By Rob Potter
SULLIVAN COUNTY August 17, 2004 Like thousands of other college freshmen around the nation, Eric Berger spent this past weekend moving into a dorm room, meeting fellow students and getting acclimated to the campus.
But unlike those thousands of other freshmen, Berger had a difficult decision to make a couple of months ago. That decision was whether to enter the Major League Baseball draft and sign a lucrative contract after being chosen by one of the 30 MLB teams or accept a full athletic scholarship to a university that has one of the countrys best baseball programs.
Berger, who graduated from Woodcreek High School in Roseville, California in May, attracted the attention of several major league scouts and coaches of many top-notch college baseball programs with his pitching performances during the past two seasons.
This spring, the senior left-hander went 9-2 with a 0.97 earned run average. He led the state of California with 171 strikeouts, an average of 2.2 per inning.
He also excelled offensively, posting a batting average of over .400 as the teams number three batter in the lineup.
Berger and his Woodcreek teammates captured the sectional championship for the Sacramento area.
In addition, Berger received some individual awards and accolades. He was named the Sacramento Bee Player of the Year for the Sacramento Metro Area, which covers a 50-mile radius around Sacramento. The Class A minor league affiliate of the Oakland As chooses first- and second-team all-stars and presents scholarships to area high schools in honor of those players. As a result, money will be donated in Eric Bergers name to next years senior class at Woodcreek High School.
Of course, Berger received plenty of advice from family members and friends about his important decision.
In the end, Berger chose to accept the baseball scholarship to the University of Arizona.
It was my decision, said Eric Berger, whose parents, father Mitch Berger, and mother, Sandra Gather, whose maiden name is Wexler, both grew up here in Sullivan County and graduated from Fallsburg Central School.
Mitch Berger said his son was projected to be a mid-second round pick in the major league draft, which took place in June. The Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Devil Rays were each prepared to select Eric and offer him a contract in the range of $400,000 to $500,000.
While some other 18-year-olds might have preferred the large pro contracts over the college baseball experience, Eric Berger is happy with his choice.
Im going to be playing for a great program, he said. Another three years will be perfect for me. Ill be ready [for the major leagues] then.
Berger will be eligible for the major league draft again in three years.
Ill go then for sure, he said.
For now, Eric is looking forward to playing for Arizona and Coach Andy Lopez. Now in his fourth year at Arizona, Lopez won a College World Series championship in 1994 while coaching at Pepperdine.
Right after Labor Day, Berger and his Wildcat teammates will begin playing a fall season of approximately 20 games.
This summer, Eric worked at a Golds Gym near his home and spent some time taking it easy before facing the demands of being a student-athlete at an NCAA Division I-A university. Included in his schedule was a trip to Sullivan County.
Its just relaxing, hanging out with my family, he said of visiting the county. I also went fishing, that was fun.
Earlier this month, Eric joined his father, stepmother Rebecca, and several other family members at the Hurleyville home of his grandparents, Ralph and Mary Berger. Among those family members were two of his aunts Penny Berger, who lives in Woodridge and is a nurse at Catskill Regional Medical Center in Harris, and Suanne Barry, a Liberty resident who is a teachers assistant at Liberty Middle School.
Eric has always enjoyed coming to visit us, Ralph Berger said.
I think he visits for the New York pizza, added Mitch Berger, smiling as he spoke.
Of course, all of his family members here in Sullivan County are very proud of Eric and his accomplishments.
Big time, said Ralph Berger. We went out to California to see a couple of his games in person. We also have a lot of videotapes of his games.
As one of his aunts noted, Eric eats and sleeps baseball. Although he used to play other sports as a youngster, Eric began to focus strictly on baseball in the seventh grade. Ten years ago, Erics mother Sandy and stepfather Ron Gather found a pitching coach to work with him.
That baseball training, combined with his natural talent, has taken Eric a long way. In middle school, he played with a traveling team. In the summer of 2003, Eric was a member of the USA Junior National Team that captured a silver medal at the Pan American Games.
One of Erics goals is to play in the College World Series. If he and his Arizona teammates get that opportunity in the next couple of years, they will have a large cheering section at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska.
I still have a lot of friends out there, said Mitch Berger, who is a Lt. Col. in the United States Air Force and was stationed at a base near Omaha in the 1990s.
In fact, Mitch took Eric to the College World Series back in 1995.
Whether he returns to the CWS as a player or not, Eric Berger wants to continue playing baseball as long as he possibly can.
Im just hoping everything works out, he said. Ive worked very hard to get to this point and I want to take that next step into the major leagues. I dont want a regular job ever.