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Three names that should be familiar to Pepperdine baseball fans will once again be Pepperdine students. Chase d’Arnaud, Zach Vincej and Manny Jefferson are coming back after leaving early to pursue professional baseball careers to complete their Pepperdine degrees and graduate.
All three were drafted following their junior seasons and made the decisions to leave school early to chase the dream of playing in Major League Baseball. d’Arnaud played seven years in the Majors with six different teams, Vincej reached the pinnacle of the sport for nine games in 2017 with the Cincinnati Reds and one game in 2018 with the Seattle Mariners, and Jefferson is still on the quest of making it. He is currently signed to play in the independent Frontier League, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans.
Head coach Rick Hirtensteiner is ecstatic to see former players coming back to finish their degrees.
“I think the guys coming back is part of the process of what we want to have happen,” the sixth-year head coach said. “No matter how long they play, and even if they make enough money in pro ball to support themselves, the goal is to graduate from college and get your degree. There is still life after baseball, no matter where you finish.”
D'Arnaud played a total of seven years in Major League Baseball. He was drafted in 2008 by the Pittsburgh Pirates and made his debut in 2011.
“I got an offer that I felt like I couldn’t refuse,” said d’Arnaud of his 2008 drafting by the Pirates. “You have a lot more leverage as a junior because you have the option of coming back and completing your senior year. So, in 2008 I signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates and my professional career started pretty quickly. I made my debut in 2011 with the Pirates at PNC Park (home of the Pirates) against the Boston Red Sox.”
His first career hit came that same game: a triple off of Red Sox and Cubs veteran pitcher Jon Lester.
“Pepperdine is a very special place, and I really missed the community,” said d’Arnaud about his return to the classroom. “Everyone at Pepperdine made me a better person, especially the professors. It has been made so obvious to me that now was the right time to finish my degree. I was originally planning on returning next fall, but because of COVID-19, I thought it was the perfect time to come back and finish. I run a media production company, and because of COVID, things slowed down for me, so it was the perfect time to come back.”
Coming back to school, while an easy decision for d’Arnaud, still took a lot of planning. He founded and is the creative director, producer and videographer for the d’Arnaud Media Group, working with brands such as Baseballism, More Than Baseball and Turn 2 Equity Partners, to produce short films and series showing the lives of professional baseball players.
“I had a tough time on deciding when to come back to school because I have a business partner who is relying on me and my skills to work,” said d’Arnaud. “I felt bad about telling him my choice to come back to school now, but it is really going to enhance everything I am going to do moving forward. It’s going to benefit the people that I service just as much as myself.”
Vincej left Pepperdine in 2012 after being drafted by, and signing with, the Cincinnati Reds.
“I felt like it was the appropriate time to try and achieve my dreams,” Vincej said of being drafted. “My whole life I had been wanting to play professional baseball and make it to the Major Leagues, and felt like, at the time, it was probably the best opportunity for me to do that.”
After getting drafted, Vincej spent five and a half years in the Minor Leagues before getting his call up to the Majors. In 2017, he appeared in nine games for the Reds, collecting his first career Big-League hit on Sept. 30 against Pedro Strop of the Chicago Cubs.
Coming back to Pepperdine to finish his degree was always in his plan.
“I knew that I wanted to come back and finish, I just didn’t know when,” said Vincej. “All of my focus at the time was to try to make it to the Major Leagues and play baseball, so school was kind of put on the back burner for the moment. I knew that it was extremely important to have the degree, so I knew I would come back to finish down the road. I didn’t know when it would be, but here we are, and I am excited about the future.”
Vincej retired from professional baseball after the 2018 season to pursue a career in coaching.
“Life moves on and you have to adapt,” Vincej said. “I didn’t want to sit around anymore and wait for something to happen; I needed to make things happen for myself, and to me, school was the best option.”
To Vincej, coaching was a logical step. He wants to help college baseball players not only improve their game between the lines, but also help set them up for success outside of baseball.
“I am getting my degree in public relations,” said Vincej when asked about his major. “I see a lot of similarities in public relations and communication with playing pro ball, so it is transitioning pretty nicely.”
“I can absolutely see my degree helping me in my pursuit of coaching. It is all about communication. Learning how to communicate with players and helping them on the field, but also in life in general – especially moving on from the baseball world. I think that being able to coach the game of baseball and help with life skills at the same time is very valuable.”
Vincej will join d’Arnaud on the Pepperdine baseball staff as an undergraduate assistant coach, something that Hirtensteiner is very optimistic about.
“I think it is great for our current guys who want to play pro ball to see Zach and Chase coming back, as well as (assistant coach) Danny Worth, who has already completed his degree,” said Hirtensteiner. “They see them coming back to finish their degrees after their baseball careers. On the baseball side, I think they are great examples as well, because they are so much closer to the game as far as years removed from playing. Adding Zach and Chase makes it three guys on staff who have played in the Big Leagues, and most of them are within the last five years.”
Jefferson was a three-year standout with the Waves before getting drafted in 2016. He reached the High-A level with the Arizona Diamondbacks before being released in 2018. After taking a year off of baseball, he was signed to the Frontier League, an independent baseball league that takes place in the Midwest and Northeast regions of the United States, as well as two cities in Eastern Canada.
“Finishing my degree was definitely a priority for me,” said Jefferson. “I didn’t know exactly when I would come back and finish, but with everything happening right now, it felt like a perfect opportunity. The COVID-19 pandemic absolutely had an impact on coming back to school, and everything being online really made it an easy decision.”
After the Frontier League season was cancelled, Jefferson was approached by a small, unaffiliated league designed to keep players’ games sharp in preparation for either next year’s hopeful return to Minor League baseball, or for players heading to independent leagues.
“The first two weeks (of the semester), I was playing in a small league to keep sharp and not sit around waiting for an entire year,” said Jefferson. “Managing playing every day with online classes was kind of tough, but now that I am back home (after the league ended), everything is going pretty smooth.”
Jefferson is completing his advertising degree at Pepperdine this year.
“I think guys coming back stresses the importance of a Pepperdine degree and what it can do for you when you get it,” Hirtensteiner said of former players coming back to finish. “There are guys from all different eras who are willing to come back and finish that last year in order to get that degree. I think it says a lot about our program, and a lot about this university.”
— Ricky Davis