Jan. 16, 2012
Even by his own account, Jeff Snell '12 wasn't the best pitcher on his own team at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. "We had four Division I recruits on the staff; I didn't pitch much until I was a senior," Snell said.
But Snell's descriptions of himself often stand in stark contrast to reality. He says that he is "not a prototypical Division I pitcher", though he will serve as co-captain of the Lafayette baseball team this season. He deflects claims that he is the Leopards' closer, though his statistics over the past three seasons would say otherwise. He isn't banking on playing professional baseball after graduation, though his performance in the prestigious Cape Cod League this past summer showed that he can hang with the nation's best.
As an unrecruited freshman in the fall of 2008, Snell had a semester to convince Head Coach Joe Kinney that he could be an asset to the Leopards. "Coach Kinney guaranteed me a spot for the entire fall," said Snell. "My stuff isn't going to impress [coaches] in one or two outings, but I felt that over the fall I had a fair chance to show what I can do."
Snell's performance in the fall was far from dominant, but the rookie hurler proved himself worthy of donning the Maroon and White in the spring.
"We weren't sure if he would even see the field in the spring, but [pitching coach] Gregg Durrah and I agreed that he deserved a spot," said Kinney. "He may have been the 35th guy on a 35-man roster, but he earned a place on the team."
Snell didn't see the field for the first 12 games of his freshman season and wasn't even on the travel roster for the majority of them, but Snell's effort against live hitting in practice earned him a seat on the bus for the Leopards' spring break trip. After hurling a hitless inning at UNC Greensboro, the freshman made an impression on Coach Kinney in his second appearance for the Leopards. "He came out of the bullpen to face a pretty good team [Liberty]," Kinney recalled. "He gave up a home run and a couple of other hits, but he challenged hitters. Even the guys making contact never looked comfortable."
Since then, hitters have rarely looked comfortable against Snell. He ranks among the Patriot League's all-time leaders with 12 saves and owns a career 9-1 record in three seasons with the Leopards. Snell has twice been recognized by his teammates and coaches with the Harold "Moose" Hageman '39 Award as the team's top pitcher.
This past summer, Snell earned an invitation to pitch in the Cape Cod League, one of the nation's premier collegiate summer leagues. He was meant to serve just as a replacement player for a few weeks while many of the NCAA's more highly-touted prospects were still playing in the College World Series, but a string of strong performances - including a win in the season opener - earned Snell a summer-long roster spot with the Brewster Whitecaps.
Snell excelled throughout the summer, earning three wins with a 3.26 earned run average in 17 appearances for the Whitecaps. "I would bet that he was one of the smallest pitchers in the league," Kinney said of his senior co-captain. "But he fared well against some of the nation's top hitters."
Snell's unexpected commitment to the Cape Cod League conflicted with another summer obligation - a trip to Cuba sponsored by his church. "It was a tough decision; obviously I wanted to be there for my team," said Snell. "But the coaches and I had discussed it before the summer, and I didn't want to back out of the commitment."
Despite leaving the Whitecaps in the midst of a playoff series, Snell certainly didn't leave his team hanging out to dry. "I pitched five innings in my last game - the most I've thrown since high school," recalled Snell. "I did my part by saving the bullpen for the rest of the series."
The intent of Snell's mission to Cuba was altered, as the government seized several of the laptops and other equipment that the church had intended to deliver to various impoverished areas. But Snell and his fellow parishioners continued the mission as a goodwill effort, spending time at schools and churches playing soccer with local children and adults alike.
For Snell, one of the moments from his experience that stood out was a neighborhood baseball game. "It was just a pickup game between some of the locals," recalled Snell. "But the area was packed with fans, and they were going wild. It was just baseball being played and watched for the pure love of the game."
While Snell, an International Affairs major and Patriot League Academic Honor Roll selection, maintains a tempered attitude toward the prospect of following several of his former teammates - including 2011 Chicago Cubs draft pick Ian Dickson '14 - into the professional ranks, Kinney once again sees untapped potential. "He has figured out the mental aspect of the game and is up for the challenge; I certainly wouldn't rule it out."
Snell's own response to the question is unsurprising. "Maybe if I gained a couple of miles per hour on my fastball... but I'm not your typical professional pitcher."
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