Jared Oliva Continues to Surprise People
By Jason Dorow
For aspiring young baseball players, there’s one particular phrase that they never want to hear.
“You’re going to get cut.”
At some point, every ballplayer is bound to get cut; only a select few will make the MLB. For Jared Oliva, the potential cut simply came too early.
The son of a professional ballplayer, Oliva grew up on baseball. It was the only sport he played, with the exception of one season of football. As a kid, baseball consumed his everyday life.
“We were constantly watching the game, playing the game, talking about it, so my baseball IQ went through the roof,” he said.
Oliva’s father, Dave, played in the Red Sox organization from 1982-1986, and he helped coach Jared’s little league teams in practice whenever possible.
When his dad wasn’t teaching him the game, Jared’s siblings were pushing him to improve. The youngest in the family, Oliva has two older brothers, Nick and Dylan, and the competition among the three of them is relentless.
“You don’t want to be at our house,” Jared said. “It’s just constant competition. I could beat you here. I could beat you there. He’s (Nick) got about two inches on me and about 70 pounds, but I can still boss him around a little bit.”
Nick starred on the football field, and he’s finished his collegiate career as a defensive end at New Mexico State, while Jared and Dylan played baseball at Valencia High School, which is about 40 miles north of Los Angeles. With two school years separating the brothers, they rarely played together.
In fact, Jared was not playing much at all.
High School Struggles
As a freshman, Oliva broke his wrist while diving to catch a fly ball in a scrimmage two days before the season started. Jared was out for six weeks before doctors removed the cast from his hand and allowed him to play the final week of the season.
Even at full health, Oliva did not see the field much in the following years. He was primarily a back-up outfielder during his sophomore and junior seasons, and he was only briefly in a starting role during his senior year.
“I definitely have a different story than most people, most division one guys. Like I was a back-up high school outfielder,” Oliva said. “I was confident in my abilities that I could play division one baseball. It was just a matter of the right eyes seeing me because obviously I wasn’t getting the exposure through high school.”
Eventually, the right eyes found the 6-foot-2, 180 pound outfielder from Saugas, CA. Former University of Arizona pitching coach Shaun Cole saw Oliva at a camp and after observing his talent on the field, Arizona offered him a preferred walk-on spot.
With the walk-on option, there was no guarantee that Oliva would make the Wildcat roster. He would have to try out and beat more than a dozen other guys for a spot, and even if he did make it, he didn’t know how often he would get to play. Oliva remained confident though, despite objection from his high school coach.
“When I went to the camp, they offered me a walk-on ordeal,” Oliva said. “I came back and told him (coach) the news, and he’s like it’s only a walk-on thing. You’re not going to make it. You’re going to get cut.”
“I said you know what, it’s time to prove some people wrong so I went to Arizona. It was my only option, besides junior college. I didn’t have any division two or division three offers, no other schools, so those were the only two options. And I felt confident enough that I could make it.”
And make it he did. After Arizona invited nearly 50 players to try out for their fall roster in 2013, Oliva emerged as a member of the 35-man roster.
“I realized it was a fresh start, like a new beginning,” he said. “All they know is I have talent, all the tools. They haven’t really seen anything else. They don’t really know me.”
Through the try-out process and beyond, the Arizona coaching staff motivated Oliva to beat the odds, sometimes through the most unexpected of forms.
“Our coach would always give us a picture of a cat looking in the mirror and it sees a lion, like you see yourself bigger than what you really are,” Oliva said. “I kind of used that as my motivation, and it really helped. It got me through the fall and eventually to where I am today.”
The Big Break
Although he had made the roster, Oliva had to wait another year to see the field. Arizona relegated him to the bench in 2014, and he took a redshirt year.
Oliva said that in the moment, he wanted to play. He felt he had competed with everybody and deserved a shot in game. Thinking long-term though, Oliva looks at his first year in Tucson much differently.
“I’m really young for my grade. I should be a true sophomore age-wise,” said Oliva, who won’t turn 20 until November. “Looking back at it now, I’m so happy I redshirted. If I would have played 5-6 games and kind of burned my year, I’m looking at my junior year coming up and it’s a whole lot different situation going on.”
When Oliva finally got the opportunity to prove himself this past season, he performed phenomenally. He hit .272 in 43 games with 22 runs scored, nine doubles, one home run, 20 RBI and 12 walks.
It was the first time since little league that Oliva was consistently a starter.
He racked up some of the most impressive numbers any walk-on will ever post as a redshirt freshman, and he did it in one of the most competitive conferences in the country, the Pac-12.
“I definitely had a lot of stuff to prove from a personal standpoint. I wanted to do anything I could to contribute because the year before I had to sit there and watch it all,” Oliva said. “I kind of realized that I was getting thrown into the fire of the Pac-12. It’s funny to think about it that way.”
Along the way in the 2015 season, Oliva had a couple of very special moments, one of which he manufactured and another that no one saw coming.
In his first year at Arizona, Oliva’s parents found out he made the team before he had the opportunity to surprise them with the news. Realizing how dramatic the moment could have been, Oliva looked for the chance to surprise them with something special.
That opportunity presented itself on the Wildcats’ 2015 home opener. Oliva’s parents planned to drive from Los Angeles for the game, and even some family members from North Carolina flew out to Tucson.
“A week into it, I knew I was going to be the starter opening day. They would always call and my dad would ask, ‘what’s the outfield looking like?’ And I was like Justin Behnke center, Zach Gibbons right maybe left field; I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
“I definitely wanted to keep it a surprise. I knew when they were in the stands and they announced my name in the starting lineup, it would mean a whole lot to them, something they won’t forget.”
With his family on hand, Oliva went 1-for-3 with a walk, a run scored and an RBI in his first game as a Wildcat. He remained in the starting lineup more often than not, getting the nod 38 times in a 55 game season. He almost always played left field, and that’s where he was when he made the most improbable of catches.
In a game against UCLA on May 15, a Bruin batter lifted a fly ball to shallow left field, and Arizona’s shortstop Kevin Newman tracked it into the outfield. While attempting to make the catch, the ball caromed off his glove and bounced off the top of his head. Oliva swooped in to make a diving grab after the ball fell from Newman’s noggin.
“If you look at the video, me and Newman make eye contact at each other like did that just happen? Did that really just go off your head?”
The play appeared on SportsCenter’s “Top 10” and “Not Top 10,” and soon enough Oliva was in the midst of his 15 minutes of fame.
“I was getting texts from everybody, so it was definitely cool to share a ‘Top 10’ play with a first rounder,” Oliva said. “That was awesome.”
A Summer Sensation
After being kept in the shadows during his high school career, the spotlight has followed Oliva not just at Arizona but in the Northwoods League.
Oliva went 5-for-5 with a grand slam and two doubles in his debut with the Woodchucks. He currently leads the team in stolen bases with 14 swipes and has made an array of diving catches in the outfield.
In between all the highlight reel plays, there was one scary moment for Oliva. On June 9, in a game against the Battle Creek Bombers at Athletic Park, he was hit in the helmet by an 85 mile per hour fastball.
Oliva went straight to the ground and lay there for a couple minutes while the training staff attended to him. Athletic Park went completely silent.
Luckily for Oliva, he didn’t lose consciousness or sustain a concussion. However, his ear was split open and required ten stitches to seal up.
“The trainers were freaking out, and I’m like honestly I feel fine. It’s just a cut on my ear. They said it’s a little more than that,” Oliva said. “I only took a day off and I was back at it. I got a nice scar to show off, and it’s a cool story to tell I guess.”
Just three days later Oliva was back in the starting lineup against the Green Bay Bullfrogs and helped the Chucks win 7-4.
It has been a crazy 24 months for Oliva. From back-up outfielder to a standout walk-on to SportsCenter sensation, he’s seen it all. And he’s still just a 19-year-old college kid with a simple goal.
“I definitely want to play as long as I can,” Oliva said. “Ten to twelve years in the big leagues is the ideal goal, but it’s important to get my education so I always have that to fall back on.”
Oliva is studying sports marketing and sports management at the Eller College of Management at Arizona and said that when his playing days are over, he wants to stay around the sporting world.
“I was looking into working for a Nike or an Under Armour, but even being a promotions manager for a minor league team or a summer ball team would fall under the same category. I've got a lot of options I guess.”
Every option available to Oliva he has earned. He’s weathered the storm to make it to the highest level of collegiate baseball. There is plenty of work left to do to make the pros, but for now, Oliva finally has the chance to simply enjoy the game he loves to play.
“My main goals (for the Northwoods League) were to relax and have fun. I get too tense in games and think too much,” Oliva said. “It’s just about playing the game and having fun. As long as I do that, I’ll be happy.”