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Rick Houston | | May 25, 2015

Light at the end of the tunnel

  Steve Naemark has a a 10-1 record with an ERA of 1.46 so far this season for Angelo State.

CARY, N.C. -- Angelo State's Steve Naemark felt trapped, living every single day the very same way as the one that had come before it.

Working at one fast-food joint after another was a monotonous routine, and far removed from what he’d known as a star pitcher back at his Tuscon, Arizona high school. What’s worse, he’d had a chance to begin a college baseball career only to have it yanked out from under him at the last minute.

The coach who signed him to play at Central Arizona Junior College left for another job, and when his replacement contacted Naemark a month before school started, he said he wasn’t interested. Naemark couldn’t afford to walk on anywhere, and for the first time in his life, had to step away from the game.

He started working and while he somehow managed to scrape up enough money for a few community college classes, it didn’t work out. What happened next became a four-year odyssey of what was for him an almost complete nothingness. One restaurant gave way to another, and there were at least a couple of stints as a telemarketer in there, too.

Naemark’s dad was ill, and he was going his part to help the family get by.

“The best way I can describe is that there was just no light at the end of the tunnel,” Naemark said. “You’re sitting there working those jobs and picture yourself five years from now. It’s really unsettling to know that you could very well be doing the same thing that you’re doing and have progressed nowhere. You realize you could potentially waste your whole life doing those things. That was rough. I had no options.”

Baseball, Naemark says, was the love of his life. He missed the game, and he missed it desperately. One night as he worked the drive-through window, a friend came through who had just so happened to make it into professional baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

It was a revelatory moment for Naemark.

If he can play baseball, so can I. I was better than he was in high school. He just persevered and waited to get his opportunity.

There was a summer league starting up in the summer of 2012, and Naemark took his next fast-food paycheck and paid the $285 entry fee. Told he probably wouldn’t get any playing time and that the league didn’t want to just take his money, Naemark wouldn’t budge.

He knew he would be able to prove himself.

Doug Jones, a former major leaguer, was the coach. He put Naemark at first base, and while he gave it everything he had, it wasn’t the mound. He told Jones that he’d pitched in high school, to no avail.

We’ve got enough arms.

Those are famous last words in baseball. He threw a bullpen or two, and the next thing Naemark knew, he was pitching every other day or so in games. What did he care if he got hurt? He had absolutely nothing to lose and went for it like there no tomorrow.

Or no light at the end of the tunnel, either.

A coach for Cochise College showed up to scout the other team’s pitcher as the season wound down. Naemark threw seven solid shutout innings that night, and afterward, was offered a full ride. Bingo. He quit his job at the fast-food restaurant on the spot.

Two years at Cochise turned into two consecutive trips to the JUCO World Series, and that led him to Angelo State, where Naemark has been dominate this season. Sporting a 10-1 record with an ERA of 1.46, he’ll take the mound Monday against Wilmington (Del.) here in an elimination game at the Division II championship.

He’s won an armload of awards this season for his work, but none of them mean more than the chance to play again.

“I don’t take it for granted,” Naemark said. “I realize I’m having the time of my life. There’s not a day goes by that I’m not extremely thankful for where I am right now. As a 25-year-old adult, I’m extremely lucky to be playing college baseball and still having fun.”

It can get hot in the San Angelo, Texas sun, making sprints miserable for some. Not Naemark. He once had the game ripped from his grasp, and if playing again means running sprints in unbearable temperatures, that’s exactly what he’s going to do.

“Even the worst days when I’m out at the field and they’re running my butt off,” Naemark said. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wow. This is tough. I don’t like running.’ I’d still rather run 30 sprints every day than go back to flipping burgers. It’s a constant reminder to enjoy every little bit of this.”

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