The call came last Monday night, one day after Eric Yardley’s 29th birthday, and eight years after he was nearly demoted to ball boy for the Seattle University baseball program.
Yardley was just about to sit down for dinner with his wife, Tia, at their home in El Paso, Texas, last Monday when the El Paso Chihuahuas manager, Edwin Rodriguez, called to deliver the good news: Yardley had been called up to the big leagues. He was going to pitch for the San Diego Padres.
“He said something like, ‘The Padres need you in Cincinnati,’ and I don’t remember what he said after that,” Yardley said. “I just broke down.”
That conversation was much different than the one he had had with Seattle U coach Donny Harrel after the 2011 season.
Yardley, as a 6-foot-1, 147-pound freshman, had come to Seattle U as part of the first recruiting class for the Redhawks’ return as a baseball program following a 30-year hiatus. A 4.0 student at Richland High School, Yardley never thought of himself as Division-I prospect, and he didn’t look like one his first two seasons with the Redhawks. A two-way player, he had an .068 batting average (two hits in 29 at-bats) as a part-time second baseman and a 5.13 ERA in 29 appearances on the mound.
Yardley can still picture the scene when he sat down in Harrel’s office after his sophomore season. The coach was frank: Unless there was a drastic change, Yardley wasn’t going to have a spot on the roster anymore. But, Harrel told him, we would love for you to stick around as a student manager (or, more casually, a ball boy).
“It was a real discussion,” Harrel recalled.
The coach did have a suggestion: Yardley could “drop down” his pitching arm and experiment with an extreme side-arm delivery.
“It was the last resort,” Yardley said.
And it worked.
As a side-armer, Yardley not only stuck on the Seattle U roster, he became the team’s closer for his final two seasons, saving 16 games and posting a 2.51 ERA in 51 appearances in 2012 and ’13.
Yardley was not one of the 1,216 players selected in the 2013 draft, and he had just enrolled in a Master’s teaching program at Seattle U when he was offered a chance to play independent ball in New Mexico — for $50 a week over a 10-week season. He took it.
Eventually, a scout from San Diego took notice of Yardley in New Mexico, and Yardley signed a minimal deal with the Padres. That began his seven-year ride through the minor leagues, with five affiliates over 297 games and 413 innings of relief.
Yardley was pitching as well as he ever has this season for El Paso in the Pacific Coast League, posting a 2.63 ERA in 41 games, and yet he still wondered if his call-up to the majors would ever come.
“It gets to a point when you realize that maybe what you’re doing doesn’t fit the system,” he said.
Then the call came last Monday.
“It’s been such a long journey, and I feel like I’ve been throwing as well as I can possibly could,” Yardley said in an interview from San Diego on Friday. “After seven years for it to finally happen, the only thing I could do right then was break down. It was very emotional.”
Yardley followed a similar path paved by Puyallup High product Adam Cimber, a fellow side-armer out of the University of Washington who made his major-league debut with the Padres last year. (Coincidentally, Yardley’s Richland High team beat Cimber’s Puyallup squad to win the state championship in 2009.)
Yardley is the first Seattle U player to play in the majors since the program’s reinstatement in 2010.
He made his debut with the Padres on Wednesday in Cincinnati, allowing three runs (only one earned). His parents, Chris and Michelle, made the trip from Richland to be in San Diego this weekend, joining Tia and Eric’s older brother, Brian. Eric pitched 2 2/3 innings against the Red Sox on Friday night, allowing two earned runs. Saturday, however, Eric was optioned back to El Paso after the two appearances.
In the offseason, Yardley often returns to Seattle U to work out with former teammates and visit with coaches. Last year, Harrel invited Yardley back to campus as a featured speaker for the program’s fundraising dinner.
“He got on stage in front of 423 people and he told his story — it’s a great story,” Harrel said. “He knew he was on the rocks here (in 2011), but he never lost confidence. And he told the crowd here that the next time he spoke at Seattle U he would be in the big leagues.
“And that son of a gun had some foreshadowing, didn’t he?”