Think of the times when Mike Oczypok could have walked away from baseball.
It could have been in 2015, when he graduated from the University of Alabama with degrees in management and marketing. It could have been 2014, when he tore his UCL twice in the same year and underwent two Tommy John surgeries on his throwing arm. It could have been 2011, when he was cut from the Alabama baseball team in walk-on tryouts that fall.
He never did quit. But his playing career is likely coming to a close now. He’ll be honored at Alabama’s Senior Day this weekend against Florida.
“I just love the game so much,” Oczypok said. “I probably would have quit after getting cut in the first year of freshman tryouts if I didn’t love the game.”
Oczypok has spent six years at Alabama, including the last five on the baseball team. He has never been a star for the Crimson Tide, with a fastball in the high 80s and a 4.41 career ERA. But he’s among the most accomplished athletes in the history of Alabama.
He has three degrees from UA. He finished his double major in undergrad two years ago. He did it in UA’s honors college, and while completing pre-med requirements. Oczypok was on the SEC’s Academic Honor Roll in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. The 2017 honor roll will be announced this summer. He earned his MBA this spring. Oczypok is believed to be the first UA student-athlete to complete his MBA during his playing career.
All of that was made possible by the challenges he faced earlier in his career. Teammates refer to the 24-year-old as “grandpa.” His lengthy career at UA, and everything that came with it, wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been cut in 2011, or he hadn’t missed two years of baseball.
“I truly believe that I’ve been able to take advantage of this campus, and it’s blessed me with so many opportunities,” Oczypok said. “Everything about it.”
Getting cut during fall practice of his freshman year may have been his biggest blessing, Oczypok said. He spent that year building relationships on campus outside of baseball that have endured years later. At the recommendation of the UA coaching staff, he played summer league ball in Chicago and Boston. He made the team the next season.
The high point of his athletic career came during his freshman season in 2013. Alabama called on Oczypok to start in the SEC tournament against LSU, ranked second in the country. Oczypok threw 8 2/3 innings against a lineup loaded with eight future MLB draft picks. The No. 2-ranked Tigers were rebuffed by Oczypok for eight innings, but scored two runs in the top of the ninth to win 3-2.
“The fans there were chanting “Roll Tide!” against ‘L-S-U! L-S-U!’ I can still put myself in my shoes back then right now,” Oczypok said. “I can hear it and feel the feelings I had. It was just such an incredible experience.”
Then came the injuries. He felt a pop in his right elbow during a scrimmage two weeks before the 2014 season. He tore his UCL, among the most significant injuries possible for a pitcher. The whole season was lost, then the 2015 season was lost when he tore it again that fall.
“Tearing it once has opened up some doors, but honestly, tearing it twice has opened up a whole lifetime of doors,” he said.
The injury extended his eligibility and eventually allowed him to complete his MBA. That couldn’t have happened in a shorter time frame.
He was also able to direct his focus on pursuits outside of baseball. Oczypok volunteered through UA in a program called Al’s Pals, working with elementary school students in Tuscaloosa. He earned two summer internships with Nike in Portland, Oregon, planning and executing a marketing plan for the 2016 Olympics. He built a relationship with softball coach Patrick Murphy that he’s maintained years later.
“He’s the epitome of a great student-athlete,” Murphy said. “That’s what it’s all about is him. Maybe he’s not going to go pro. He might not be an All-American. He’s just an awesome kid and he represents Alabama to the best of his ability … I wouldn’t doubt it if he’s the governor of Alabama in 25 years. I’m serious. I’d vote for him right now.”
That was all happening as he kept up a relentless pace in the classroom. Ron Dulek, one of Oczypok’s professors in undergraduate and MBA classes, didn’t even know he was a baseball player until they stumbled across it in conversation one day.
Oczypok never missed an assignment or turned an assignment in late. Baseball was just one more part of his larger college experience.
“When you talk to Mike about baseball, you see his true love and passion for the game,” Dulek said in an email. “He would not have gone what he has gone through injury wise if he didn’t love the game. But then you talk to Mike about business strategy and you see a similar love for learning. I suspect that he truly is what some call a ‘student of the game.’ But his game is both baseball and education.”
His role on the team changed after he returned from Tommy John surgery. Oczypok became a veteran arm out of the bullpen for the Crimson Tide in the last two seasons.
“Competitive, intense, but also a guy you’d want your daughter to bring home,” head coach Greg Goff said. “He’s just a tremendous young man and has a bright future. He’s talked about going into coaching. I can’t think of any other guys on this team that would be a better coach than what that guy would be.”
Pursuing a coaching career would mean forgoing some other opportunities in the business world that have already been available to Oczypok. But he’s still not ready to walk away from the game.
Oczypok has worked with two baseball coaching staffs, and also learned about the profession from his time with Murphy. The softball team won a national championship in 2012 – Oczypok’s first year at UA – and he’s taken some lessons from the culture of Murphy’s program and his leadership. Murphy is impressed with Oczypok as well.
“I think he’s one of those guys that would absolutely do whatever the coach would ask him to do,” Murphy said. “He has all this experience, not only as a player, but he has his MBA. He could help to market the program. To me, he’d be very, very marketable as a young coach.”
Six years is no small amount of time for a college student or a college athlete. Oczypok’s career spanned four university presidents and three athletics directors. He’s endured, accomplished and experienced so much in that time.
His time left is scarce. But his time that has passed has been richer than he ever could have imagined.
“It’s crazy to think how quickly it flew by,” Oczypok said. “Six years ago I was walking into the same building, sitting in my econ class, being like ‘What am I doing here? I feel like I should still be in high school.’ Then I blink, and I’m graduating with my MBA. It’s flown by and it’s been a great experience here.”
No. 5 Florida at Alabama
Schedule: Friday at 6:00 p.m., Saturday at 6:00 p.m., Sunday at 3:00 p.m.
Where: Sewell-Thomas Stadium
Records: Alabama 19-29 (5-19 SEC), Florida 35-14 (16-8 SEC)
TV: SEC Network (Sunday only)
Radio: 102.9 FM