TAMPA — Today's Florida Four baseball doubleheader, with USF, Florida, Florida State and Miami playing at Steinbrenner Field, is a celebration of the ample talent within arm's reach of the state's top programs.
Just the same, not everybody on the rosters is from just down the road.
Local colleges can stock their rosters with great in-state prospects, but there are other stories of players who have taken considerably longer paths. USF junior catcher Eric Sim is one of those stories — born in South Korea, raised in British Columbia and plucked off the roster of a small community college in Kansas.
"I don't know how we stole him," Bulls assistant Bryant Ward said. "I have no idea. We lucked into it. But he's been awesome so far. He just works his tail off, he listens, he's coachable."
Bulls coach Lelo Prado likes Sim's 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame, but what has impressed him most is his attitude — a quiet humility and appreciation for his opportunity. When USF opened the season in Gainesville, Sim asked his coach if the Bulls would be making the two-hour bus ride back home to Tampa each night or if he needed to call his parents for meal money.
"You give him a batting glove, he appreciates it," Prado said. "I can't imagine him when we go to Oklahoma (this weekend). We're flying, so it'll blow his mind. It's a very positive thing about him."
Ryan Carter, Sim's coach at Colby Community College, remembers his own luck in landing Sim out of Abbotsford, British Columbia, about an hour's drive outside Vancouver. An assistant coach, getting a recommendation from his brother, drove 22 hours to see Sim play in a baseball showcase and wound up with a two-year starter.
Sim grew up with baseball in South Korea before moving with his family at age 10, and when his Canadian high school didn't offer the sport, he played rugby instead.
He played club baseball, and the rugby gave him a toughness coaches want at the plate when a runner is coming in hard from third.
"One of the toughest kids I've known," Carter said. "He'd get hit with foul balls, and the rule was I didn't go out there unless he was flat on his back. He didn't want you out there otherwise. He's the best catcher I've ever had, and nobody works harder than Eric."
Carter, like Prado, saw a real drive in Sim on the field but the same rare contentment outside of baseball. "On a bus ride home, if he's got a box of Oreos, he's a happy kid," he said.
Sim is notoriously quiet. That trait and his Asian background have prompted USF teammates to affectionately call him "Panda" — he has one on the side of his helmet.
"He's such a great kid, everybody on the team loves him," said Prado, who set him up as a roommate to sophomore Sam Mende and junior Ryan Lockwood, two team mainstays who had strong debut seasons in the past two years.
Despite hitting a team-best six home runs at Colby, Sim had only a handful of colleges recruiting him — USF beat out Louisiana-Monroe and Texas-Pan American.
Ward said Sim, 21, has a big transition from Colby ("They have a movie theater and bowling alley, and that's about it," he says) to Tampa and a school with 46,000-plus students. So much of his life is new — when he came to USF for an official visit in November 2008, coaches took him to a Bulls football game, the first of any kind he'd attended.
He's still adjusting to the speed of major-college baseball, and after a rough weekend, he's batting .235, part of a tough start for the Bulls, who are hitting just .229 in a 1-5 start.
"I love it. This is everything I'd imagined it would be," said Sim, who is working toward a degree in gerontology, the study of aging. "My main goal was to get my degree, to finish my education, but to play baseball in good competition like this, it's a blast."