By Kit Ramgopal
Saturday, February 20. 1 p.m.
A skinny right-hander wearing large glasses steps onto the pitcher’s mound at Klein Field. His silhouette leaks long and lanky into the dirt in the high afternoon sun, overwhelming his 6-foot-4, 160-pound frame which swims under a baggy “34” Stanford jersey. Freshman Tristan Beck stares down his catcher, Bryce Carter. He’s ready to throw the first pitch of Stanford baseball’s 2016 season in front of 1,884 fans.
It’s not a whole new ballgame for the all-state high school pitcher, but it’s close to one. College baseball means a different plate size, different hitter strength and a much different intensity from what he knows.
The learning curve is steep; Beck is only the second freshman since 1988 to start on Opening Day for Stanford.
Fullerton leadoff hitter Josh Vargas cracks Beck’s pitch into left-center, teasing a single out of the Stanford defense within the first few minutes. There’s a lull in the opening-day chattering — a loaded silence that is all too familiar to veterans of Stanford baseball, who struggled to a 10th-place finish in the Pac-12 last year.
“At that point, I was just shaking pretty much,” Beck said. “You can’t flinch or anything. If you move too much, it’s called a balk and the runner can go to second base, so right then I was just trying to control myself.”
Vargas was forced out at second on the next play, and from there, Beck was unstoppable.
“After that, I kind of settled down and found my groove, but there was nothing anyone could do to prepare me for that moment.”
He threw 6.1 scoreless innings, did not surrender a single walk and allowed just two hits in his entire outing. At one point, he even retired 11 straight batters against a veteran-laden Fullerton lineup that had reached the College World Series a year earlier.
Just like that, a freshman had set the tone for Stanford baseball turning over a new leaf.
“From the get-go, there were so many things solidified right there,” says sophomore reliever Colton Hock. “We weren’t going to have the same year as last year.”
Stanford’s 10th-place finish in the Pac-12 last season had been embarrassing for one of the most decorated programs — and coaches — in the history of the sport. With that in mind, starting a freshman on Opening Day may have seemed like a Hail Mary on Stanford’s part.
Sure, ace pitcher and first-round draft prospect Cal Quantrill was still rehabbing from a Tommy John surgery last year. But still, with 15 talented pitchers and one Friday night starting position, there’s a certain competitive edge in the Stanford bullpen. The freshmen don’t usually end up on top.
“It’s always skeptical when you have a freshman going in,” Hock explains. “You just normally don’t do it. It normally doesn’t happen in college baseball.”
It was only when Beck first proved himself against the Fullerton offense that his teammates say they actually believed he was ready for his position as Friday night starter.
After that stunning debut, he was named Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week, making him the first Stanford recipient of this title since first-overall draft pick Mark Appel in 2013.
And he’s proven himself ever since. Just two Fridays ago, Beck struck out eight of the first nine batters in Cal’s conference-best lineup, allowing just three hits in seven scoreless innings. With help from the bullpen and the rest of the starting rotation, Beck and Stanford pitching now stand at the top of the Pac-12 in fewest runs allowed (182), hits (368), shutouts (6), batting average against (.237) and home runs (15) and second in ERA (3.25).
“I think that consistency is what put him in the position he’s in to pitch on Friday. He’s kept us in every game he’s pitched,” says pitching coach Rusty Filter, a 25-year veteran of the sport.
“It’s cutthroat,” Beck says. “Not so cutthroat that it’s no fun, but at the end of the day, you need to do your job or you won’t get playing time. There is a competitive component — everyone wants to be the number-one pitcher.”
What is so special about Tristan Beck? What distinguishes this bespectacled 6-foot-4 guy from SoCal from the rest of the talent in the Stanford bullpen?
I was particularly interested in this question; Tristan and I live in the same freshman dorm, so I’ve known him since my first day at Stanford.
That said, I had no idea how talented he was until the season started.
To me, Tristan is the unsinkable smile in the second-floor corner who always keeps his door open for wandering procrastinators. He’s the hopeful face that peeks into the kitchenette whenever the lounge smells like brownies, the string bean who treats dorm ping pong like a five-unit class — one that he somehow balances along with engineering courses and varsity baseball.
He rarely talks about baseball with his dorm friends, never defined himself in terms of strikeouts and morning workouts. He leaves his success on the mound.
Trapping Tristan in Arrillaga Late Night for an hour and forcing him to talk baseball with me, I am surprised to find that Baseball Tristan is very different than the Tristan I know. He immerses himself in the game entirely, and he takes his teammates along for the ride.
“He’s got a different demeanor about himself,” Hock says. “He’s very outgoing, but he also backs everything up that he says, which originally made him come off as kind of cocky.
“From the beginning, he’d work with each one of us. At first, we sort of took it the wrong way, like, ‘Alright, c’mon, you just got in here and you’re trying to show us how to do certain stuff on the mound.’
“But the thing is, he does understand the game a lot better than most guys, even though he’s young. That took some adjusting to.”
It’s clear Stanford is lucky to have Tristan Beck, especially since he could have just opted to go pro immediately and earn a fat signing bonus out of high school.
In the spring of his senior year of high school, Tristan was entering the draft as a guaranteed first-round draft pick. Baseball America projected him going 28th in its mock draft, though others have speculated he would have gone even higher.
Tristan shocked the baseball world when he withdrew his name the Monday morning before the draft.
If playing baseball is the great American pastime, then it makes sense that playing major league baseball would be the great American daydream. Every tee-ball player has imagined himself pixelated on the big screen on his favorite team’s home field.
Tristan admits that he was no different.
“That’s always been the dream,” he tells me.
He grew up in quiet Corona, California — tucked away an hour and a half east of Los Angeles — coached by his dad until he was 13 years old. His younger brother Brendan, who is committed to Stanford, hits as well as Tristan pitches.
But despite a family identity that has become deeply intertwined with baseball, the Beck brothers have always looked at college baseball, not the major leagues, as their end goal.
“I remember my dad saying, ‘You can work hard and get yourself a baseball scholarship to college, but it’s less than a percentage of one percent that get to play in the major leagues,’” Tristan explains. “So it was never like, ‘Oh, I want to be an MLB superstar.’ It was more like, ‘Get yourself to college.’”
Stanford has also been the dream for Tristan, thanks to a precedent set by mom Lucy (Class of 1984) and older sister Megan (Class of 2010). While his dad and brother represent a large part of his journey with baseball, his mother and sister are long-time advocates of education — specifically a Stanford education.
Tristan says that he was in fifth grade moving his sister into Paloma, her freshman dorm, when he first remembers saying, “Wow, I want to go to Stanford.” In Tristan’s junior year, he signed a letter of intent to play Stanford baseball.
Senior year, however, saw Tristan really begin to emerge as a standout pitcher.
First, it was one scout, and then all of a sudden, it was 75 college scouts; Tristan describes them spilling out from behind the plate, packing the foul lines of a little stadium in Southern California while he pitched over spring break.
It was almost as if Tristan’s two dream futures were crashing into each other, engaged in a wrestling match for control of the next two years or so of his life.
“One day, I’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to Stanford, 100 percent,’” he says. “The next day, I’d wake up and be like, ‘What am I thinking? I want to go to the draft. I want to play baseball,’ so I was back and forth for a long time.
“The most defining factor is how much you value your education. Obviously, with this as my education, I was always really set on going to school,” he continues.
But more went into it than just that. Financial considerations are obviously a big part of the negotiation process for any high-school star. Furthermore, Tristan’s mom and sister were both heavily in favor of him going to school, though he says that his family would have supported him either way.
And, as Tristan knows, the dream of playing in the major leagues is not quite as simple as finding success in the draft. There’s a five- or six-year track to get to the major leagues through the slog of the minor leagues, characterized by long bus rides and high injury rates.
The weekend before the draft opens, teams begin making calls to prospective players to put offers on the table. But when the moment came, he says he never felt that “Awesome, let’s go” feeling. He withdrew from the draft — a series of polite phone calls saying, “Hey, thank you very much, but I want to go to school next year.”
He says he would make the same decision over again in a heartbeat.
Tristan loves the team and he loves college baseball. As I am talking to him in Arrillaga Late Night, his eyes continuously flick to the TV screen behind my head, to the Stanford vs. Cal baseball game.
Tristan is getting over being sick and couldn’t travel with them, but he’s heading down to UCLA to meet them tomorrow. I can tell he’s only half with me as I ask him questions.
Stanford baseball is currently tied for seventh in the Pac-12, hoping to make a late push into an NCAA Regional, the first round of the playoffs. It’s clear his mind is on that.
“Once you get into playoffs, any team can catch fire, and I think we’re built for a good postseason run in the road to the College World Series,” he says.
Record-wise, the 2015-16 season hasn’t been anything special, but the team has absolutely taken some huge steps forward from the futility of last year’s 10th-place finish.
Stanford’s defense — second-worst in the Pac-12 last year — is now second-best in the nation. As mentioned earlier, the pitching staff has led the conference in most meaningful metrics for most of the season.
Yet, the successes of Stanford baseball can’t be broken down in terms of protein powder and practice hours logged; it’s hidden in the professionalism and cohesiveness of the team — “one tight-knit family,” in Tristan’s words. There is often a division between upperclassmen and underclassmen in college sports teams, but not this year.
“No one treats any of the freshmen, including Tristan, like a freshman,” Hock says. “I think a part of that is because the freshmen have done so well this year — you can name some way they’ve all provided for this team, whether at practice or games.
“A lot of times, that’s not the case, but our coaches are willing to give them a chance. They kind of threw them out there and were like, ‘Hey, sink or swim.’
“The freshmen went out there and all pretty much proved themselves. Everyone is on the same page — it’s about the team this year.”
The interesting thing about college baseball is that while any given team is striving to win a championship, a lot of the players on any given team also have individual drives to join the draft after their junior or senior years.
Tristan is eligible at the end of his sophomore year, but has not decided whether he’ll leave Stanford then or continue to postpone the call of professional ball. It’ll depend on his development with baseball, his financial value in the draft, what his family wants, how he’s doing in school. (I cringe when he tells me his major: management science and engineering, a daunting marriage of engineering, business and economics.)
I ask Tristan where he would be at this time, five years from now, in an ideal world.
“I’d probably be playing baseball. I’d probably pitch and win for the Angels. And after the game, I’d change and go out and kiss my wife and my kids, probably two sons, and probably take them out to dinner,” he says with a geeky smile, tipping back in his chair.
“What type of food?” I ask, because I’m getting pretty hungry watching Tristan eat Late Night.
“Mexican food. We’re in SoCal; we’ve gotta get some good Mexican food.”
“Do you think your answer would’ve been different if I’d asked you in high school, like before all the interest from the draft?”
Tristan takes a bite of his breakfast burrito, buying time to ponder the question.
“Honestly, it probably would have been the same. That’s always been the dream, but now it could be more realistic.” He pauses. “That sounds kind of like an asshole thing to say.”
“No it’s not. I mean, it’s true,” I laugh.
He smiles, shrugs. “I don’t know. It’s always been been my dream.”
Grab a breakfast burrito with Kit Ramgopal and tell her your life story, too, at kramgopa ‘at’ stanford.edu.