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Kentucky pitcher handles life's curve ball

By Brian Burnsed
NCAA.org

For 29 years, Ben Shaffar’s ambitions were confined to the 60-feet, 6-inches between the edge of the pitching rubber and the tip of home plate.

His greatest triumphs and most agonizing disappointments occurred in that vacant expanse. The right-handed pitcher’s life story was written with the heavy sink on his fastball and the violent break of his splitter, which tugged him through three years of college baseball and eight seasons in the minor leagues.

But before he was ever granted the chance to don a major league uniform and watch it glow at night under those massive banks of light, his body failed him – first a knee, then an elbow, then a shoulder. At 29, Shaffar, who left the University of Kentucky without a college degree in 1999 when he was drafted in the sixth round by the Chicago Cubs, was left searching for a new way to define himself.

“It was tough leaving the game because you go through an identity crisis,” he said. “For 29 years, I was known as Ben Shaffar, the baseball player.”

To uncover that new identity, to forge a new path, he’d venture back to the place where hazy dreams of pro baseball transformed into a vivid reality. He took advantage of a clause in his original contact with the Cubs that covered educational expenses should he return to Kentucky. When that funding ran dry, he’d turn to an NCAA Degree-Completion Award to finance the remainder of his education.

“Once I realized that the Major League dream was about as good of a chance as me going and scratching Powerball tickets, I decided I might as well go back and try to use my brain to move forward in life,” Shaffar said.

Making such an abrupt change required sacrifice. His wife, Suzanne, had settled comfortably into a job at a midsize law firm in Philadelphia while he bounced around the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system, spending much of his time in nearby Double-A Altoona. If her husband was going to pursue his free education 470 miles away, she’d have to uproot, take the Kentucky bar and find a new job in an oversaturated market.

Shaffar, too, would be faced with drastic changes. In college, he reveled in the social perks of life as a talented college athlete while working diligently to hone the splitter that he thought would be his ticket to the majors. He admits that throwing baseballs and the dating scene superseded his desire to study. 

“I put in the absolute bare minimum,” Shaffar said. “I lived the social lifestyle. The focus at the time was baseball and, ‘Where’s the Thursday, Friday, Saturday night party?’ ”

His second tenure at Kentucky would be markedly different. He frequented the athletics department’s Center for Academic and Tutorial Services, made sure to never miss class and to pay rapt attention during lectures. When he was 19, he’d thought he wanted to major in education. A decade later – and wiser – he realized that desire had long faded. Corporate communications would be a good fit, he determined, after meeting with Bob Bradley, Kentucky’s associate athletics director for student services. But Shaffar held a passion for political science. Why not pursue that, too?

“He was so dedicated not just to passing courses, but to getting an education,” Bradley said. “He would talk about the content of the courses and really learning that content.”

Adding two new majors meant that Shaffar would need to return to the classroom for six consecutive semesters, summers included. In those two years, he would search for an identity outside of baseball for the first time in his life. Was he a scholar? A politician? A corporate public relations official?

Suzanne, who started a firm with one of Shaffar’s UK acquaintances after passing the Kentucky bar, helped him through his daunting new adventure. She called out practice quiz questions on the two-hour drives from Lexington to his parents’ home and did her best to help him conquer college algebra. Through it all, Shaffar’s work ethic never relented – he made the dean’s list every semester, earning only one B along the way – and he pushed his grade-point average from a 2.7 to a 3.4.

“I remember being in class when I was 18, 19, 20, and those older guys would be in class answering all the questions and asking all the questions and I’m like, ‘These guys are idiots. Just shut up and let us get out of class,’ ” Shaffar said. “Well, I turned into one of those guys.”

Still, vestiges of his old life lingered. Sitting in cramped classrooms with teenagers discussing political theory was a stark contrast to standing on the mound, isolated, 60-feet, 6-inches away from Albert Pujols. Before Pujols was a household name, Shaffar had bested him all three times they squared off. Shaffar had struck out Phillies star Chase Utley. He’d surrendered home runs to Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson. He’d gone to battle against Twins first baseman Justin Morneau. Some nights, with math homework and reading assignments weighing down on him, he’d pine for those days on the diamond.

“Coming home watching SportsCenter and seeing some of your buddies and teammates still playing and you’re in class with a bunch of 18-to-22 year olds, it was a tough adjustment that first year,” Shaffar said.

Nevertheless, he’s found contentment in his new life and has no regrets about his playing career. After graduating in 2009, he promptly landed a job at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. He’s ascended the ranks already, now serving as the department’s director of agritourism – a position he has held for nearly two years. There, he fights for agriculture-friendly legislation, regularly interacts with community members who need assistance and coordinated an Earth Day event attended by Bill Clinton. Shaffar got to shake a president’s hand, not for winning a World Series ring, but for the impact he’s made on his state.  

“Ben is going to do well,” Bradley said. “This guy is sharp.”

He is no longer on the road for weeks at a time. Gone are summers where he plays more than 70 away games. He works steady hours and is a constant presence for Suzanne and their 3-year-old daughter. The security and stability his job provides is a welcome change from the volatile nature of minor league baseball, where he bounced around eight minor league teams in four Major League organizations.

“I can’t imagine him being gone the way he was during baseball now that we have family,” Suzanne said. “Even though baseball still is his first love, he’s trying to make himself something other than Ben Shaffar, the baseball player.”

Part of him will always be that baseball player, he admits. But his world has expanded, his potential no longer limited by 60 sixty-feet, 6-inches. For that, Ben Shaffar – baseball player, father, government executive, college graduate – is grateful:

“Not many kids get to live their dream and then say, ‘What do you want to do with the rest of your life?’ ”

 

Worth the wait

More than 10,000 NCAA student-athletes who left college early have returned to school to finish their degrees since the advent of the Academic Progress Rate.

That trend was fueled when Division I as part of its academic reform effort in the last decade approved a “delayed graduation point” that provides teams with an “extra” point in the current APR calculation for every former student-athlete, dating back to 2003-04, who returns to campus and earns a degree. Allowing what is essentially the restoration of a point lost when a student-athlete left without graduating, the policy is intended to encourage schools to find former student-athletes who left close to a degree and help them earn their diploma.

The decision to go back is mutually beneficial. The student-athlete benefits by having the reminder of his or her education subsidized by the school via work-study and through the NCAA Degree-Completion Award Program. A student-athlete who returns to school and successfully completes a degree benefits the school by earning the delayed graduation point that counts towards an institution’s APR score.