Last summer, Matt Milburn was preparing to pursue his master’s degree at Wake Forest when he got the call. He’d been chosen in the 29th round of the minor league baseball draft by the Oakland Athletics.
Suddenly his education went to the backburner in favor of a life filled with long bus rides to destinations such as Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, plus a one-bathroom apartment he shares with three roommates.
Indeed, it’s his passion for baseball that has led Milburn down a different path from the average Highland Park High School graduate. In April, Milburn began pitching for the Beloit Snappers, a Class A minor league franchise in southern Wisconsin.
“I chose baseball,” Milburn said. “I’m not going to get this opportunity ever again. There’s a million people who want to be in your position. You have to love the game to go through this.”
After graduating from HPHS in 2012, Milburn emerged as a legitimate professional prospect during a four-year stint playing for Wofford College in South Carolina. He became an all-conference pitcher after starting mostly at shortstop for the Scots.
Shortly after wrapping up his senior season, he signed with the Athletics and made 14 appearances on the mound split between the rookie league team in Arizona and the Class-A Vermont Lake Monsters.
“It definitely was a learning experience at the very beginning,” Milburn said. “It was a completely different lifestyle than anything I’ve ever been a part of.”
The grind was grueling. There weren’t many days off for rest, and the amenities were few. Yet Milburn showed promise, registering 44 strikeouts in his first 36 innings.
“The minor league life is something you have to embrace. We’re on a bus a lot and staying in hotels. You just have to take every day as it comes,” he said. “The job is pretty cutthroat, so you have to make sure you have a daily focus.”
During the minor league spring training this year, Milburn interacted with some coaches and executives with the big league club before being assigned to Beloit.
“I was just looking forward to another opportunity. It’s definitely been a lot of fun,” he said. “Just to see the big league guys has been really humbling.”
Milburn, 23, admits the dynamic is a bit strange in the minor leagues, knowing that his teammates and friends he supports are also his competitors for upward mobility within the organization.
Because he likes Oakland’s commitment to player development, Milburn is paying his dues and trying to take advantage of the opportunity, even if his statistical chances of playing in major league baseball one day might be slim.
And although he’s postponed a potentially lucrative business career, he said he pays attention to the many parallels between business and the baseball diamond. In both worlds, a stretch of bad games can be costly.
“You’re trying to get better at your craft, but you also have to perform in order to make a team,” he said. “It’s the most competitive environment I’ve ever been in.”