Tyson Ross works toward a major league baseball comeback

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It was a whirlwind spring semester at UC Berkeley for former Major League Baseball All-Star pitcher Tyson Ross. With two young boys at home, time management is key for the Oakland native who, now that final exams are over, plans to show major-league teams that his right arm can help them win a pennant, despite not having thrown a professional pitch since 2019.

“I’ve got some more left in me,” said the American Studies major who is one upper-division course and a 30-page thesis shy of graduation this fall.

In May, before a bout with COVID-19 delayed the pitcher’s comeback pursuit, Ross was reaching 94 mph with his fastball, the hardest he had thrown in years. On a Friday afternoon, with final exams approaching, he took a respite from academic and athletic endeavors to sink his teeth into a Gordo Taqueria burrito while soaking up the sun on a College Avenue bench.

“I wish there were more than 24 hours in the day,” said Ross between bites, breaking down a day that began at 6:30 a.m. The pitcher worked out in his Danville home, then drove to Santa Clara to train with pitching coach Nick Sanzeri at Mission College. After returning home for virtual study groups in preparation for final exams, he helped wife Ashley care for 3-year-old Jordan and 7-month-old Jaxon before heading through the Caldecott Tunnel to Berkeley.

I followed Ross to WORTHY, a self-care studio on Ashby Avenue. There he met with former Cal baseball teammate B.J. Guinn, who invited players from his baseball camp to experience the cold bath plunges, infrared light saunas, red-light therapy, and meditation room.

Ross and Guinn, both Black, are committed to growing diversity and equity in a sport seeing a steep decline in Black representation. Oakland Babe Ruth, the predominantly Black little league where Ross starred in his youth, has gone from perennial national champions in the 1980s and 1990s to now struggling to field teams. At the MLB level, the percentage of Black players has dropped from a high of 18% in the 1980s to around 7% last season.

“If you can control your breath in an ice bath, that will translate to the baseball field,” WORTHY studio owner Meliza Mokrani, a UC Berkeley graduate and former junior college basketball player, explained to the youth baseball players in her studio entry room. Ross visits the self-care facility about once per week and is dependent on Mokrani’s five-point recovery plan–movement, nutrition, rest, heat and cold therapy, and mental health–to avoid burnout.

Baseball players and their parents are instructed in physical recovery techniques at WORTHY self-care studio in Berkeley. Credit: Jasmin Guinn

The Bishop O’Dowd High School graduate played three seasons at Cal before being selected in the second round of the 2008 MLB draft by the Oakland A’s. When he reached the major leagues in 2010, Ross wore jersey No. 66 on the mound to honor 66th Avenue, the street that connects the Oakland Coliseum to Greenman Field in East Oakland, where Ross, at age 11, became a Babe Ruth All-Star and played in the little league’s world series in Indiana.

During three seasons with the A’s, Ross displayed one of the best sliders in baseball. The devastating pitch would dive away from flailing right-handed hitters, and lock up lefties. However, a lack of physical and mental care was keeping him from reaching his potential.

When scheduled to pitch the next day, Ross was allowed to leave A’s night games before the final out. Instead of using the privilege to get needed rest and nutrients to face MLB batters, Ross picked up Oakland staples Everett and Jones BBQ or Cybelle’s Pizza. “It showed on the back of the baseball card,” Ross tells the youth players, likely referring to his 6.50 Earned Run Average in 2012 (4.01 runs allowed was league average for pitchers that season).

Ross’s best MLB season came in 2014 with the Padres, when he made the National League All-Star team and posted a 2.81 ERA. The next season he led the NL with 33 starts and posted an impressive 3.26 ERA. Ross played with four teams over the next four seasons.

When the coronavirus pandemic postponed the 2020 season, Ross had time to ponder his future after an injury-plagued 2019 season with the Detroit Tigers. When police killings of unarmed Black civilians prompted protests across the country, Ross joined a group of Black professional baseball players in forming The Players Alliance, aimed at building equity and diversity in the game. That’s when the pitcher launched Loyal To My Soil, using The Players Alliance funding to provide free baseball camps in Oakland.

Tyson Ross works on baseball fundamentals during his Loyal To My Soil free baseball camp in March at Northern Light School in Oakland. Credit: Nick Lozito

This March, Ross held a free clinic at his elementary school alma mater, Northern Light School. At the East Oakland hills schoolyard, Tyson was joined by Ashley, father Willie and mother Frankie. Former A’s and Giants pitcher Vida Blue, the 1972 American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner, threw ground balls to young players taking part in the program.

“A lot of Black players feel the opportunity isn’t there,” said Guinn, who often volunteers at Ross’ camps. Guinn had 1,108 career minor-league at-bats over five seasons with the San Diego Padres organization, but never got a chance in the majors. The Berkeley High School graduate now operates Shortstop Management LLC, a youth baseball school aimed at preparing players for the most demanding defensive position in the game. “Baseball is an expensive sport, and it’s hard to have the resources early. It’s a skill sport, and you need skill training early. We’re providing resources to those who wouldn’t otherwise have them.”

After tearing his Achilles tendon while with the Padres’ organization, Guinn recovered to play two seasons with an independent team before hanging up the professional cleats. His father, Brian Guinn, also never had a shot in the majors after a lengthy minor-league career. (In 1987, the A’s traded Brian to the Cubs for future Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley.) 

“Giving it everything we had was the most important thing,” said B.J., 33, of his and his father’s careers. “That’s what we were able to live with. So you don’t fall into the bitterness or the ‘What if?’”

B.J. Guinn speaks to his Shortstop Management baseball players about how physical therapy extended his baseball career. Credit: Jasmin Guinn

Ross plans to write his American Studies thesis on the decline of Black players in Major League Baseball and the socioeconomic factors that create the disparity. During the spring semester, he attended a UC Berkeley lecture from Dr. Harry Edwards, the sports sociologist and activist who organized the 1968 Olympic protests in Mexico City, where Black track athletes from San Jose State–Tommie Smith and John Carlos—raised their fists during the medal ceremony. Edwards’ words strengthened Ross’ desire to make an impact.

“I’ve been a student-athlete, an athlete and now I’m an athlete-student,” said Ross, whose younger brother, Joe, is a pitcher for the Washington Nationals. “I understand that there’s more to life than just baseball. The ability to make an impact in the community is greater than what you can do on the field. 

“Dr. Edwards says athletes can make use of their voice to talk about what’s right. A lot of the time people don’t want to do anything extra. A lot of people put their neck out there and risk losing their jobs, whether it’s (Colin Kaepernick) or female athletes talking about mental issues. 

“I’m just trying to grow the game of baseball.”

Ross and his agent, Joel Wolfe, plan to hold Bay Area workouts for scouts in upcoming weeks, with the goal of the right-handed pitcher landing a roster spot on a minor-league team. From there, he could compete for a spot on the major-league team, most likely as a relief pitcher.

“The longer you wait the harder it is to get in,” said Ross, noting that the upcoming MLB Draft will bring more competition for limited roster spots. “Hopefully there is a team that has a need and is in the playoff hunt. 

“Just give me a number and locker and a spot in the minors to compete.”