By Gideon Rubin
Daniel Camarena concluded his distinguished Cathedral Catholic baseball career two years ago in the middle of a giant dog pile at Tony Gwynn Stadium as the Dons celebrated a San Diego Section championship.
Speculation about his career choices immediately swirled.
Would Camarena, a pitcher/outfielder who was almost certain to be selected in the June 2011 amateur draft, honor a commitment to University of San Diego or choose pro ball?
Would his arm or his bat be the focus of his future development?
With a stroke of the pen, he put an end to all the conjecture.
Camarena signed a professional contract with the New York Yankees that included a $335,000 signing bonus a few months after his high school graduation.
Camarena, now 20, has emerged as a left-handed pitching prospect in the Yankees organization.
“Since I made the decision I’ve been happy with it,” Camarena said in a telephone interview.
The former Dons star dropped to the 20th round because, according to published reports, he was thought to be leaning heavily to playing at San Diego. His signing bonus is considered to be in line with a player selected much earlier in the draft.
“When it came down to it the Yankees offered me the school part of it,” Camarena said of his decision. “I can go back (to school) whenever I want and develop as a pitcher and a pitcher only instead of a two-way guy at San Diego. I can focus on my craft as a pitcher.”
His focus appears to be paying off.
Camarena, who is in his first year playing professionally in a full-season league, overcame a shaky start and his since emerged as one of the Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs hottest pitchers.
Over his last seven appearances (including four starts), he’s allowed one run on six hits and two walks with 15 strikeouts over a stretch of 27 innings.
The Yankees have taken a conservative approach in Camarena’s development. He didn’t pitch after being drafted in 2011 and split last season between extended spring training games and the short-season Gulf Coast League.
He had a 1.02 ERA in GCL, striking out 15 batters and allowing eight hits and no walks in five games with no decisions.
Camarena’s success is especially impressive considering he’s competing against mostly older players in the Class-A South Atlantic League. Most players in the league were drafted out of college.
And the Yankees have taken notice.
“For him even being a 20-year-old he’s one of the more mature kids in terms of baseball knowledge,” RiverDogs pitching coach Danny Borrell said. “It just seems like he’s been around the game. It doesn’t seem like anything on the field really bothers him.”
Camarena hit a rough patch in May allowing 13 runs (12 earned) over a stretch of two consecutive bad starts. He’s 1-3 with a 4.87 ERA overall for the season.
“For him to make those adjustments as quick as he has is a testament to his ability and his knowledge of the game,” Borrell said.
Competing against older players was nothing new to Camarena, who regularly did so playing club ball. He was a key contributor at Cathedral Catholic as a sophomore.
But his experience playing against older professional players was different.
“These aren’t just older kids, these are the best of the best,” Camarena said. “It’s intimidating at first, but now I’ve got no fear out there. Everybody’s just another baseball player.”
He’s added to his baseball knowledge, learning about the game from coaches and rubbing shoulders with big leaguers on rehab assignments and at extended spring training.
Earlier this month Camarena played with a rehabbing Alex Rodriguez in games that were featured on ESPN highlights chronicling the slugging third baseman’s progress.
He played with pitchers Joba Chamberlain and David Aardsma and catcher Eduardo Nunez on rehab assignments last year.
He got to meet his childhood idol Andy Pettite last summer at extended spring training.
“What kind of surprised me is how big he is on faith and how his faith really plays in to why he’s been so fearless for so many years and still is to this day,” Camarena said. “That’s what really stuck with me.”
Camarena’s experience wearing a Dons uniform sticks with him too.
He cites playing against elite competition at Cathedral Catholic as a key part of his development. Among the players he regularly faced was La Costa Canyon’s Phillip Evans, who was drafted by Mets in the 15th round of the 2011 draft.
His best high school memories include pitching a complete game to lead the Dons to a 3-2 win against El Capitan in the 2011 San Diego Section Division III title game.
“That goes with me everywhere,” Camarena said. “Every year I go back there to see the school and see our banner from that year. That was a big accomplishment for me.”
Camarena acknowledges life in the minors isn’t all fun and games, noting that the long bus rides, bad food, and sweltering heat and humidity are among the challenges he faces daily.
“Everybody thinks (professional baseball players) make a lot of money and life’s easy and you’ve got everything you want and the reality it’s a hard grind,” Camarena said. “You’re out here fighting every day; it’s a dog-eat-dog world here in the minor leagues.
“It’s always fun but there’s always going to be those long days and especially if you’re in a slump, you’ve got to be ready for anything out here.”