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For the Love of the Game

Photo credit to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.

When he chose to enroll in Cornell’s College of Engineering, Brian McAfee never imagined a professional baseball career in his future. But, two years after graduating, McAfee is currently a promising prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays farm system.

A rare engineering student-athlete, McAfee explains that some of his days in Ithaca were stereotypical college nightmares that featured long hours in the library, where he would leave solely to attend baseball practice. However, it did not take long for him to experience the potential of what he was accomplishing on the field, as Cornell won the Ivy League and punched its ticket to the College World Series in 2012, his first year with the Big Red.

“As a freshman, the group of seniors laid down a solid foundation for the young guys,” said McAfee. “It helped me to develop the tools I needed to be a successful Ivy League pitcher.”

McAfee missed significant time his junior year due to a back injury, but his clear development began to grab the attention of MLB scouts. In fact, he actually credits his senior year performance and eventual rise to stardom to the time he missed.

“I definitely learned that you need to listen to your body,” stated McAfee. “For some people, an injury could’ve discouraged them, but for me, it helped me learn about my body and come back stronger.”

McAfee concluded his Cornell career with a 5-2 record and 1.77 ERA in his senior season, en route to a first-team All-Ivy League selection.

Although he missed significant time with an injury, Ivy League rules prohibited McAfee from playing a fifth year at Cornell, but he was still an eligible NCAA athlete. Hoping to continue both his baseball career and educational pursuits, McAfee visited Duke and, without hesitation, chose to enroll in the fall of 2015.

“It was the only school I needed to talk to. They had a great one-year business program, great facilities, and great resources,” explained McAfee.

The Blue Devils’ standard of excellence in the world of collegiate sports gave McAfee a chance to make even greater strides during his fifth and final collegiate year.

“We were able to practice a lot more in the fall and had more access to physical therapy and extra lifts,” described McAfee.

The competition was no light task either, as the ACC is home to some of the best baseball programs in the country, including the 2015 national champion Virginia Cavaliers. This higher level of competition helped McAfee prepare for professional play and improve his approach on the mound.

“The Ivy League has some incredible hitters, but with a lineup like Virginia, you can’t make any mistakes.” said McAfee. “I had to locate better, make better breaking pitches, and learn to pound the zone down. But, I didn’t have to become a different pitcher.”

His success was evident, as McAfee played a pivotal role in Duke’s 33-24 season. He turned in his best performance by pitching seven shutout innings against Virginia in ACC action.

After five years of college ball, McAfee still didn’t know what was in store for the remainder of his baseball career. He heard from one Rays scout who asked him if he wanted to keep pitching, and while enthused, he was still unsure of how promising this inquiry was. Sitting around a pool during the final hours of the 2016 MLB draft, McAfee anxiously checked his phone, waiting for a team to take a flyer on him. The Tampa Bay Rays eventually drafted him in the 38th round and assigned him to the Princeton Rays, an advanced rookie-level team in the Appalachian League.

“I actually found out by looking at the live draft tracker,” admitted McAfee.

He succeeded in his first minor league stint, as he recorded a 1.88 ERA in 28.2 innings pitched.

“It was a lot of fun,” commented McAfee. “The level of competition in the league was awesome, and I was able to play with people from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.”

He lived from a hotel in West Virginia and encountered long bus rides to every opposing team’s stadium, just like he did at Cornell. However, the tiring nights and long days of practice were all worth it. For example, McAfee’s favorite moment in his rookie campaign was winning the Mercer Cup — an 11-game series against the rival Bluefield Blue Jays.

“We ended up clinching the series right near the end of the season, and it was just so awesome to see the Dominicans win because it was the first time they had ever won a trophy like that,” reminisced McAfee.

Right now, he continues to train at Duke during the offseason and occupies his time by continuing to do research. As for next year, all McAfee currently knows is that he is slated to head to Florida in late February for spring training, but he is ready to take on whatever challenge the Rays give him.

“I am going to pour everything I’ve got into my baseball career,” said McAfee. “It’s incredible to just do what you love.”


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