Last July, John Valek III got a life-changing phone call from his then-pitching coach from the University of Akron. Valek, a junior at the time and the owner of multiple Zip pitching records, suddenly got word that Akron was discontinuing its baseball program after a 40 million dollar cut in expenses.
Valek went from being nine wins shy of Akron’s all time wins record and 21 credit hours away from a degree to being a collegiate free agent, eligible to play right away for the team of his choosing. His efforts during his first three years at Akron resulted in a plethora of offers from all over the country.
Valek narrowed his choices down to Florida Atlantic, Clemson and LSU, before choosing to play for the purple and gold Tigers in 2016. Despite a significant paradigm shift in a short time, Valek has been formidable for LSU this season, posting a 2.92 earned run average and a team-best 5-1 win-loss record so far.
DIG caught up with Valek to discuss adjusting to life in Baton Rouge, former major leaguer Goose Gossage’s recent rant about the state of professional baseball and more in this week’s edition of Talkin’ Tigers.
DIG: What was your opinion on Akron discontinuing its baseball program?
John Valek III: Initially, I was really disappointed. Not being with those guys who were my teammates the last three years was disappointing, but I’m comfortable here. I’m enjoying the season, and I’ve loved my time here, so I think it’s worked out.
DIG: What made you choose LSU over the other schools that offered you?
JV: When I think of college baseball and everything it brings to the table, LSU really stands out. It’s always been a school that I’ve dreamed of going to. When I was younger and thought about future schools, LSU was always on my list. They’re a quality program, and people across the country know about the quality of LSU baseball. When I had the opportunity to come here, it was hard to turn it down.
DIG: What’s it been like adjusting to LSU, an entirely new university in an unfamiliar city?
JV: It was tough in the beginning, just because of the situation being totally unexpected. I wasn’t anticipating the [Akron] program being canceled. I assumed I was going to be at Akron for my senior year. With everything happening so quickly, I had to adjust on the fly. All of a sudden, I had new teammates, a new school, a new state and a new campus. I’ve had to get used to campus life and learn to live with new people. After that initial adjustment period, things have gone really well.
DIG: Are there any major league pitchers who you’ve watched and tried to emulate?
JV: The one guy I grew up watching, even though he’s retired now, is Tom Glavine. He wasn’t a hard-throwing lefty but was still successful. He could really hit his spots and things like that. That’s a guy I’ve always watched and tried to emulate. Also, he was on my favorite team.
DIG: What’s your all-time favorite pitching moment on any level of baseball?
JV: I don’t remember pitching when this happened. I’m sure I did. But my all-time favorite baseball moment was when I was 12 years old. My [travel] team was playing in South Florida in a tournament called the Saint Augustine tournament. First, they have the seeding games, then you would play the actual tournament. We lost all of our seeding games, so we were the next-to-last seed going into the tournament. We went 5-0 and won the championship. I always talk to my buddies who were on that team, and I tell them that was the single best time I’ve had playing baseball.
DIG: Do you have any pregame rituals, superstitions or routines you implement before a start?
JV: Before the games, I always wear the same hat and use the same socks. There’s definitely a few little things. When I’m on the mound, I always have to make sure the actual mound has no dirt on it. That’s the only thing that’s kind of weird. Other than that, there’s nothing too crazy.
DIG: From your perspective, has the quality of batters been any different here than it was at Akron?
JV: They had some good quality hitters in the [Mid-American Conference]. The difference between the MAC and the SEC is that the lineups are a lot deeper here. When I was pitching in the MAC, maybe the three or four-hole and the first two or three guys in the order were strong. Over here, you usually have a solid one through nine [lineup]. The MAC had some good hitters, but deeper lineups are the biggest difference.
DIG: How did you first get into baseball during your childhood? When did you realize you could have a legitimate future in the sport?
JV: Right when I was able to walk, I had a bat and a ball in my hand. When I was younger, I played a bunch of different sports. I played basketball. I played pretty much everything except for soccer when I was younger. When I was about twelve years old, I told my parents I didn’t want to play anything else except baseball. From then on, I concentrated on baseball, and I’ve been taking it as far as I can.
DIG: You mentioned earlier that the New York Mets are your favorite major-league team. What are your predictions for them this season after a National League pennant last year?
JV: Hopefully, they actually win the World Series. They’ve got some good pitching, so if they could generate some run support, they would have a good chance. Hopefully, they go all the way this time.
DIG: Goose Gossage went on an infamous rant about the state of baseball a few weeks ago, and Mets outfielder Yoenis Céspedes was one of the players he was critical of. Do you have any opinions on Gossage or what he said?
JV: I definitely heard about it, but I didn’t really think about it or look into it very much. For me personally, I think the game is fun. I guess there’s always going to be that battle between the old-school guys and the new-school guys. I think you’ll always have that mixture of young guys and the old-school guys who want to play the way they want to play. All the games I’ve been in have been fun.
DIG: You guys haven’t gotten off to the start you wanted in conference play, but have still put up some good numbers and remained in the SEC West race. What does this team need to do in the near future to get where it wants to be?
JV: We just have to stay confident. Our record could be better, but really we were just a few hits away from a couple more wins. It may seem a lot worse to some people than it actually is. We were just a few clutch hits away from those games ending differently and our record being a lot different. It’s important to just go out there and play with confidence and effort. I think if we keep putting quality at bats together and keep throwing good pitches, those tables will start to turn, and we’ll start seeing some more wins.
Photo courtesy of LSU Sports Information.