Tears of joy ran down Roseann Esposito’s face. Her eldest son was going to play pro baseball. His dream was coming true.
But shortly after Jason Esposito was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the seventh round of the 2008 MLB Draft, Roseann began to feel differently.
“I did want him to go to school, and I didn’t want him to pass up the opportunity, because I’m sure there is life after baseball,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that he had something to fall back on if his baseball dream or job didn’t take him to higher places.”
Roseann wasn’t alone. These thoughts crept into Jason’s mind, too.
The high school senior at Amity High in Bethany, Conn., already had signed a national letter of intent to play at Vanderbilt. If he signed a contract with the Royals, he was guaranteed a $1.5 million signing bonus. His commitment to Vanderbilt would have been nullified. Initially, he planned to take the money.
“I was kind of scared,” he said. “I was 17, going to go play pro ball. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to be away from my parents. … especially [at age] 17, 18 just go off by myself in the big, bad world.”
As well, attending college was important for Jason in order to have “education to fall back on.”
It didn’t hurt that the Commodores had a record of producing early-round draft picks. In that same 2008 draft, in fact, Pedro Alvarez was picked second overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates to play third base, Esposito’s position.
If that wasn’t enough, Vanderbilt showed it wanted him. Just days after the draft, Vanderbilt head coach
Tim Corbin flew to Connecticut to reassure him about the college experience.
Corbin didn’t travel alone either. He brought along his wife, Maggie, and the couple drove with Esposito’s father, Mike, to watch Jason play in an all-star game before they had dinner at the Espositos’ home.
“When the head coach comes to your house with his wife, that means a lot,” Mike Esposito said. “No college coach’s wife is going to come and do that. She really cares about the boys. … You send your kids to Vanderbilt, you are sending them to a class act with Corbin and the whole coaching staff.”
Later that night, Esposito told his parents he was headed to Nashville. Three years later, the soon-to-be 21-year-old leads the Commodores into an NCAA Regional this weekend with hopes of reaching the school’s first College World Series.
With tremendous range at third and a powerful arm, Esposito has blossomed into “probably the best third baseman I have ever had the opportunity to coach,” Corbin said. The right-hander is a threat at the plate, with 23 home runs and 156 RBIs (as of last week). He has started every game in three years.
Esposito is expected to be in high demand during the MLB Draft on June 6-8. Some mock-draft websites project he’ll be selected late in the first round.
“I’m sure he’ll have that opportunity, but you wouldn’t know it,” Vanderbilt outfielder Connor Harrell said. “He doesn’t talk about it.”
Soft-spoken in front of a tape recorder and hesitant to speak about individual accolades, Jason enjoys the chance to be on a national championship contender. But he’s not without an edge.
“He plays with a chip on his shoulder. You know what? That’s OK,” Corbin said. “I don’t want that to be any different than the way Roberto Clemente played or Pete Rose played. Those guys played with a ferocity that was a little bit different than most, and I like that in his game.”
Earlier this month, in a game against Florida, Jason exchanged words with Austin Maddox. That was after the Gators’ first baseman appeared to enjoy his post-homer victory jog around the bases a bit too much for Jason’s liking.
“He doesn’t have a lot of patience for nonsense,” said his mother.
His passion comes from a ball-playing family. His father played baseball and his mother softball in high school. His uncle Joe was an all-state centerfielder. Jason’s brother, Mark, will start his collegiate baseball career at Marshall in the fall. So naturally, at the age of 2, Jason had a wiffle bat in his hands in the backyard, swinging at pitches from his mother.
“It was a nightmare, because that’s all he wanted to do,” Roseann said.
Like any baseball junkie, Jason became obsessed with the gam. Roseann said he fell asleep with bats, helmets and gloves around him. Growing up in a Yankees household in the mid-’90s was exciting, too, and Jason didn’t want to miss any of it — staying up late to watch World Series games.
He spent countless hours on the diamond. The hard work opened doors to other opportunities. He was a high school All-American and the Gatorade Player of the Year in 2008 and played summer ball for Mark Holtzman and the South Florida Bandits. He’s played in the prestigious Cape Cod League the past two summers. In 2010, he was a late addition to Team USA, which was playing in the world championships in Japan.
“The day he got that call ... he had one foot out the door,” Mike Esposito said. “I think the only thing he has really wanted was to put the Team USA shirt on.”
The past three years have given Jason experiences he wouldn’t have encountered if he’d have taken the Royals’ cash back in 2008 . Even if Jason is playing elsewhere next spring, he hopes to complete his degree in organizational management. He would be the first of his immediate family to do so.
“I think that is going to mean more to him than anything right now — that he actually got a college degree,” Mike said. “He actually became a better student going to Vandy than he was in high school.”