlos was the Oakland A’s, then managed by LaRussa and led by slugger Mark McGwire.
This fall, Descalso found himself playing for LaRussa, with McGwire serving as his hitting coach. “They have so much knowledge to give out that I just try to soak it all up,” Descalso said.
However, as much as he appreciates the opportunity to play for two icons from his childhood, Descalso maintains the same blue-collar approach that has carried him on the long road from college ball through the lower minor leagues to the bright lights of Busch Stadium.
Descalso will return to Cardinals’ spring training in mid-February. He will spend his off-season physically and mentally readying himself, hoping to earn a spot with the big club on Opening Day. “You can’t get too far ahead of yourself. When you’re in Double-A, you can’t worry about what the guy ahead of you is doing in Triple-A. You have to play your game, think only about what you can control and hopefully get the opportunity to move up.”