Simeon Baseball Standout Darius Day's Path to Scholarship Began With a Snub
CHATHAM — In a small corner of Simeon Athletic Director Reginald Brock's office is a makeshift hall of fame, three pieces of white computer paper with former student-athletes' pictures printed in the center.
Above each photo is the word "CONGRATULATIONS" typed in all capital letters followed by five exclamation points. Brock even included the logos of the Major League Baseball teams that drafted the players.
Darius Day isn't on the wall, but he knows he will be thanks to his work ethic.
"When I work, I work like someone’s looking down on me, someone’s expecting me not to be able to produce here or produce there," Day, 19, said as he sat behind Brock's desk before a winter conditioning session. "I always keep that in mind when I’m working out ... when I’m hitting, when I'm running, whatever I’m doing."
Day is the underdog, and it's a role he relishes. It's one he embraced as the ace of Simeon's pitching staff as a junior, leading the Wolverines to a 20-7 record last year and the Public League championship.
In last season's opener against favored St. Laurence High School, Day set the tone early, with a two-hit, 12-strikeout performance in the victory.
"I was just like 'Give me the ball, and I’m gonna go out and do my thing.' And that’s what I did," Day said.
Before the lefty hurler and outfielder ran a 6.6-second 60, before he threw a fastball in the high 80s, and before he was the No. 2 ranked prospect in Illinois, according to prepbaseballreport.com, he was an 8-year-old struggling with his hitting and upset he didn't make the All-Star team in the Jackie Robinson West Little League.
"Man, why do I keep getting cut?" Day asked himself year after year. He remembers that disappointment and carries it with him today.
"I always take the underdog approach, so when I do get my shot it’ll show," Day said.
That approach gave him the opportunity to be the first of his five siblings to go to college, receiving a full-ride scholarship to "the college of his dreams," the University of Arizona, the team he watched win the College World Series in 2012.
"I was like, 'The University of Arizona ... what If I could go there?'" Day remembered saying after watching the Wildcats win the title on TV. "Then, a year later I’m on the phone getting an offer from them."
He wasn't the only one surprised that he received the offer. The offer left one of Day's old coaches baffled, related Kevin Coe, one of Day's current coaches. The other coach's most vivid memory of Day was of a Little Leaguer so lacking in confidence he was moved to tears in a game even though his team was winning 9-0.
Coe's response was simple: "He's come a long way."
A WAY OUT
Day grew up on the West Side of Chicago in a home owned by his church in what he considered, "a pretty bad neighborhood."
His early years were spent mostly in that church at Bible study and weekday services, he said.
When he was about 5 years old, his aunt died and his family was given her home in Roseland.
Crime and violence were never far away from the Day home in Roseland. Day remembered his father coming home after being robbed while trying to get gas at a gas station.
"That’s when I started picking up baseball, just to stay off the streets and find something constructive to do," Day said, realizing baseball was his ticket out of a city that sacrifices too many young black men to its streets. "That’s what I used it for: It's getting me away from Chicago, and this Chicago is not the best place to be."
Day was far from a natural. His mother, Alice, said he was "awkward" as a young ballplayer, struggling with hitting mechanics as a lefty.
But his talent emerged when Glen Haley, a coach in the Jackie Robinson West Little League, took Day under his wing, helping pay for extra batting practice as his older sisters pitched in their own money to help his parents pay for the other half of the lessons.
"Sometimes you have to sacrifice one thing for another. We were just grateful Glen Haley agreed to pay half and we paid the other half," his mother said.
After that summer, his mother experienced some of her proudest moments watching her son play the game he loved and being rewarded by finally making the All-Star team.
"It was a joy to see my son accomplish something he was trying so hard to do," Alice Day said.
That was when Day realized what he could accomplish with baseball.
"After I had taken all the lessons, I started hitting the ball real good. I could tell I had gotten better, and I was like, 'Man, maybe I can do this for real.' I just started taking it serious from there," Day said.
'CREAM OF THE CROP'
Day was 13 when he began playing with the White Sox Amateur City Elite program, which is geared toward inner-city kids, giving them the chance to be seen by college coaches. The program is free for kids who can't afford to shell out several thousand dollars for the similar exposure other traveling baseball programs offer.
The program only takes elite athletes like Day who turned heads during the tryouts, which are held every August.
"You could see right away that he had some talent," said Coe, manager of the program's youth baseball initiatives.
Coe said Day was the "cream of the crop" on a very talented team of 13-year-olds that would yield 13 Division I scholarships by the time the players were college-bound last year.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS AT SIMEON
It was a no-brainer when Day decided he was going to Simeon Career Academy in Chatham. His father and his uncle attended the school. Even Coe went to Simeon. But Simeon is a basketball powerhouse, not known for its baseball team.
Derrick Rose won back-to-back state championships at the school before starring with the Bulls. Jabari Parker, now a star at Duke, dominated headlines as he helped Simeon's Wolverines win four consecutive state championships. People still talk about Simeon's Benji Wilson, whose promising career ended after he was shot dead in 1984.
And on the streets of Chicago, baseball players are hard to come by.
"Everyone’s like, 'You play baseball?' You hear all the skeptics about what people think about baseball and black guys don’t like baseball," Day said.
Brock said that disconnect was obvious when he announced to students that Day was playing in two All-Star games.
"Who is he?" Brock remembers the students asking before explaining Day was a senior they should already know.
Day has already made a believer of Brock, though Day knows he has a lot to accomplish to match up with the players whose photos hang on the athletic director's wall: Marshawn Taylor, Corey Ray and Ronell Coleman.
"It’s not too much pressure. I don’t look at it as someone forcing me, or pushing me, to do anything," Day said. But "I definitely want to be a part of that group."
He grew up playing baseball with all three of them, including on the White Sox Amateur City Elite team, and became city champions with them. He said Taylor is one of the best shortstops he's seen. He watched Ray and Coleman add pounds of muscle as freshmen, and it pushed him. Ray always pushed him, and a friendly rivalry emerged.
"If he went 4-for-4 in a game I wanted to go 5-for-5 and vice versa. If he threw somebody out, I wanted to throw somebody out. If he stole three bags in a game, I’m trying to steal four bags in a game," Day said.
Before he can make Brock's wall, Day will have to be drafted. That's not so far-fetched: He's already projected to be picked in the top 10 rounds of the 2014 draft, which would fulfill a dream.
"It's everybody's dream to get drafted and go to the big leagues," Day said. "In June, you can be on ESPN making your dreams come true. It's a blessing knowing where I came from, and I can be one of those big names in June."
For now, though, he's still Arizona-bound. And he still walks the halls of Simeon seemingly unnoticed, though his face is plastered on a page of the Sun-Times hanging on a wall inside the school's entrance. Students routinely ask him why he was in the paper, a humbling reminder that to many of his classmates he's still unknown.
"I never really blew it up in my mind too much that people don’t know who I am. One day they’ll learn who I am."