This is not quite a remake of Rodney Dangerfield’s rollicking 1980s movie “Back to School,” but it is the story of a successful guy returning to college to get his degree.
But instead of the herky-jerky “I can’t get no respect” goofball, it features a much-regarded sinkerballer, Craig Stammen.
The affable right-hander from the tiny Darke County crossroads of North Star was a standout at Versailles High School and then the University of Dayton before being drafted by the Washington Nationals in 2005.
Today he does have a couple of things in common with Thornton Melon, the Dangerfield character in that 1986 film:
He’s made a name for himself in his profession — he debuted in the big leagues in 2009 and the past two years has been an ace in the Nationals bullpen with a 2.54 earned-run average over 170 innings — and he’s making some money. This season he’ll be paid almost $1.4 million.
Although he spent 3 ½ years at UD and won Academic All-Atlantic 10 honors, he does not have his diploma. He left for pro ball 15 credit hours short of graduation.
And that has prompted his own version of “Back To School.”
“When I left college one of the goals I had was to finish and I believe in completing my goals no matter how long it takes,” he said. “And I promised my mom I would. Education is really important to her.”
Connie Stammen was a full-time teacher in Coldwater until Craig was born in 1984 and these days she’s a substitute for grades K-8 in Versailles.
“I know my mom and dad would be very proud if I graduated from college and it’s something I’d be proud of too,” he said. “One day when I have a family of my own I can tell my kids, ‘Hey, I could have skipped this but I went on and finished. I didn’t quit.’”
Although he said he tried a few times over the years to return to UD, he could never work it out with administrators who were reluctant because his baseball schedule would require him to leave for spring training in February and he wouldn’t return until October.
A change in some business school leaders, their new willingness to work with him and the increased use of online instruction by all UD students helped make his return a reality.
He took two online classes in the fall and when the new semester began last week, he returned to campus to take three classes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
When he completes the courses, he will get an entrepreneurship degree and that will put him in select company.
A Fox Sports survey from 2012 found that only 39 major leaguers — 4.3 percent of all big leaguers — had graduated from a four-year university.
College means more
With a couple of hours of down time before his last class of the day, a Sports Economics session in Miriam Hall, Stammen talked about what it was like to be back in college for the first time in almost nine years.
“The first week was pretty strange,” he admitted with a smile. “I don’t think I realized how much of an age difference there would be between me and a lot of the other kids in class.
“What I’ve experienced in these years since I left UD has changed me completely. I try to remember what I was like when I was back here. I realize I was so naïve and I didn’t understand.
“It’s kind of fun now to sit in class and not only learn, but to joke around with the kids and ask them all kinds of stuff: Where they live on campus. What they did last night. Once that was me.”
Out of a baseball uniform, he looks like any other student with blue jeans and a ball cap. He wants to keep his presence as low-key as possible — he declined having a photographer take some shots of him around campus for this story — and he said the other students wouldn’t know his background were it not for his professors.
“If nobody told them they wouldn’t know,” he said. “But my professors have gotten me to tell them who I am, why I’m there and what my story is. If nothing else, it helps when we’re doing group projects and I say I need to do it now because I’ll be gone in a couple of months.”
One of the biggest things he’s had to get used to was that almost all the work is now done online. Homework is submitted on a special UD website. That’s where you find a class syllabus, assignments and exams, too.
And once he heads to spring training in Viera, Fla., an unincorporated part of Melbourne, in mid-February, he said he’ll communicate with professors via email, Skype, Face Time or “whatever method works best.”
The biggest surprise of his college return, he said, has been something he’s learned about himself:
“For the last six or seven years, I just wanted to get this finished. I just wanted that piece of paper, that diploma, so it was out of my system and I didn’t have to stress over it anymore.
“But now that I’ve come back to school, I’ve found out I kind of enjoy it. I enjoy the learning part. And what’s crazy, from the first class I took, a marketing class I started back in October, I found out I was learning more than I did at any time in the three years when I was here the first time. Maybe it just means more to me now.”
A marketing tool
During the offseason, Stammen lives in the Mount Lookout neighborhood of Cincinnati, his fianceé’s hometown. He and his dad — who runs the North Star Hardware and Implement Co. — split season tickets for UD basketball and each January he puts on a charity event at the Versailles Knights of Columbus that benefits the Diamond Club, which he said began as a bunch of parents doing things to bolster the Tigers high school baseball program.
He brings in a couple of big-league players — this year he had Nationals teammates Drew Storen and Jerry Blevins, his former UD teammate who was just traded to Washington from Oakland — and there is a big dinner prepared by Mary Bergman, an open bar, a program emceed by Dave Ross and both a silent and live auction.
“Basically, we auction all my gear that I take home during the season, other stuff I accumulate and some autographs I get,” he said. “Probably the top thing this year was a signed Bryce Harper jersey. If that thing was on the open market, it would go for quite a bit. In Versailles, Ohio it might not be that expensive, but even so our event was a huge success.”
Over the years he said money has been raised for a new field, new mound, dugouts, fencing and now a storage unit, press box, restroom and maybe even a batting cage are being built.
Although many of his offseason workouts are in Cincinnati, he does some of them at UD, where he spends considerable time with UD baseball coach Tony Vittorio, who he said has become his good friend.
Stammen and Blevins are great marketing tools for UD baseball now. They show that it’s possible to make the big leagues from the Flyers program.
And come May, Stammen will also be proof you can get your degree here.
He said he won’t be able to march at the May 4 graduation ceremonies. “I’m sure we’re playing that day,” he said, and he was right. The Nationals are in Philadelphia.
While he said he hasn’t added any new pitches (along with his trademark sinker, he has a fastball, a curve and “a change-up I use about four times a year”) – he said he is trying to perfect what he already throws.
And yet, as the MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds put it recently, Stammen just might be able to add something he’s learned these past few months to his pitching repertoire this season:
“Now he’ll be able to throw the book at them.”