Former Dodgers No. 1 pick David Yocum looks back 'at what might have been'

08/05/2014 3:17 AM

08/05/2014 5:58 PM

There once was a day, oh say 27 years ago or so, that if you played baseball in Miami Springs Little League, the last pitcher you wanted to go up against was little David Yocum.

Well, he isn’t so little anymore. Yocum is now a 12-year veteran working as a firefighter for the Miami Beach Fire Department, but oh what a path he weaved between those days at Prince Field and today where he helps put out fires and saves lives on the Beach.

It was 19 years ago that David Yocum was seemingly on top of the world.

Having just turned in two outstanding seasons as a pitcher at Florida State, leading the Seminoles to back-to-back College World Series appearances, the Los Angeles Dodgers, with a strong appetite for quality left-handed pitching, chose to make him their first-round draft choice, 20th overall, in the 1995 major league draft.

Yocum found out quickly that the temptation to spurn the last two years of school to sign a nearly seven-figure check for a signing bonus alone was way too much to overcome. And with that, David Yocum was a wealthy young man.

And here is where it all takes off for the happy ending. On to the major leagues, the playoffs and World Series. Even bigger contracts. Right?

Wrong.

Because, as what happens so many times, too many times to count, David Yocum wound up on top of a heaping pile of promising professional athletes, who for a variety of reasons never live up to their big-time billing.

Yocum’s case may have been the most common reason — an injured body that never healed well enough to bring him back to where he once was.

A book, “Hits and Misses in the Baseball Draft” by Alan Maimon and Chuck Myron (you can find it on Amazon.com) came out last year and right there in Chapter 10, page 132 was “A Ballplayer’s Story.” It was a 19-page chapter on David Yocum.

We’ll get to all of that soon enough.

Last March, to honor the 75th Anniversary of Little League, Miami Springs Little League held a special opening-day ceremony and Yocum was touched and flattered that Little League officials asked him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch and talk to the kids all decked out in their uniforms about, like he did, never be afraid to chase their dreams.

“It was a really cool thing to do and for Otto (LL Commissioner Otto Camejo) and the League to consider me to do it, it was a real honor for me to be out there and be a part of it,” said Yocum. “What made it even more special was that I was able to do it and be on the same field with my parents watching right there. When I was 10, 11, 12 years old, those were my most cherished memories. Either my dad coaching or looking up and my mom being in the stands. And here we were 28 years later, and there they were sitting in those same bleachers. From day one, they’ve been a big part of this entire journey, good times and the bad times. Your mom and dad are always there.”

And David’s mom and dad, Joyce and Barry Yocum, who still live in their Virginia Gardens home, needed to be as their son’s roller coaster ride was just that — a roller coaster.

After finding out just how good he could be in his Little League days, Yocum, who went to Springview Elementary before attending Blessed Trinity for one year, signed up to go to high school at Columbus.

“Initially it was just playing ball with your friends and where you can’t wait to get out of school to go play your baseball games,” said Yocum. “I would say about eighth grade is when I started having bigger dreams of, ‘Hey, maybe I can go play in high school somewhere and see where this goes.’ ”

And while the baseball program at Miami Springs and then-head coach Shelly Dunkel would have loved to have him, Yocum was off to more fertile baseball pastures in Columbus.

“I kind of had mixed feelings about it because all my private school friends went to Columbus and my public school buddies went to Springs,” said Yocum. 

“Ultimately my parents kind of made that choice for me and once I got there I thought that high school baseball was definitely going to be much harder. Not to knock the Springs program because they had some really really good players at the time, but at Columbus, at that time and they still do, they’re a real baseball powerhouse in South Florida and have been for a long time.”

The choice proved to be a wise one. By his junior year, he was in the starting pitching rotation for Coach Herb Baker and when Columbus’ ace was hurt and lost for the season, Yocum stepped up and answered the call as the team’s No. 1 pitcher by going 9-0 and leading his team to a district championship.

It was in that district title game that Florida State coach Mike Martin was in the stands and where the dialogue between Yocum and FSU began.

Before he threw a single pitch his senior year, he had signed a letter of intent to be a Seminole.

“That took a lot of pressure off me because I got to play my senior year without having that burden of worrying about where I might wind up or if there were scouts in the stands looking at me,” said Yocum.

Right after graduation came the 1993 Major League Draft. Yocum’s commitment to attend Florida State had likely scared off major league teams from drafting him out of high school but he still monitored the proceedings out of curiosity. On the final day, he heard from the San Diego Padres. They had made him their 76th-round draft choice (yeah folks, they really have that many rounds in a baseball draft) and when he heard from a Padres official, the conversation didn’t last long.

“After I told him I hadn’t changed my mind about Florida State, he wished me luck,” Yocum said in the book. “I couldn’t help but wonder what they would have offered if I had decided to sign. Maybe a pair of shoes, a new glove and a bus ticket to San Diego.”

Yocum’s bus ticket was to Tallahassee where he would jump right in and immediately impress Martin.

And he’ll never forget it.

“The Marlins were only in their second year as a franchise and we were invited down to Viera to play them in a spring training game,” recalled Yocum. “A few days before we left, 11 (the nickname for Martin, referring to his jersey number) comes up to me and says I’m starting the game. It blew me away. Later on I figured out that our season opener was immediately after that and he had three other starters slated to go in that series, which made me a logical choice. But I also thought maybe he wanted to throw me right into the fire as a raw freshman and see what I was made of.”

Martin found out — quickly.

Out on the mound in the first inning trying to fight off the usual case of nerves and butterflies that would accompany a moment like that for a kid nine months removed from graduating from high school, he gave up a leadoff single to Carl Everett.

What happened after that will live with Yocum forever as he proceeded to strike out Brett Barberie, Jeff Conine and Dave Magadan in order to close out the inning.

He would give up a single run in the next inning before heading for the showers. After the game, with his father Barry at his side after he had made the three-hour drive north to watch his son’s college debut, Conine, Magadan and Marlins manager Rene Lachemann all congratulated him on an impressive performance. Even then-GM Dave Dombrowski walked up, shook his hand and said, “We’re going to keep our eye on you.”

“What a great moment and to be able to share that with my dad made it that much more special,” said Yocum. 

But Dombrowski would never get his hands on Yocum. After he led his Noles to those back-to-back College World Series appearances, the Dodgers made him a first-round pick in the ’95 draft and the 20th player taken overall.

“I remember I was in my hotel room in Omaha and even though I knew the draft was going on, I was focused on our first game because I was starting,” said Yocum. “My phone rang and it was Bill Pleis, a Dodgers scout. He told me the Dodgers had chosen me in the 1995 amateur draft. When I said thank you, he sensed that I wasn’t very impressed or excited.”

It took a few more seconds for Pleis to make sure the young man on the other end of the phone understood that the Dodgers had just made him their first round choice.

“I almost fell off my bed,” Yocum said when he realized the financial bonanza he was about to come into. “I hung up the phone and walked over to the bathroom and just kind of let loose with the tears. It was such an emotional moment for me. All I could think about were my mom and dad and all of the sacrifices they had made to send me to private school and all of the support from loved ones I had received along the way.”

After inking a signing bonus for $825,000 with baseball cards bringing his initial financial windfall to close to $1 million, he immediately was whisked off to report to the Dodgers’ High Class A team in Vero Beach.

Coming off a full college season, the idea might have been for the Dodgers to use their top draft pick sparingly, but it didn’t work out that way. He ended up making seven starts to finish the summer season with a 2-1 record and 2.96 ERA. That performance earned him an invite to the Arizona Fall League, a showcase for the best minor league prospects.

“My arm was pretty fatigued at that point and looking back on it now, I probably should have told them that I wanted to shut it down until the following February,” said Yocum. “But the problem for me was that I was looking at it from the standpoint of here was a team that had made a big financial investment in me and I didn’t want to let them down, so I went to Arizona.”

The following February, Yocum got to hang with the big boys — Tom Candiotti, Brett Butler and Raul Mondesi, to name a few — during the Dodgers spring camp in Vero. Manager Tommy Lasorda and pitching coach Claude Osteen both liked what they saw but then came the beginning of the end.

“As soon as camp broke I started feeling pain in my left shoulder,” recalled Yocum. “After shutting me down for a while to see if resting the shoulder would help and finding out it didn’t, they eventually concluded that I needed surgery to remove inflamed tissue.”

But rehab did not go well as the pain remained, requiring a second surgery.

Double surgeries on a pitcher’s shoulder inside of a year? You know where this is going. Yocum never threw another pitch in 1997. A third surgery and subsequent rehab netted no results and in June of 1998, just three years after he let loose with tears of emotion and joy in an Omaha hotel room, Yocum got the letter no athlete wants. The Dodgers had released him.

He returned home where one final comeback attempt in early 1999 where he held a private bullpen session in Coral Gables, inviting any scouts who wished to attend,, netted no phone calls.

“I’ll admit I was like any athlete whose career comes to a premature end and if I had it to do all over again I would have never pushed myself so hard in ’95,” said Yocum. “I was a little bitter and there was that initial stage of denial. But eventually that feeling wears off and you realize, ‘Hey, it’s time to get on with your life.’ ”

And David Yocum did just fine. Got himself trained to become a firefighter and got himself hired by the City of Miami Beach. He wound up rekindling a childhood relationship with Christine Kelly and the two were married in 2005. Three years ago, when Christine was offered an attractive job as a professor of pharmaceuticals at Palm Beach Atlantic College in West Palm Beach, the Yocums moved north out of the Springs where David now commutes back and forth with the one-day-on, two-days-off routine that firefighters work.

“Looking back, I’m very proud and feel very blessed to have had that opportunity that I had,” said Yocum. “And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” 

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