The Long Journey

At 18 years old, Daniel Ayers was faced with the biggest decision of his life.

Many of his peers were deciding which college to attend while Ayers was trying to figure out if he should accept a college scholarship or pursue a professional baseball career.

Ayers and his baseball buddies, Alex Cooper from Greenwood and Zach Brown from Seymour, were huddled around a computer at Cooper’s house keeping tabs on the 2013 MLB draft just days after Ayers’ Columbus North high school graduation.

Cooper was chosen by the Cincinnati Reds in the 19th round, and Ayers was chosen by the Baltimore Orioles six rounds later. Ayers and his friends left to play a game during an Indianapolis tournament, where Brown pitched a seven-inning shutout before finding out he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 38th round.

“It was a really crazy day,” Ayers said. “A lot of emotion, especially to be surrounded by friends that got taken, too. That was pretty special.”

Both Brown and Cooper decided to attend college instead, and Ayers — who had signed with Western Michigan — did not make his decision until the day before the deadline. A number of different variables that factored into Ayers’ decision, like being offered a good signing bonus. If Ayers was going to choose to skip college, it had to be for something that he felt would help set him up financially later on in life.

The deciding factor that ultimately pushed Ayers to choose the pros was the Orioles offer to pay for four years of college whenever he decides to hang up his baseball glove. Now, Ayers was able to get a three-year head start in the minor leagues that he would not have had if he decided to go to college.

The now-21-year-old went from pitching in front of 100 people in a Bull Dogs uniform to pitching in front of 7,000 fans today. The first time Ayers got a taste of the big crowd was two years ago when he moved up to short-season Class A, and it was his first time coming out of the bullpen as a reliever. Hudson Valley was the league’s second highest attendance ratings and had close to 6,000 fans present when Ayers threw his first pitch with the Aberdeen IronBirds.

“I was pretty amped up,” Ayers said. “I tried not to be too fast and get ahead of myself and take a deep breath … My first outing in that atmosphere went really well.”

Ayers just finished his second season in short-season Class A and will be entering his fourth season in the minor leagues. He said there are guys like Bryce Harper who make it to the major leagues at 19, but there are many who play their first game when they are close to 30.

“That’s the good thing about baseball — there is 1,000 different players that come in every year,” Ayers said. “Somebody is always gunning for that next spot … everybody has their own story.”

Ayers never takes for granted the opportunity he has to play professional baseball but said there are many misconceptions about being drafted to the minor leagues. Many people may think being picked in the MLB draft means earning a wealthy salary, which is usually not the case in the minor leagues. He said there are a plethora of baseball players, and there is only so much money to go around.

The past three offseasons, Ayers has come back to Columbus and worked full-time at Toyota Industrial. This allows him to focus solely on baseball when the season starts and know that he is financially stable.

Ayers plays in front of thousands of fans, so signing autographs after games comes with the territory. But he said it is not as glamorous as some expect.

“People think that I’m going on planes for these trips and stuff like that,” Ayers said. “You do have a lot of fans and sign autographs, but we take Greyhound buses.”

A typical trip for Ayers during the season is an 8-10 hour bus ride with 40 of his teammates pulling into a hotel at 6 a.m. before playing a 4 p.m. game. There can be early morning and late nights in the minor leagues, but Ayers is granted an opportunity to play a game that he has loved since he was 4 at an extreme high level.

“It’s still baseball, and I love doing it,” Ayers said. “I wouldn’t trade in my minor league experience for anything … You can’t put a price tag on relationships that you build. That’s the wonderful thing about sports. This stuff will last a lifetime.”

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Name: Daniel Ayers

Age: 21

High school: Columbus North

Minor League team: Abrerdeen IronBirds (short-season Class A)

Position: Pitcher

Year drafted: 2013 by the Baltimore Orioles

Fastball: 90-94 mph