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Zach Pekale | | September 4, 2020

9 of college baseball's best walk-ons

All 18 strikeouts from Shane Bieber's 2016 postseason with UCSB

Playing time for scholarship athletes in college baseball can be hard to come by. It becomes more like finding a needle in a haystack when it comes to a walk-on seeing the field. Despite limited opportunity, these nine walk-ons found a way to earn a spot before leaving a memorable impact on college baseball.

Note: Players' professional careers were not taken into consideration. Players were selected based on collegiate statistics, accolades and obstacles faced to earn playing time.

Shane Bieber — UC Santa Barbara (2014-16)

UCSB Shane Bieber prepares to deliver a pitch.Shane Bieber led UC Santa Barbara to the 2016 College World Series.

Bieber walked on to pitch at UC Santa Barbara in 2014 and worked his way into the weekend rotation by the middle of that same season. He became one of the more consistent Sunday starters as a sophomore, racking up 12 quality starts and holding a share of the Big West lead in wins at the end of the year. But few could foresee the jump coming. Bieber stepped into the Friday night role and became an ace for the Gauchos. He won 12 games and struck out 109 batters against 16 walks, pitching into the eighth inning in 14 of his final 15 starts. Bieber's dominance earned him Second Team All-America honors and was the driving force of UCSB's run to the 2016 College World Series.

Bieber finished his UCSB career with 23 wins, 300 innings pitched, 237 strikeouts and a 2.73 ERA — all top-10 rankings in program history. After three collegiate seasons, Bieber was selected in the fourth round of the 2016 MLB Draft. 

David Eckstein — Florida (1994-97)

David Eckstein digs into the batter's box.David Eckstein was a two-time All-American at Florida after walking onto the team.

Long before he was a World Series MVP or even a two-time All American, David Eckstein's college career started with a tryout at Florida in 1994. The undersized infielder made the cut before needing additional time to break into the Gators' starting lineup. But once Eckstein earned a spot as a middle infielder he rarely gave up it, starting 190 of the 199 games he played.

His most productive season came in 1996. Eckstein hit .338 with nine home runs and 60 runs batted in, guiding the Gators to a third-place finish at the College World Series. He finished the year by breaking the school's single-season record for at-bats (302) and hits (102). Eckstein left Gainesville after three seasons but not before etching his name throughout the record books as he ranks third all-time in runs (222), fifth in hits (276), second in stolen bases (93) and first in defensive assists (675).

Eckstein was taken in the 19th round of the 1997 MLB draft.

Brett Gardner — College of Charleston (2002-05)

Brett Gardner rounds the bases for College of Charleston.Brett Gardner walked on at College of Charleston before hitting over .400 as a senior.

One of 26 players trying out for College of Charleston, Gardner didn't make the cut. But a second chance from coach John Pawlowski was enough to warrant a place on the team. In the four years that followed, the once-undersized outfielder transformed into a lethal hitter and a lineup mainstay for the Cougars.

Gardner batted .241 in limited action as a freshman, a number that jumped to .397 as a junior before surging to .447 in his final season. He also ripped off a 25-game hitting streak in 2005 while swiping 38 bases as College of Charleston reached the NCAA tournament. Gardner was taken in the third round of the 2005 MLB Draft, finishing his CofC career with 217 games played, 297 hits and 96 stolen bases.

Darryl Hamilton — Nicholls State (1984-1986)

Hamilton's path to college baseball was unconventional. His high school didn't have a baseball program, but that didn't stop him from trying out for and making the team at Nicholls State. Despite a lack of experience, Hamilton found his footing with the Colonels as an outfielder.

His strongest season was in 1985. Hamilton was a First Team All-Gulf Star Conference selection after hitting .379, one of six offensive categories he led Nicholls State in. The others were runs (65), hits (77), stolen bases (52), triples (5) and walks (38). Hamilton was drafted in the 11th round of the 1986 MLB Draft. 

Ryan Howard — Missouri State (1999-2001)

Missouri State's Ryan Howard checks his swing.Ryan Howard was a Freshman All-American at Missouri State.

Howard was invited to Southwest Missouri State, now Missouri State, as a walk-on. The hard-hitting first baseman took the NCAA by storm and was named MVC Freshman of the Year as well as a Freshman All-America selection. Howard only got better, hitting a career-best .379 the following year. 

Howard finished as one of the top sluggers in program history with 50 home runs and 183 runs batted in on top of a .335 batting average. He was selected in the fifth round of the 2001 MLB Draft and won the National League MVP award in 2006.

Eric Karros  — UCLA (1986-88)

Karros arrived in Westwood just before the Bruins consistently began reaching the postseason. The first baseman made the team as a walk-on and played sparingly, showing glimpses of the poise and power he'd later demonstrate over 14 Major League seasons. Once inserted into the starting lineup, Karros' production only continued to improve.  

He hit .312 with eight home runs and 57 runs batted in, but it was only a precursor to his final season. Karros' average jumped more than 100 points to .415 and he clubbed 17 home runs, more than double the previous year. Karros left UCLA after the 1988 season and was drafted in the sixth round of the 1988 MLB Draft. He was named NL Rookie of the Year in 1992.

George Sisler — Michigan 1913-1915

George Sisler at Michigan during the 1910s.George Sisler walked on at Michigan to begin a Hall of Fame baseball career.

Freshmen weren't able to play college baseball when Sisler enrolled at Michigan. His career informally began with him playing first-year intramurals, which caught the eye of UM coach Branch Rickey. Sisler joined the varsity team in 1913 and made an immediate impact, batting .445 and helping the Wolverines win 21 games.

When Rickey went to manage in the majors, Carl Lundgren took over and helped further develop Sisler, who pitched in addition to playing first base and in the outfield. Sisler finished his career in Ann Arbor batting .404 on top of a 13-3 record on the mound. He went on to be a two-time American League MVP and was later named to the inaugural class inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Ozzie Smith — Cal Poly 1974-77

Baseball fans might not have been captivated by The Wizard for nearly two decades had Ozzie Smith not made the cut at Cal Poly, where he went from walk-on to the defensive sorcerer he's remembered as. Smith anchored the Mustangs' infield for four years, playing 195 games — the fourth most in school history.

Smith's quickness translated to more than his glove as he remains the program leader in stolen bases after swiping a school-record 44 bags twice. At the plate, he hit a career-best .308 during an All-American campaign in 1976 and finished with 754 at-bats. Smith was a fourth round pick in the 1977 MLB Draft and went on to have a Hall of Fame, 19-year career highlighted by 13 Gold Gloves.

John Valentin — Seton Hall 1986-88

Valentin earned his spot at Seton Hall through a tryout. He came to South Orange with a steady glove and developed his bat as a freshman, hitting .296 in a lineup that featured Craig Biggio. The following year, Valentin, Biggio and Mo Vaughn played together, leading Seton Hall to a Big East championship.

By Valentin's final year, his value at the plate was nearly equal to his defense. The junior's batting average skyrocketed to .392 with 21 doubles and 52 runs batted in, earning him All-America honors. Valentin was drafted in the fifth round of the 1988 MLB Draft.

Are there any other former baseball walk-ons you think deserve mention? Let us know why here and we'll consider them for our next update.

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