For Semien, attending Cal was fate

White Sox prospect helped endangered team reach CWS

By Josh Jackson / | February 5, 2014 10:00 AM ET

This offseason, presents Student/Athlete, a series about prospects who attended the country's best universities. We'll be focusing on what they learned while they were enrolled.

Should a UFO happen to land in the clubhouse, Marcus Semien's teammates have no reason to panic.

Semien prepared for just such a crisis at an institution no less prestigious than the University of California at Berkeley.

True, Semien hasn't graduated yet, and he learned about the UFO in a course outside his major, which is sociology. But he did pay close attention in the class, which was one of his favorites.

"It was kind of an elective called, 'Physics for Future Presidents.' It talks about nuclear bombs and stuff like that, stuff that a president would need to know about," the White Sox No. 8 prospect said. "That was a fun class and really interesting."

Aside from UFOs and radiation, the course also provided instruction on the Theory of Relativity and climate change. For the time being, unless an emergency comes up, Semien's primary focus is baseball. Since Chicago took him in the sixth round of the 2011 Draft, he hasn't had the chance to return to campus.

"In terms of sociology classes, I still have a lot more to take because I got drafted as a junior, and I will take them [as soon as] I can go back," Semien said. "The White Sox will pay for three semesters and once I have the opportunity to [re-enroll], I will."

The 23-year-old infielder not only valued his time at Cal, but in a way, it seems like he'd always been destined to go there.

"Both of my parents attended Berkeley. My dad played football there and my mom was a student, and I was actually born their freshman year," he said. "I've been around that campus my whole life. We stayed in the East Bay my whole life, and I went to high school not too far from campus.

"I was always familiar with the school and I always knew it was a great academic school and I looked up to a lot of the athletes. It was easily my first choice, and once they started recruiting me, I knew I was going to go there."

That moment couldn't come soon enough for Semien, who remembers feeling a little antsy after his junior year of high school, in anticipation of the July 1 deadline when NCAA coaches are allowed to contact potential recruits.

"I was just waiting for Cal to call," he said. "I think I had a decent year and I was really hoping they would call me and talk to me. It was Coach [Jon] Zuber, a hitting coach who's not there anymore, who recruited me. At that point, I knew they were interested in me and I was definitely interested in them."

Although it was a perfect match and Semien immediately felt at home on campus, there were some aspects of college life that were as new and challenging to him as they are to every student-athlete.

"Freshman year was the most difficult. I had goals to maybe be an [economics] major or try something a little more strenuous," he said. "But once I realized we spend a lot of hours on the baseball field and a lot of hours in the weight room, and then you have to get home and feed yourself and then you've got schoolwork, and by the time you know you it, it's really late at night and you've got to get up really early to get your weights done.

"Once I saw that, I looked at sociology and I felt like it was something that I could balance with athletics a little bit better."

While academics prepared him for any number of scenarios, his experience as a college player taught him how to deal with potential distractions. Before his junior season (2011), Cal's athletic department cited finances in announcing it was eliminating five programs, including baseball.

"That was tough," Semien admitted. "Whether it was going to be the last season of Cal baseball or whether there was going to be some way we could save our program, we had to focus and prepare for the season."

Junior year is a troublesome time for a serious college baseball player to maintain a team-first attitude, but Semien was determined to make sure the Golden Bears didn't wither after the announcement.

"Personally, I had a goal to get drafted. I was working as hard as I could for that," he said. "When they came to us with that news, it brought more fire to me and it brought more of a leadership role to me, where I really tried to make sure it kept us together so that, whatever happened, we played the season as a team. I wanted to be a team leader and I wanted to make sure the young guys stayed together."

While Semien and his teammates did their best on the field, a network of alumni and other supporters -- led by former Cal pitcher and current San Francisco-based attorney Stuart Gordon -- began a fundraising campaign that ultimately saved the program. It didn't hurt Gordon's cause that the Golden Bears were putting together a winning season and that they fed off the extra support to reach the College World Series for the first time since 1992.

"We were very fortunate to have alumni step up. We were playing a game in Arizona when they gave us the news that they'd saved the program," Semien said. "We'd been doing well to that point in the season, but then we really started playing well, once we got the good news. A lot of stress was relieved. It was a great moment, and ultimately, it helped us get to Omaha."

Semien had 19 extra-base hits, drove in 35 runs and posted a .371 on-base percentage over 61 games in his final college season. After the Draft, he reported to Class A Kannapolis, where he batted .253 with three homers and 26 RBIs in 60 South Atlantic League games. He continued to progress over the next two seasons and played in 21 big league games last September. His college experience made those years go more smoothly for him, he said.

"Being a student-athlete really helped me in life. It helped me with time management and networking and being able to introduce myself and becoming a confident person in all kinds of situations," he said. "Being a student-athlete at Cal really gave me all of that."

Even after he reaches the Major Leagues for good, possibly as soon as this spring, Semien will have another goal: to get back to Berkeley and finish school -- and not only because he wants to earn his degree.

"There are [more sociology] classes I really want to take," he said. "There's one class called 'Sociology of Sport.' It deals with the ins and outs of sports and goes into sports history a little bit and also looks at some things like racism and socioeconomic problems through sports.

"I think that sounds like a really interesting class."

Josh Jackson is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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