UCLA baseball coach John Savage gets lots of messages from former players. His favorites are the ones letting him know an ex-Bruin has been promoted to the majors. There’s one player Savage wants to see get the call in particular: Eric Filia.
“You’re really pulling for this guy,” Savage said. “I really do think he has one of the most elite eyes in the game. All you have to do is look at his strikeouts, his walks, his ability to control the strike zone. I mean literally, it’s one of the most elite eyes in the game, period. It’s just he hasn’t checked some other boxes, and he’s got in his own way a lot of times.
“I think he is now completely out of his own way, and we all hope it’s just not too late.”
Filia, the Seattle Mariners’ 20th-round selection in 2016, hasn’t made his MLB debut despite being drafted almost five years ago. But, the outfielder, who is in Triple-A with the Rainiers, will realize a different career dream this summer after he was selected to join Team USA for the Tokyo Olympics, adding another step to his long, and at times arduous, journey in professional baseball.
“I never thought I’d be where I am now, especially with my past,” he said. “I’ve been from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs, so just hearing my name, especially from Mike Scioscia, it was pretty awesome.”
One of UCLA’s standout performers during the 2013 College World Series, Filia seemed to be on the right path. As a sophomore, the Southern California native started 63 games, and in the championship-clinching game against Mississippi State, Filia notched five RBI as UCLA won the only College World Series in program history.
Things quickly went downhill. A labrum injury forced Filia to take a medical redshirt in 2014, and a year later he missed the entire season after he was caught plagiarizing a paper.
Savage let Filia return to the program in 2016, and the outfielder played well enough to catch the eyes of Mariners scouts. His first season of pro ball was productive, as he rose from an unknown quantity to the Mariners’ No. 21 prospect. But once again, just as his career began to trend up, Filia’s prospects took another major blow.
On Jan. 18, 2018, Filia was suspended by MLB for 50 games following a second positive test for drugs of abuse, defined by the minor-league testing program as either a recreational drug, such as marijuana or cocaine, or a stimulant, like amphetamines.
“He’s just a really genuine guy at the end of the day, but there were so many missteps,” Savage said. “There was so much immaturity, so much temptation that he really struggled. He really struggled.”
Filia’s tribulations didn’t end there. Upon his return, the Mariners traded him to the Boston Red Sox as the player to be named later following the acquisition of reliever Roenis Elías. Filia failed the physical, and returned to the Mariners organization. A year later, in 2019, he was suspended again for testing positive for drugs of abuse a third time, resulting in a 100-game ban.
The outfielder learned about the suspension while working out at the Mariners’ complex during spring training, and remembers someone coming up to him and telling him he needed to look for a different job.
Filia persevered, crediting the Mariners organization and especially Director of Player Development Andy McKay for continuing to support him and giving him opportunities.
“It was a tough situation,” he said. “But I put everything on the back burner, and I always knew baseball was never going to end for me there.”
Added Savage: “His whole persona, and his whole mindset has matured. He’s still a character to a lot of players. There is a mystery to Eric, but if you get to know him, know what he’s about, know what he can bring, know how much he cares, I’ve just got to believe there’s more value there than some people recognize.”
Filia turned his attention to the final 35 games of the 2019 season. He hit .331 with the Rainiers and played well in the Dominican Republic’s winter league. Heading into 2020, Filia felt he finally had a shot at his first MLB appearance. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the former UCLA star didn’t even make the Mariners’ taxi squad.
Initially frustrated, Filia decided to go home and spend his newly found free time with his family — his girlfriend and their five children. He also picked up some hobbies, including gardening, woodworking and cooking. It’s his family and support system which Filia, Savage and Rainiers manager Kristopher Negrón believe have helped him resurrect his career.
“The way he talks about his family, the way he talks about his kids, he just genuinely cares and wants what’s best for them,” Negrón said. “When you have a conversation with him, you can see it in his eyes, you can see it in his heart, how much he cares about family.”
Filia was also reinvigorated by his involvement with USA Baseball. He’d participated in the program since he was 16 years old, but the lefty had never made a final roster, and after baseball was removed from the Olympics in 2008, Filia thought he’d missed his chance.
With the return of baseball to the Tokyo Olympics, Filia was recalled for international duty, and in Team USA’s final qualifying game against Venezuela, he delivered with a two-run homer in the fourth inning to give the United States a 2-1 lead.
“I’m just going to try and take everything in,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to do this again, be an Olympian, again. I’m taking this all in with an open heart, and I’m going to love every second of it.”
Savage and others who have seen him grow over the past five years are excited to see him become the player and person they’ve always known he could be. And though he hasn’t received it yet, Savage hopes the next time Filia calls, it will be to tell him the lefty is headed up the I-5 corridor to T-Mobile Park.
“Right when he’s trending up, he gets knocked down, and then when you think he’s knocked out, he gets back up,” Savage said. “It’s just been a constant up-and-down career, but it’s fun to see him have an opportunity to be in the Olympics.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Filia and his girlfriend have five children, not three as originally reported.