This offseason, MiLB.com presents Student/Athlete, a series about prospects who attended the country's best academic colleges with focus on what they learned while they were enrolled.
Many athletes who've pursued higher education look back on their college decision as the most important one of their lives.
For Austin Wood, the decision was so important he made it twice.
Wood, who was the Angels' 15th-ranked prospect before undergoing Tommy John surgery last August, was selected by the Astros in the 36th round of the 2008 Draft after his senior year of high school. But he chose to delay a shot at the pros in favor of heading to Florida State University. The right-hander grew up just over two hours from Tallahassee, and he'd always hoped to play ball for the Seminoles.
"Florida State was always my dream," he said. "I grew up going to their football games. My best friend's dad was an [alumnus] and he was a die-hard fan, and we became fans."
The reality of pitching for FSU didn't match the childhood dream, however. Wood struggled to a 6.35 ERA over 22 2/3 innings and couldn't get comfortable with the methods of pitching coach Jamey Shouppe. (After 21 seasons, Shouppe left FSU in 2011 "by mutual agreement," according to a university news release. He's now the head coach at Florida A&M.)
"Unfortunately, it didn't work out. The main reason I left is that I didn't agree with some of the things that the pitching coach was really pushing," Wood said. "I loved Florida State and everybody there was great to me, but it was the not place for me to develop as a baseball player."
Looking for a new home that wouldn't require him to miss a season, Wood transferred to a junior college.
After a quick but careful search, "I picked St. Petersburg (Fla.) College," he said. Having left FSU, he was eligible for the Draft. "I had a decent season there and finished strong, and the Rays drafted me in the fourth round."
By June, though, Wood had made the most important decision of his life once more. And this time, he got it right.
"I'd committed to [the University of Southern California]," Wood said. "Tom House was the pitching coach there and I wanted to pitch for Tom House. I've had Tom House books ever since I was a little kid, on pitching mechanics and stuff. I still have Tom House baseball books on the shelf at my parents' house."
If the lure of working with House wasn't strong enough, a visit to the USC campus made Wood certain he wanted to become a Trojan.
"I loved it," he said. "I'd been talking to Ole Miss, I'd talked to South Carolina and [the University of Florida]; I'd talked to a lot of schools. But when I visited, I knew I wanted to pitch for [USC head coach] Frank Cruz and Tom House.
"I thought, 'This is where I want to be.' You can't beat the tradition of baseball there. They're one of the best of the country; they have the most national championships. You walk in and you see names like Randy Johnson, Mark McGwire. They've produced a lot of talented players, and you walk in there and it's easy to know it's where you want to be. Also, I really fell in love with all the [players]."
Wood spent the summer of 2010 in the Cape Cod League, where he went 3-0 with a 0.74 ERA for Cotuit and started the All-Star Game for the Western Division. In two playoff starts, he struck out 14 over 13 1/3 innings and compiled a 1.35 ERA.
When school resumed, Wood faced new challenges. He'd been driven to do well in all of his college classes, but now he found himself at an institution consistently ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 25 nationally.
"I went to USC knowing it was going to be really tough academically, especially coming out of junior college, which has a reputation of being like high school, in terms of academics. I definitely pulled way more all-nighters than I would have wished," Wood said. "The biggest thing I learned at USC that I could get away [without] at Florida State and junior college were time management skills. Being at USC and having to work so hard off the field with academics and on [the field] with baseball really taught me time management."
Still, Wood had to make sacrifices. He'd begun his college career intent on majoring in business, but USC, a private school, didn't accept the business credits he earned in junior college. He switched to sociology because it offered a more direct path to a degree but not because it was any easier.
"There were a lot of papers in my major. I'm not one of those people that can write a paper in an hour, so that was tough," he admitted. "But going to Florida State and junior college first got me ready for a tougher school. It wasn't actually as bad as I thought it was going to be. I also think I matured a lot my junior year there."
Many college athletes (and college students more generally) find freshman year the most difficult, as they adjust to new surroundings, new expectations and a new schedule. Wood faced those adjustments all three years of his college career.
"It was kind of a rollercoaster ride for me," he said. "I was a rookie for three years, technically. For me, luckily, I had no problems making friends, especially at USC. Everybody welcomed me and made me feel like I was really a part of everything there."
He didn't have an easy time on the mound, however, going 5-7 with a 5.61 ERA. But he felt he was developing well and showed enough promise to be drafted by the Angels in the sixth round -- two rounds back from the spot in which the Rays picked him after his Cape Cod League campaign.
"I was really excited about" playing for the Trojans, Wood said. "I don't have any regrets about that. I don't regret it at all, even though I didn't end up having the best year there, not like I did on the Cape. I made a lot of good friends and the academics were great, so it's kind of an investment for the future."
Although he has time to take classes while he recovers from Tommy John surgery, the Angels will cover his tuition costs if he waits until his pro pitching days are over.
"Hopefully, my career won't be over for a long time, but I'm waiting until my career is over to finish school," he said. "I'm still working on Spanish -- I have three semesters I have to take. My mom and I were talking about getting Rosetta Stone, so I could test out of it."
As college helped Wood advance in the baseball world, he's also turning to baseball to help him advance toward his degree. After all, educational software isn't the only way to improve his Spanish.
"I've been working on it with my Dominican [teammates]," he said.