Elon alumni very present in America’s pastime
Brian Hopkins ’98, Nathan Rode ’07, Jocelyn Fern ’07 and Joseph DiRienzo ’14 don’t play on the diamond, but the Elon University alumni have found worthwhile careers in baseball.
For most, the sight of longtime manager Jack McKeon ’63 sitting in a major league dugout – cigar smoke likely hanging in the air – is the preeminent image of an Elon University alum working in baseball. If not McKeon, then certainly longtime MLB umpire Joe West ’74 or collegiate baseball coaches Jim Morris ’73 and Jim Schlossnagle ’92 come to mind.
While these four individuals established Elon’s baseball legacy, there is a new crop of alumni impacting America’s game, but not necessarily on the field. Whether it’s in scouting, coaching, multimedia production or event management, Elon alumni found a home on the diamond.
There’s no better recent example of this fact than USA Baseball’s January video previewing its National High School Invitational. In the two-minute clip touting prep prospects, Joseph DiRienzo ’14, multimedia coordinator at USA Baseball, provided an intro and outro for tournament analysis from Nathan Rode ’07, national supervisor at Prep Baseball Report.
“I've joked with people that Elon is taking over the baseball world,” said Rode.
A few years back, an assistant coach for Morris’ University of Miami baseball team said as much upon hearing that Rode matriculated Under the Oaks. “I can not get away from you [Elon] guys,” he told Rode. “You guys are everywhere.”
During his recent scouting trips, Rode has found there’s truth to the Miami coach’s claim. Rode’s crossed paths with Brian Hopkins ’98, a crosschecker for the St. Louis Cardinals, Rafael Reyes ’10, an area scout for the Colorado Rockies in South Florida, and a multitude of other scouts, coaches and baseball officials with Elon ties.
Likewise, the USA Baseball training complex in Cary is essentially a multi-year Elon alumni reunion. In addition to DiRienzo, USA Baseball employs Jocelyn Fern ’07, director of travel services, and Lauren Oldham ’14, assistant director of amateur development. Alyson Boyer Rode ’06, a professional photographer and Nathan’s wife, is also a regular at the complex.
Why are so many Elon alumni working in baseball? Rode has a theory. “It’s a combination of things. You have people receiving a good education from a good school, where they are exposed to good baseball,” he said. “That’s a great recipe.”
For the love of the game
For Rode, Hopkins and DiRienzo, the realization they wanted to work in baseball was cemented when their playing days ended.
Today, DiRienzo shoots and edits video, among other multimedia responsibilities, for various USA Baseball events. It’s an extension of the New Jersey native’s childhood, where he grew up playing baseball and competing on travel teams. Eventually, however, he turned his attention to the field of communications, thanks in part to an engaging TV production class in high school.
“Baseball has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” said the Elon media arts and entertainment major. “When I realized I wasn’t good enough to get paid to do it, I figured the next best thing would be to cover baseball.”
Hopkins’ passion for the sport began around the time he started playing catch with his father in an alley behind their Baltimore, Maryland, home. Stories of his grandfather’s own minor league career further stoked the youngster’s dreams. “I can say that baseball was something I have always loved,” he said.
Following a successful walk-on tryout at Elon, Hopkins suited up for coaches Billy Best and Mike Kennedy in the mid-1990s. He was by no means a star, explaining, “I was one of the last players on the team.”
A torn quad and a realization of his limitations led Hopkins to volunteer for Kennedy in spring 1998, helping prep the team for its upcoming opponents. Fifteen years later, Hopkins’ career in scouting continues, overseeing three area scouts in a multi-state region that reaches from South Carolina to Maine and Tennessee to Michigan. One of his scouting finds was the Cardinals’ starting first baseman, Matt Adams.
“There is no doubt I wouldn’t be where I am today without what I learned at Elon from coach Best and coach Kennedy,” Hopkins said. (Best is now an area scout for the Atlanta Braves. Kennedy, of course, is now leading the Phoenix for his 19 season.)
As an Elon undergraduate, Rode lived and breathed baseball, recalled Fern. While on campus, the two were neighbors, and Rode – then a Pendulum staff member covering the sport and not playing it – had a way of turning every conversation into a discussion about baseball. “Everything that came out of his mouth was about baseball,” Fern laughed. “It has always been his passion, and it has been great to watch him turn his passion into a job.”
Rode enjoys covering the nation's best prep baseball prospects, spotting tomorrow’s stars years before they appear on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight.” “That’s a big deal for me, as someone who loves the game so much and wants to be as close to it as possible,” he said.
Making your break
In the months leading up to summer 1997, Hopkins likely made a few adversaries in the Baltimore Orioles’ mailroom.
He printed, addressed and mailed 19 separate resumes to Oriole offices, hoping one might find a person in need of an intern. His perseverance paid off and he landed a summer position in the organization’s public relations office. While it wasn’t a role with the on-the-field product, it was at least in the same ballpark.
“I just wanted to get my foot in the door,” said Hopkins, a leisure and sport management major at Elon.
The following summer – after graduation – he again interned with Baltimore, but in baseball operations. The position turned into a full-time job he held for five years. Although he felt fortunate to work in baseball, Hopkins handled mostly administrative responsibilities and pined to get closer to the action.
He took a calculated gamble heading into the 2004 season, relocating to Texas to serve as an associate scout for the Houston Astros. It was a volunteer position. A year later, he was a paid scout for the Cardinals, canvassing the Great Lakes region for the next Adam Wainwright.
“I took two steps back to take one step forward,” he said of his move to Texas.
While they didn’t have to relocate cross-country, Rode and DiRienzo made their own paths and jumped when their opportunities arose.
In fall 2006, Rode interned once a week as a student with Baseball America in Durham, handling basic database work. By the spring, however, he was onsite three times as week, publishing reports online. When a staff position came open a few months later, Rode slid right in and stayed for six years.
“When the job opened up, I had already conducted an eight-month interview by being an intern,” he reasoned.
DiRienzo was just another student in February 2014 when he strolled through Alumni Gymnasium during Elon’s career fair. The baseball fan spotted a table for USA Baseball and chatted up the representatives. Following a run back to his West College Avenue apartment to burn a demo tape and grab a resume, DiRienzo applied for an intern position the same day.
“I didn’t want to miss the opportunity,” he said. “They had a paid internship to offer and said, if I played my cards right, it could turn into a full-time position. Luckily enough, it has.”
Baseball is not a 9-to-5 job
The 1 a.m. phones calls happen, but that’s part of the job, said Fern. Then it’s time to help assist the caller – often a beleaguered baseball coach in an unfamiliar city – obtain a new hotel key, find transportation, or connect to Wi-Fi.
“You have to be on all the time,” the USA Baseball staffer said, noting the stresses are expected while overseeing the accommodations of hundreds of athletes.
At any one time, Fern, a corporate communications and political science double major at Elon, might be working on five to seven different tournaments and events, booking hotel rooms, flights and buses, helping with catering, and getting security for USA Baseball teams. It’s a lot of moving parts. But it helps that she can rattle off all the hotels in the Research Triangle, among other locations.
Most fires can be put out in an hour or two, but last fall was the exception. Following the U.S. national team’s victory at the COPABE 18U Pan American Championship in September, the team was stranded in Mexico after Hurricane Odile touched down. “Those five days were consumed with trying to get them out of Cabo,” Fern said.
While he’s never made travel arrangements for a group of 30, Hopkins knows all about nights away from home. On average, the scout can put between 40,000 and 45,000 miles on his car a year. One season he tried to keep a running total of games he attended. That lasted all of about two weeks. “I’d estimate it’s somewhere around 250,” he said.
The time away can be difficult, but Hopkins’ wife, Amanda, keeps the family and their two young sons happy and healthy. “I would be remiss not mentioning it, but with all the travel and having a family, one of the most important things is having a good support system,” he said.
Scouting is both a competition and a community, Hopkins reasoned. “A lot of times, when you are out on the road, you see a certain scout more times than you see your family,” he said. “You are thankful for the friendships you build.”
That said, Hopkins compared scouting to playing pick-up basketball with your best friend. “He might be your best friend, but you still want to beat him,” he explained.
Some of these friends do have Elon connections. A few years back, Rode found himself at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, watching an amateur showcase game. A few rows in front of him sat a familiar face: Reyes, scouting for the Rockies. The two have crossed paths several times since.
In the midst of his 14-hour days and working back-to-back-to-back weekends, DiRienzo said he finds it easy to enjoy his time at the park.
“In my opinion, it’s a job you get to enjoy in spite of the long hours,” DiRienzo said. “If you are working in sports, there is not a lot you can complain about. It’s a treat because, even when I’m working, I have a game right in front of me.”