Ventura, California —— TJ Durfee has committed to Culver-Stockton College.
Few people probably raised an eyebrow when that no-nonsense announcement came down on April 15: a Ventura College outfielder found his four-year fit at a small NAIA baseball program in rural Missouri. Congratulations, kid. You’re one of literally thousands of ballplayers across the country to make an announcement like that over the last few weeks.
It’s a sentence so simple, so straightforward, that you can take out the player and the school and use it as boilerplate for the thousands of college baseball commitments that dot the news landscape this time of year. PLAYER has committed to SCHOOL. That says it all. Thousands of dreams realized, thousands of new roster spots taken, and thousands more opportunities granted as nameless faces match up with every college you’ve ever heard of and more that you haven’t. Every time you blink, another dozen faces fill another dozen spots at another dozen schools.
But something’s missing here.
A no-nonsense announcement like that tells you where TJ Durfee is going, but nothing about where he’s been. It doesn’t tell you how the ‘old man’ almost never made it out of small town life in Paso Robles, California. It misses every mention of the late-blossoming development of this directionless kid who had all but given up on baseball before a yearning for something more than a part-time job at a furniture store called him back to the diamond. It doesn’t convey the maturity in a young man content to wait his turn; the patience in losing a year to an injury; the resolution to see out his junior college career until the end; the pride in being the first person in his family to earn a degree.
TJ Durfee has committed to Culver-Stockton College, all right.
Just wait ‘til you hear how he got there.
I’m writing this in a hotel on the outskirts of Modesto, California, here to cover a four-game weekend series between the High-A California League affiliates of the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres. From Los Angeles, the easiest way to Modesto is a straight shot up Interstate 5, though I usually branch off and take Highway 99, a parallel road that runs straight through Bakersfield, and then Delano, Tulare, Visalia, Fresno, Madera, Merced, and Turlock—the nerve center of one of the most important agricultural regions in the world. This is the real America, or something, but whatever it is, there’s more culture here than the bland interstate.
But this weekend, I went the other way, opting for a detour just north of Bakersfield to travel due west on Highway 46 straight into Paso Robles. A small town in the northern part of San Luis Obispo County, Paso is an interesting place. It’s certainly not part of the fertile, low-slung Central Valley—you have to crest a mountain range to get to Paso from Bakersfield—but it’s also not really a part of the legendary Central Coast, either, since you must cross another mountain range to see the ocean. Far enough north of San Luis Obispo to be an afterthought there, and a world away from the fabled Central Coast haunts that dot Highway 1 from Santa Barbara to Pismo Beach, Big Sur, and Monterey, Paso Robles sits in its own little bubble.
I had to drive through it, just to see it, if only as it passed by quickly along the highway, because Paso Robles was TJ Durfee’s bubble for the first twenty-something years of his life. Paso Robles was the bubble that nearly swallowed him up forever after he hit .240 in his final, forgettable high school season in 2012. Paso Robles is the bubble where it all began for TJ Durfee; or maybe it’s the bubble Durfee had to finally burst in order to begin again elsewhere.
“I took a couple years off [after high school],” Durfee acknowledged to me after one of Ventura’s final games this spring. “I was burned out on baseball, and I got caught up in Paso Robles working, just trying to make some money. But after a while, I began to realize I was stuck in a small town. I realized I really wanted to play baseball again.”
And so, in his free time, TJ Durfee began training again. Always a good athlete, he picked up the physical aspects of the game pretty quickly despite the two-year layoff, though the rust was still evident even as he worked out at Paso Robles High School, trying desperately to figure out what he had to do for another shot to play. On a whim, he made a recruiting video; you can still see it on YouTube, and it’s phenomenal—a true testament to how far he’s come. He sent it off to dozens of junior colleges across the state.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Steven Hardesty is, to put it charitably, not the tallest guy on the baseball field. Watch him coach nowadays at Ventura College and you get the feeling not much was handed to him during his own playing career; that he must have had to scrap and claw for every inch he could get on the diamond; that somebody had to physically take the jersey off his back when his playing days came to an end. His intense, vocal style as coach now is no doubt a direct result of his eternal underdog status as an undersized, underestimated player. But here’s the thing about underdogs: they have a knack for finding other underdogs.
“I made a recruiting video and I sent it out to a ton of coaches, and Hardesty was the first one who got a hold of me,” Durfee said of how this whole thing started. “He told me he’d love to have me come down to Ventura College to take a visit, and the moment I got down here I fell in love with the school, and the program, and I knew this was where I wanted to come.”
Hardesty remembers that day well.
“We were immediately open to taking a chance on him, and I really liked his left-handed bat, I thought he could do a few different things for us,” Hardesty said. “TJ is unique in the sense that he committed to us very early on, in a very uncertain situation, because we provided an opportunity for him to get a chance to get back into baseball. And when he came in that first year, that was pretty rough. You could tell he had taken some time off. But pretty quickly he started to play better right up until he got hurt.”
You didn’t think Durfee would enjoy two easy All-Conference seasons and then get drafted by a big league organization or something, did you? There’s no Hollywood ending here—only a Paso Robles one. And in TJ Durfee’s Paso Robles ending, an arm injury in 2015 turned into a season lost to a redshirt and one more major hiccup in the outfielder’s quest to get on a baseball field again.
“Ironically, that’s what really sold me on him,” Hardesty admitted of Durfee’s first year in Ventura lost to injury. “A lot of guys two years out of high school, if they get hurt like that, they’ll walk away. They’ll quit. But he stuck around, and then I knew we had made the right decision on him. I knew he was going to do some good things for our program, because he immediately proved he had this ability to commit. He showed he had the commitment and the maturity to go after what he wanted.”
Durfee can smile about that lost year now that he’s followed it with two good ones, but even going through a season spent on the bench and an uncertain future at Ventura College brought new perspective beyond his age and stage in life.
“You have to learn to love whatever you’re doing,” the outfielder mused about that rough first year of junior college. “There will be tough days, but on those tough days, you have to remind yourself that you could be stuck back in a small town like some of my friends still are, just working at the furniture store or raising a baby. I’m not doing that. It’s truly an honor to be here.”
When you leave a small town, you don’t do it just to chase a dream; you also have to pay the bills.
Maybe that’s just a minor, annoying aspect of growing up, but after stagnating in the Paso Robles bubble for a few years, Durfee learned quickly about the real world when his name went on the lease for an apartment in Ventura.
“You grow up quick when you leave home,” Durfee said, laughing about that sudden realization that it was time to be an adult. “When I first came down here, I had an apartment, and I was the only one on the lease. I was paying the rent, I was paying the bills, I was doing all that, and even just that forced me to grow up as a person. Just growing up, living on my own, it’s kind of funny, you know? High school kids think they know a lot, but they really don’t, and I’ve learned that first hand.”
He flashed a smile reminiscing about that first year on his own before pausing and turning pensive about the bigger metaphor behind something as minor as having his name on the rent and his daily grind centered around college classes.
“Even just coming down to Ventura, I’ve already experienced so much more than so many of the guys I grew up with,” he said. “It’s so easy to get stuck in Paso. A lot of kids, their pinnacle is high school football, or high school baseball, and then they go work in the oil fields, or they go work in a manufacturing job.”
This is the ultimate conundrum of TJ Durfee, a man constantly vacillating between his obvious pride for Paso Robles and the desire deep down within him for something more. There’s a great, big world beyond Paso, and even now, Durfee has only gone a couple hours down the 101 to experience a small sliver of it. Imagine what life will be like for him next year at Culver-Stockton in Missouri.
Imagine what it’ll be like when he goes back home.
“I’m proud to say where I’m from. I wear that city on my back, and I still have a lot of friends who root for me,” Durfee said. “But I also have some friends that I don’t talk to much any more. I have them on social media and I see the stuff they do. They work all week and then they go out to the bars, they party, and then they go back to the daily grind, or they go back to raising a kid, or whatever. One of my best friends back home, he has a kid and he’s stuck working jobs he doesn’t really like, and he’s still trying to find himself. I’m not the one to do that right now. I didn’t want to get stuck in a small town raising a kid.”
If those two lost years after high school in Paso Robles were the low point of TJ Durfee’s baseball life, his high point came with last month’s commitment to Culver-Stockton. This year’s Ventura College team has a few big-time players who received considerable interest from Division I schools and the MLB Draft—Justin Friedman, Elijah Alexander, and Austin Rubick, among others—but it’s Durfee who may be the most rewarding placement of the year for Hardesty.
“The Division I commitments are great, and they raise our profile, but those guys go there because they are talented, and we just let those guys play their way into an opportunity,” Hardesty noted. “But TJ, that’s a kid you have to coach, you have to develop, you have to take every day and work with him. And to see him improve? That’s the most rewarding part. To see how far he came, to see how we helped in getting him this next opportunity, he’s earned it. He’s earned this opportunity for himself. He got better every single year, and he committed to what junior college is supposed to be about: he went from an unfinished product to a recruitable product.”
That’s the crazy thing: as long as TJ Durfee’s road to Ventura College may have been, and as uncertain as his future was even after getting to the Pirates, he didn’t just have one four-year offer this spring; he had his pick of the litter, thanks to that development of which Hardesty is so proud.
“I had to turn a school down, and I hated that, I don’t like disappointing people,” Durfee admitted about this year’s recruiting process. “But I just knew Culver-Stockton was the best fit for me. I called the coach, and he had no idea I was going to commit. It was just supposed to be a check-up phone call, but I just kind of blurted out, like, ‘coach, I want to commit to Culver-Stockton.’ The tone in his voice changed. He immediately just went ‘my man…’ and to hear that, to hear how somebody wants you to represent their program, that’s a feeling I can’t even describe.”
If anyone ever asks for proof of the beauty of this game, tell them the story of TJ Durfee: there was a recruiting battle this spring for a kid three years removed from being completely out of baseball and working at a furniture store. A grainy recruiting video, a year lost to a redshirt, two seasons of carefully guided development and slowly-improving on-field results, and the guy his teammates call ‘grandpa’ and ‘old man’ because of his age went from anonymity in Paso Robles, to a single JuCo opportunity with Ventura College, to having his pick of places to get his four-year degree and continue his baseball career.
This game is wild, man.
“The time I took off really made me appreciate baseball, and now I just want to keep playing until someone tells me it’s time to hang ‘em up,” Durfee said, laughing about his nickname. “Then, I’ll know. But until then, I’ll keep getting called ‘old timer,’ and ‘grandpa.’ I’m fine with it. That’s a good thing. I’m having a good time.”
He’ll leave an impact on the Ventura College program after his departure, too.
“TJ’s story is a big recruiting pitch for us now,” Hardesty admitted about the program’s success in getting Durfee to Culver-Stockton. “The Division I guys are awesome, but this program is designed for kids like TJ to come in and be patient that first year. Maybe they’ll have to redshirt, but because of the way we run our program, they are going to get better.”
TJ Durfee has committed to Culver-Stockton College.
No, TJ Durfee made it out of Paso Robles, grew up on his own at Ventura College, got his associate’s degree—the first in his family—and he’s now on his way to a bachelor’s degree and a new life halfway across the country at Culver-Stockton. He wanted something bigger than the Paso bubble, committed to the process, and pushed on knowing it wasn’t going to come immediately. Now, the world is at his feet.
“I feel like I’ve already won,” he said, an ear-to-ear grin on his face. “I was talking to my dad about this. We figured out that of all the kids I played with through all of high school, I’m the only one still playing. Not many baseball players can say they’ve committed somewhere to go play at the four-year level. I did that. And now, I’ll be the first person in my family to get my four-year degree, too, and that’s truly an honor.”
“Baseball has given me purpose,” Durfee continued. “Three or four years ago I was sitting on the couch in Paso Robles working a part time job, and now I get to go play four-year ball. This is a blessing.”
TJ Durfee has committed to Culver-Stockton College.
Say it once more, but get it right this time: straight outta Paso Robles, by way of Ventura College and a two-year detour at that damn furniture store, ‘grandpa’ has defied the considerable odds against him and committed to Culver-Stockton College for two more years of college baseball and a shot at earning the first bachelor’s degree in his family.
Now you know the real story.
To visit our TJ Durfee’s profile page, please click here. To read our scouting report on the Ventura College outfielder, please click here.
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