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Mudville: May 23, 2024 6:13 pm PDT

Eric Valent

"I feel very fortunate that baseball is still a huge part of my life at 46 years old.”

When you think about the most fertile ground in the United States for developing Major League Baseball players, it’s hard to top the greater Los Angeles area. You can start with Walter Johnson, George Brett and Tony Gwynn and go from there.

UCLA athletics is another bastion of the sports world where greatness is fostered. Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, John Wooden, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are not just iconic Bruins, they transcend their sports and are towering figures in American history.

When you can make your own mark in the Orange County world of baseball and at UCLA, it’s pretty damn impressive.

Eric Valent did just that and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.

Before Valent embarked on his major league career as a player and scout, he put up numbers on the prep and collegiate level that rival just about anyone who came before or after him.

After being the only player from Orange County to qualify for junior Team USA in high school, Valent went on to a record-setting career at UCLA.

Twenty-five years after playing his last game for the Bruins, Valent is still the career home run leader for the PAC-12 with 69. Reggie Jackson, Mark McGwire nor Barry Bonds hold the mark; Eric Valent does. In fact, nobody has even threatened the mark this century. Xavier Nady came the closest in 2000, but he still fell 12 homers short.

Valent is also one of just three players to hit 30 home runs in a season in PAC-12 history (McGwire and Troy Glaus being the others) and he’s the only player to ever hit at least 25 home runs in a season twice.

After his career at UCLA, Valent played eight years professionally, five of which came in the major leagues. Since his baseball career ended, he has been a valuable member of the scouting departments for the Phillies and Marlins.

As you can tell, he has had a tremendous baseball life and continues to find success in the sport, so please join us as we go Spitballin’ with Eric Valent.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Valent! Looking forward to diving into your UCLA career and talking Major League Baseball with you, but let’s go back to your childhood first. What was baseball like for you growing up as a kid in Southern California?

I grew up in Orange County and my dad introduced me into sports. I started playing baseball and soccer when I was about five years old. I did my two years of tee ball and then Single A was kid pitch, then AA and 10-12 was majors. Then after that it was Pony League and then in high school I was exposed to better baseball. I loved going to the park as a kid.

I played a lot of soccer growing up too. My dad wanted me to play multiple sports, but baseball was my true love growing up. We didn’t play too much organized baseball back then. We played about 12 league games and then All-Stars we’d maybe play two or three games before we got eliminated. A lot of our ball was played in the streets. We played catch, played Wiffle Ball, pickle and those types of games. It wasn’t such a concern about organized game.

Did you have any favorite players or teams growing up?

I was an Angels fan, but my favorite player was Don Mattingly. My grandfather had given me a Yankees hat when I was about seven years old, and I started growing an affection for Don Mattingly. He was a left-handed batter and I loved the way he played. I watched him as much as I could and followed the box scores of his games.

From the best of times to the lowest of times, the only thing I would have done differently is to allow myself to have a little bit more fun. That’s what I try to stress to the young kids today.

You had a great high school career and by the time you were a senior, you were one of the best players in Southern California. How did your high school years help you develop as a player?

I played freshman football in the fall because if you took a sport, you didn’t have to take PE! I only did that one year though and then stuck with soccer and baseball. I started getting into some travel summer ball too, but only in California. We didn’t travel out of state. It wasn’t like it is today where it’s such a business, which is what youth sports is today. I started playing Connie Mack and being in California, I got to play in some scout leagues. I was playing in those when I was a freshman in high school. I’d be playing against junior college kids sometimes. It was an opportunity to face tough competition and I got it handed to me pretty well, especially when I was young. I just didn’t have the strength some of the older kids had. Then I played on the junior Team USA. I made that team after my junior year and I played after my senior year of high school too. It was a great experience playing other countries and playing with high school kids from across the country.

That’s an incredible experience to be able to represent your country like that. I noticed you were the only guy from Orange County to make the team, despite many future MLB players also being from there. How did that all come about?

The 1994 one was in St. Louis. I filled out some form and John Rodgers, who was the West Coast contact for [Team USA] and the coach at Saddleback Junior College, would use his contacts to see who some of the better high school players were. I was fortunate enough to make the West team. There were teams from the North, South and East too and we’d play a round robin against each other and the team got picked from them.

I was fortunate enough to make the team and there were some great players who didn’t; Troy Glaus, Roy Halladay, Seth Etherton and some other guys didn’t make the team. It’s crazy to think of some of the talent that didn’t make the club. We ended up winning a silver medal. Some of the big leaguers that did make the team were Randy Wolf, David Ross, Ben Davis, Ryan Freel.

Then the next year we won the gold medal. The tournament was in Cape Cod and the finals were in Fenway Park, so that was a great experience. Brad Wilkerson, Matt White, Jody Gerut and some other big leaguers were on that team and we were fortunate enough to win the gold medal.

1998: Eric Valent of the UCLA Bruins at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles, California. UCLA defeated Portland State 4-3. (Harry How /Allsport)

That success led you to UCLA, where you’re a baseball legend. I’m sure with your background you were slated as a high draft pick too, but it looked like you were pretty set on UCLA. What was your thought process of choosing college over starting your pro career?

If I would have made myself available and said I wasn’t going to college, I would have more or less been a third or fourth round pick. At that time, I didn’t think that was worth it to me to bypass college. I knew I could play in college and that I’d put up good numbers and be a higher pick out of college. I wanted to play in the PAC 12, who had UCLA, Stanford, USC, Arizona, Arizona State and Cal. It’s a great baseball conference. I had full ride offers at USC and UCLA but Stanford was my number one choice. I was their top recruit. They came to my house and offered me their max scholarship. My GPA was fine and my SATs were right on the fringe.

I applied and was going to be an exception, but I had to keep all of my honors classes senior year and it was going to be a gauntlet for me to make the marks I needed. About a week into my senior year, I switched out of some of those classes. I called Coach [Mark] Marquess and told him what I did. I said if he could get me in, that would be great, but if not I understood. Stanford went off the table so that left two great options in USC and UCLA. I had friends on both of those clubs and enjoyed my visits to both; but I fell in love with the UCLA campus a little more. I had friends like Pete Zamora, Troy Glaus and Brett Nista and I knew they had a great recruiting class. I wanted to play with them and help put UCLA baseball back on the map.

You not only put them on the map, but you simply had one of the best careers of anyone in UCLA – and really in PAC 12 history. You’re still the all-time PAC 12 career home run leader and UCLA RBI leader. You led them to the 1997 College World Series and were the PAC 12 Player of the Year in 1998. It must be hard to summarize, but can you talk about the career you put together at UCLA?

A lot of that credit goes to Head Coach Gary Adams, who was the perfect coach for me at that time. I never missed a game from the moment I stepped on campus to the moment I left. My freshman year he played me through some of the ups and downs. I played centerfield for three years and was fortunate to put up a lot of numbers. It’s a credit to Gary to help me become that player and sticking with me through some of the early ups and downs. Back then, coaches didn’t make what they’re making now. It was all about going to class, getting good grades and getting guys signed professionally. Winning was important, but it wasn’t the number one thing. It was more about development and growth.

Eric Valent #57 of the New York Mets takes off running on a double by Richard Hidalgo against the Colorado Rockies on August 17, 2004 at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

In 2015 UCLA inducted you into their athletics Hall of Fame. You’re in there alongside guys like Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, John Wooden and so many athletes who transcend sports. When you reflect on the company you’re keeping in the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame, what are your thoughts?

There are plenty of other lesser known athletes too! I don’t belong in that category. That was awesome and something you don’t think about when you’re playing. I was just glad that when I got in that my wife and my boys got to come and see where I went to college and the impact I had there. Hopefully it lit a little fire under them to inspire them to do whatever they want to do with the rest of their lives.

It’s a really incredible you got to share that with your family. Now on to some major league questions. First, can you take us through what it was like being called up and making your major league debut at Fenway Park?

I was in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Goose Gregson was our pitching coach. He had the team cell phone at the time. I was getting ready to take the field and he said, “Wait a second. Stay here, you just got the call and you’re going to the big leagues.” It was a great moment. My first games were interleague games and we were in Fenway to face the Red Sox. The first three starting pitchers I faced in the big leagues were David Cone, Pedro Martinez and Hideo Nomo. It was a big atmosphere with veteran pitchers, but I came out of there 3-10. I got my first hit in my first game against Derek Lowe late in the game. My family was there and it was an awesome feeling to reach the beginning of my goal. I didn’t reach my total goal; I didn’t play as long as I hoped to.

The 2004 season was your first playing for the Mets and they gave you your first extended playing time in the bigs. You played 130 games and had some great moments. It was a tough year for the team though. What was that season like for you?

I was an invite to spring training and I didn’t have to make the team. They could have sent me to AAA. Roger Cedeno was on the team and he was a little bit of a bust the year before as a free agent, so they traded him to the Cardinals at the end of spring training. That opened up a spot for me. It was a perfect role for me. Art Howe used me as an extra guy wherever he needed me.

I got a bigger role later in the season, but it was always against right-handed pitchers. I never faced lefties. I ended up firing on all cylinders that year. I played a little first base and some outfield. I hit three pinch hit homers. Art knew my abilities and what my role was and that was what was needed on that club. I had a great year, but the next year I got exposed a little bit. Mike Cameron and Cliff Floyd were hurt and I was getting put out there a lot. I was playing through a hip problem too and probably should have put myself on the shelf. I started feeling better in May, but I got designated for assignment. I was playing a little more out of necessity of the club and I wasn’t able to capitalize on it.

(Original Caption) The new Reading Phillies alternate uniform is worn by former major leaguer Eric Valent during a fashion show at RACC's Miller Theatre Wednesday, November 14, 2007, in Reading. (Photo By Krissy Krummenacker/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

The team was in transition in 2005 too with Willie Randolph coming in after Art Howe. You mentioned the pinch hit home runs, which Mets fans remember you for. You’re also remembered for hitting for the cycle in 2004 too. If you had to choose which accomplishment  you enjoyed more, would it be the cycle or the pinch hit home runs?

Hitting the cycle for sure. There have only been a few hundred of them. It takes some luck and a certain amount of skill. It is something to look back on and maybe some people can remember it.

After your playing career you got into coaching and are now scouting. Was that something that was always a goal of yours?

I knew if I wasn’t going to stay in the big leagues for a long time that I was going to have to have a career after retirement and I wanted to stay in baseball. That’s what I worked for my whole life. After I retired, I wanted to get into scouting right away, but we wanted to stay in the Northeast too. There wasn’t a scouting job available with the Phillies at the time, so I coached in Williamsport for a year and then an area scout position opened up in 2009 and it was perfect timing. I worked in that area as a scout from 2009-2012 and then became a regional cross-checker with the Phillies from 2013-2017. Then I switched to the Marlins in 2018 and became a national cross-checker and have been with them ever since. I enjoy being in the game and working with great people. I feel very fortunate that baseball is still a huge part of my life at 46 years old.

I can tell you have a great mind for the game, so it’s awesome to see you’re still involved. So you’ve been involved in the game professionally for 25 years and the game has changed so much in that time, especially the past five years or so. How do you adapt with the game as it is constantly changing?

The young players are bigger, faster and stronger and always gaining an edge. I can’t get over the size and physicality of the high school kids I see compared to when I played. They’re up to date on the health of their bodies physically, nutritionally and mentally. Then there’s the analytics and technology is so advanced. It’s amazing how on top of your game you have to be to be a professional player. When a pitcher isn’t throwing a pitch for strikes, we know his tendencies at all times. Every hitter’s weaknesses and strengths are right there for everyone to see. It’s amazing how good you have to be to carve out a career in the big leagues today.

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How do you find the young athletes dealing with everything that comes with wanting to pursue baseball professionally?

I remember following kids in the minor leagues when I was a kid and you’d have to do it through Baseball America. You couldn’t follow the minor leagues on a day-to-day basis. Now, if there’s a young kid in high school or college or a young minor leaguer, every single fan can know everything from when they take their first swing. They’re under the microscope at such an early age. You see a lot of kids who can’t handle it.

Baseball has to be a passion for them and they have to be mentally strong and have a great support system around them. They have to be able to see the big picture and not get consumed by things on a daily basis. They have to make sure they’re having fun which can be tough to do through the ups and downs. But you have to look at it from a macro point of view. You have to enjoy it, take it day by day and not look too far ahead.

With all of that, do the intangibles still play a role when you’re scouting?

It all plays a role. In the beginning of the process, it’s all about the talent, strength, speed and tools. Then the intangibles are right in step with it. You look across the major leagues, you have your superstars but then there are a lot of average players. Their tools might not be off the charts, but they’ll have a high IQ, they can handle the day-to-day grind, they’re team players and take care of their bodies. All of those intangibles will be what keep those players in the major leagues for a long time.

That’s some great insight. It’s been awesome to talk baseball with you. My last question is a reflective one. From Junior Team USA to UCLA to the majors and beyond you have accomplished a lot in baseball. What comes to mind when you take a step back and reflect on what you have been able to do in baseball during your life?

I’m grateful and fortunate for what I’ve been able to do. From the best of times to the lowest of times, the only thing I would have done differently is to allow myself to have a little bit more fun. That’s what I try to stress to the young kids today. I tell them to not let the game consume them too much and that they’re having fun. I’m fortunate enough to still be in the game and have a lot of great relationships. I’m running into people all the time from when I was a kid to high school and college and the pros. I’m just so fortunate and grateful for what I have been able to do in baseball.       

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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