Rise of the underdog: Undrafted free agent Michael Stefanic knocking on Angels’ door

Michael Stefanic began 2021 in Double-A with the Rocket City Trash Pandas, where he hit .345 before joining the Salt Lake Bees in late May. (Photo courtesy Rocket City Trash Pandas)

PHOENIX – Michael Stefanic has flown under the radar throughout the minor leagues with the Los Angeles Angels organization.

That’s about to change.

The 25-year-old utility infielder is on the brink of breaking into the big leagues after hitting .337 for the Salt Lake Bees, the Triple-A affiliate of the Angels.

Stefanic isn’t just a regular prospect waiting on the call from the Angels. His story is not one that follows a straight path. Instead, Stefanic alone is responsible for his professional baseball career, one that started in 2018 at the Angels’ rookie-level affiliate in Arizona.

Tempe Diablo Stadium is where Stefanic honed his craft in what was then the Arizona League (renamed Arizona Complex League in 2021). He spent a few short, but influential, weeks in the Valley developing his skills, a continuation of the growth Stefanic saw while in college. He still calls Tempe home.

Disappointment came early

As a junior at Westmont College, an NAIA school in Montecito, California, two MLB teams reached out to Stefanic, interested in drafting him.

“Obviously, it didn’t work out,” Stefanic said. “Then, senior year I had a few more teams say they were willing to draft me. I got a little discouraged because I was hearing one thing from the scouts and then I wasn’t getting a call on draft day.”

In 2018, he graduated from Westmont. Stefanic went undrafted and thought his baseball career was over.

“I was lost, mentally and emotionally. It was tough,” Stefanic said. “I decided to drive home to Idaho to clear my head and figure out what to do next.”

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But before he made the drive back to his hometown of Boise, he stopped in Manhattan Beach to see his then-girlfriend, whose uncle works in the San Diego Padres front office. He recommended that Stefanic put together a baseball resume and a prospect video and send it to all 30 teams.

“I remember going down with him to the high school baseball field. I took an iPad with me,” Stefanic’s father, Mike, said. “His high school coach hit him some ground balls, threw him some batting practice and (Stefanic) took some swings.”

Stefanic sent that home video to over 200 different people within all 30 teams.

“I got some responses. Most were like, ‘Hey man, I appreciate you reaching out, but we don’t have any options available right now for you,’” Stefanic said. “One of those emails was from the Angels, actually.”

Again, Stefanic was discouraged. Two weeks passed, and Stefanic, who earned an economics and business degree, just returned home from a job interview for a legal assistant opening. He was about to give up baseball forever.

“I got a call from a random number that I didn’t know,” Stefanic said. “I’m glad I answered it.”

On the other end of the line was the Angels, telling Stefanic that the organization would like to sign him. The first question to Stefanic was, “How fast can you get out to Arizona?”

“I said, ‘Shoot, I can be there tomorrow,’” Stefanic said. “I packed up all my stuff, put it in my car and made a seven-hour drive to Arizona.”

That brief but memorable time in Tempe was the beginning of professional baseball for the under-recruited player from Idaho.

Idaho roots

Idaho isn’t known for baseball. The state doesn’t have a single Division I baseball program. The high school season typically runs from April to May, because the springtime weather in the northwest isn’t conducive to playing baseball.

So when did Stefanic come to love the game?

Around age 3 or 4, his father said.

“He had mastered the rules and strategy of baseball by playing the EA Sports MLB game on video,” Mike Stefanic said. “He just loved it and played it for hours.”

The obsession with the game continued into his youth, when he would play catch with his mother, MiChele, in the backyard of their Boise home.

Michael Stefanic is hoping to become the fourth active MLB player from Idaho this September, after quickly rising through the Angels’ minor league system. In Little League, he consistently played with kids a couple years older. (Photos courtesy MiChele Stefanic)

“I think I was the first one to actually throw baseballs with Michael. I would really like to say that I have a hand in his success,” MiChele said, laughing.

In Little League, Stefanic consistently played with kids a few years older. He played on varsity his freshman year of high school. His father, Stefanic, said his son had the baseball IQ and God-given skills of a player who could take his talents to the college baseball field. The issue was the lack of scouting in Idaho.

“(In Idaho), you never really got exposed to what people have in California or Arizona,” said Mike Stefanic. “He didn’t get the exposure that he really needed to get.”

But a family friend who assists high school athletes with college recruitment gave the Stefanics a suggestion that set off a series of events, ultimately helping Stefanic continue to play his favorite game.

“My friend said, ‘Mike, if you don’t do anything else, make sure you take him to the Stanford baseball camp,’” Mike Stefanic said.

Stefanic arrived at the camp with about 800 other high school players looking to get recruited. The players were split into teams, each led by a different college coach. Stefanic was put on the team coached by Robert Ruiz, the Westmont College coach.

Ruiz liked the way Stefanic played. In the fall of 2015, Stefanic walked onto the baseball team at Westmont. He arrived as the fourth second baseman on the depth chart.

By the end of the fall, Stefanic held the starting second baseman job.

He piled up a slew of honors and etched his name into the record books while at Westmont.

Stefanic was named to the All-GSAC team and the GSAC Gold Glove Team all four of his years in college, which made him the first player in team history to earn either award all four years.

By the time he graduated, Stefanic held the record for career at-bats, runs scored, hits, doubles, total bases and hit by pitch.

Even with these accolades in hand, Stefanic went undrafted. After emailing his homemade prospect video to teams, he signed a minor league contract with the Angels in July 2018.

Now, a little over three years later, Stefanic is poised to be a September call up for the Angels. Stefanic fully believes, and has proved, that he has the tools to succeed in MLB.

“I know he’s really thankful for friends and family members, and even people who we don’t know. We’re excited about what the next few weeks are going to hold for him,” MiChele said.

“The Angels have been more than gracious to give a kid like Michael a chance,” Mike Stefanic said. “He deserves to be moved up every step and frankly, I think he deserves to be moved up to the major leagues to give it a shot.”

MiChele and Mike agree that they’ll be ecstatic when Stefanic gets the call.

“He just approaches every day as another opportunity to really play a game that he loves. He’s in heaven,” Mike Stefanic said. “He just wants to make that next step — I know he’s excited to do that. And he’ll continue to do whatever he needs to do to perform to get there.”

Abby Sharpe abb-ee sh-ar-p (she/her)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Abby Sharpe expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Sharpe, who has covered sports for Cronkite News, Inferno Intel and as a freelancer, is working in the Phoenix Sports Bureau.