Love of game finally pays off for Van Deelen
Every morning for four years, Mike Van Deelen had to leave his Kansas City apartment early to drive his son Matt to school. The trouble was, Matt lived in Eudora but attended school at Shawnee Mission West.
The reason? It was all about baseball.
"When Matt was about 10, he started playing baseball for a regional tournament team," his father said, "and he had become good friends with a lot of the kids that he played with. So when it was time to go to high school, Matt decided that he wanted to keep playing with them.
"I had a job in Kansas City that had a residency requirement, so he was able to live in Eudora and attend Shawnee Mission West."
That dedication finally paid off.
Last Wednesday, Matt Van Deelen signed a letter of intent to play baseball at traditional NCAA power Oklahoma State University for the 2005-2006 season.
For Matt, it was a step to the next level that his father has watched for 19 years.
"He's had a ball in his hand since he was 4 years old," his father said.
Even at that early age, Matt wanted to get a taste of the big leagues.
"We lived in Georgia when he was about 4, and we went to this sporting goods store where there was a line of people snaking out the door," Mike said. "It seemed that there was a Major League Baseball player signing autographs. Matt disappeared, and we were frantic. We thought he had been kidnapped.
"We finally found him, and it turned out that he had gone to get in line for this player's autograph."
That player was Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine.
From then on, Matt set out to play baseball. He practiced throwing constantly, even in cold weather.
"We would rent him a pitching tunnel so he could pitch year round," Van Deelen said. "He knew he'd have to pitch in the cold. He took it very seriously."
At Shawnee Mission West High School, Matt turned that dedication into a flurry of accolades, including first team All-Sunflower League and All-Metro Honorable Mention. He was also named to the Shawnee Mission West all-time offensive team as a pitcher.
It was these honors that earned Matt an invitation to a summer camp at Wichita State University before his senior year. It was a place where many baseball eyes would be watching.
"There were a lot of scouts from a lot of colleges there," his father said.
The University of Arkansas initially recruited the pitcher after the camp, and Matt was poised to sign. But the coach retired, which left the young right-hander unsure of his destination.
That left the door open for Dave Burroughs, head coach of Cowley County Community College, who invited the Van Deelens to visit the campus.
Cowley County, in Arkansas City, has turned out the likes of Junior Spivey and Travis Hafner. Both are now in the majors, Spivey with the Milwaukee Brewers and Hafner with the Cleveland Indians.
The Van Deelen family agreed to take Burroughs up on his recruitment trip offer and made the long drive to the campus -- south of Wichita near the Oklahoma border -- worth it.
"We got there and Matt couldn't believe how good the players were," his father said. "We saw the catcher throw straight into center field while he was still crouching."
Matt didn't need to see any more: He signed that day.
But even for someone who had played for so long, there were obstacles. Matt soon discovered that moving on to the next level came with some harsh realities.
"He came to me after throwing for a while," Mike said, "and he told me that he didn't know how to pitch. He realized that the level of talent in college was superior to that of high school players."
The right-hander soon turned that realization into college production. In his first year as a Cowley County pitcher, Matt posted some impressive rankings. In the spring of 2004, he was ranked the No. 1 pitcher in Region Six of the National Junior College Athletic Association and 11th nationally.
These rankings got the attention of another baseball coach, Frank Anderson of Oklahoma State. The Cowboy's head coach recruited Matt culminating with last week's letter of intent signing.
Through every step of Matt's baseball career, his father lent him support but never pressured him.
"You can't push your kids into doing something," Mike said. "You have to support them in what they decide to do and just tell them to do their best and to have fun."
Now that his son has reached the next step in the baseball ladder, Mike Van Deelen tried not to think about the big step, the major leagues.
"We try not to talk about it," he said. "I mean, every kid has dreams of getting there, and Matt knows that this is just one more level. But if he does make it, I might just send him a bill for four years worth of gas money."