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A 29-year-old Rays rookie engineers his own baseball love story

John Romano: Cole Sulser was drafted late, had two major surgeries and spent seven years in the minors, all with a pair of Dartmouth engineering degrees in his back pocket.
Rays rookie Cole Sulser spent five years at Dartmouth and seven years in the minor league systems of the Indians and Rays before finally getting the call to the majors at age 29.
Rays rookie Cole Sulser spent five years at Dartmouth and seven years in the minor league systems of the Indians and Rays before finally getting the call to the majors at age 29. [ ALLIE GOULDING | Times ]
Published Sep. 3, 2019
Updated Sep. 3, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — He was sitting on a potential goldmine, and living like a vagabond.

This is what baseball can do to a person. It entices, it teases. It can convince otherwise sensible people to take crappy bus trips and eat at late-night diners instead of cashing in on an Ivy League education.

This is what brought Cole Sulser to Tropicana Field.

He is a Major League Baseball player. Finally. Thankfully. Somewhat miraculously. He’s more than a decade removed from high school, and six years past his second degree at Dartmouth. His first Tommy John surgery was in 2012, and his second was in 2015. Of the 29 other players drafted along with him in the 25th round in 2013, not a single one is currently in the majors.

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He’s older than Kevin Kiermaier and Ji-Man Choi. Older than Avisail Garcia and Matt Duffy. He was put on a big league roster for the first time this week at age 29.

And, by the way, he’s still paying off his college loans.

This is a baseball love story.

“We each had to take out student loans,’’ said his younger brother Beau, who also graduated from Dartmouth and is pitching in Double-A for the Pirates. “Most people get out of a school like Dartmouth and start making pretty good money. But when you’re (drafted) as a senior, you’re only signing for $5,000 or $2,500 (in bonus money) and that’s not paying off any of your loans.

“So now you’re making $1,200 a month in Double-A or $1,500 a month in Triple-A and still trying to pay off student loans, and it makes life hard. You might not have the money to go have a couple of beers or go do this or that. But, I’ll tell you, it makes it that much sweeter when it does pay off. Sure, it’s about making it, but for him he loves baseball so he didn’t want to do anything else.’’

This is the payoff. Today, tomorrow, however long it lasts.

Sulser was part of Tampa Bay’s September call-ups, which means he’ll most likely be seen pitching an inning or two in relief in lopsided games. And that’s fine. That’s the deal.

You see, most players learn at a young age that sacrifice is part of the package. In Cole Sulser’s case, that meant setting his alarm at 5 a.m. when he was an 8-year-old because his father Roy is a general contractor and would leave the house by 5:30. So pitching practice was a pre-dawn occupation.

It meant that when neither scouts nor college recruiters banged on his door in Santa Ysabel in southern California, he committed early to Dartmouth to guarantee a valuable education along with a Division I roster spot.

Rays pitcher Cole Sulser faced off against the Miami Hurricanes in the 2010 NCAA regionals. After leaving Dartmouth, he's taken nine years to reach the majors.
Rays pitcher Cole Sulser faced off against the Miami Hurricanes in the 2010 NCAA regionals. After leaving Dartmouth, he's taken nine years to reach the majors. [ RON HURST | ZUMAPRESS.com ]
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And when he would ask his father or his mother, an elementary school principal, about the wisdom of chasing a dream that seemed tantalizingly out of reach in his late 20s, they told him the same thing:

“Play baseball as long as you can if that’s what you love to do,’’ his father said. “You have a couple of degrees from Dartmouth and you can still be an engineer at 55, but you can’t play this type of baseball when you’re 55. I’ll help him follow his dream as long as he can. You don’t make money in the minor leagues but if you love the game then do what you love.’’

It’s not as if Sulser’s dream was completely without logic. It’s just the incongruity of a guy with an education potentially worth millions still choosing the harder route through life.

Drafted by the Indians in 2013, Sulser was second on Dartmouth’s all-time victories list with a 20-6 career record. He spent a couple of largely forgettable seasons as a starter in the minors before a second Tommy John surgery wiped out more than a year. When he returned, Sulser moved to the bullpen where he ditched a curveball and sinker and began focusing on being more of a power pitcher.

He hovered in Triple-A for the next three seasons, too close to give up but too far away to appreciate the rewards of the majors. He was traded to the Rays last off-season in the Yandy Diaz/Jake Bauers deal and put up good numbers at Durham but had never been added to the 40-man roster.

When told he was being promoted over the weekend, he called Beau who had just made his last appearance of the season at Double-A Altoona. They talked about Beau’s outing for five minutes, and then Cole went into great depth about his own two-inning appearance.

“Finally he says, ‘I gave up a couple of runs but I don’t think it’s going to matter.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’’’ Beau said. “He said, ‘I got called up.’ I just went bananas on the phone.’’

Standing in the Rays clubhouse a couple of days later, Cole reflected on a journey that has dominated more than half his life. So which is harder, I asked, getting two engineering degrees at an Ivy League school or reaching the big league?

“Oh man, that’s a tough one,’’ he laughed. “I would say making it to the major leagues is tougher. There are other guys who probably say the other would be tougher, but I’ve spent more time in the minors trying to get here than I did getting my degree. Both are something I’m now proud to say I did.’’

You’ve got to love this game.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.