For four seasons, David Koons attempted to make the perfect pitch each and every day as a member of a few minor league baseball teams. Now, the Saint Leo University alumnus is working on tossing practical history and life lessons to his students in the classroom as a high school teacher.
A Military Upbringing
The 34-year-old native of Harrison, Oh. near Cincinnati grew up in a military family with his father serving in the U.S. Air Force. He was stationed in Florida, South Carolina and Guam. Being exposed to historical places at a young age ignited Koons' passion for history.
"I got to see lots of monuments, museums and other historical places," he recalls. "Guam was a big part of World War II. Charleston was where the first shots were fired in the Civil War at Fort Sumter. They have a street set up like the Civil War era of the 1860s."
Not only did Guam have historical significance to him, but living there for two years was such a unique experience.
"Living on that island, you feel pretty constricted. It's basically 30 miles long and four miles wide. The water is so pristine, and there are lots of areas to snorkel. I remember we had the biggest K-mart in the world there with a parking lot on top of it. We also had a Burger King that was run out of a mobile home and a Wendy's that served beer."
Now a resident of Tampa, Koons was practically born with a baseball glove on his hand. He started playing America's favorite pastime at age four and eventually began pitching by nine.
"I played shortstop and centerfield, but I took up pitching once I realized there were lots of better hitters than me out there," he explains.
Throwing His Way to Saint Leo
He attended Thomas Richard Robinson High School and played baseball there for the Knights. He heard about a tryout at Saint Leo and thought he'd give it a whirl.
"One day, Saint Leo was having a tryout," he recalls. "I showed up and was able to make the team. They offered me a nice scholarship as well."
He enrolled at Saint Leo in 2002 and stayed until 2005 when he began his career in pro baseball. He later returned to campus in 2008 to complete his degree by the following year.
At Saint Leo, he was a history major with a minor in secondary education. Two professors, Drs. Jack McTague and Anthony Esposito, stood out to him. Both have even helped in his career by being professional references for Koons.
"One of my classes with Dr. Esposito was late 19th and early 20th century history," he recalls. "It was a small class but really cool material that we learned."
He also remembers being part of the first class to live in a new residence hall on campus, rooming with some of his fellow baseball teammates.
In Koons' mind, the intimacy of Saint Leo's University Campus is really what sets it apart.
"The smaller community made it a much better learning experience," he says. "You just can't experience some of those things at larger universities. In those cases, you may only get to talk to your TA in class. At Saint Leo, you always get that one-on-one interaction with your professors."
He believes the concept of "community" stuck with him most among Saint Leo's core values.
"I've had the chance to work at the YMCA and do camps for underprivileged kids. I've always had a blast doing community outreach like that."
Thanks to some financial support for tuition from his future employer – the New York Mets' organization – he was able to return to campus and finish the program he had started seven years earlier.
"I had always planned to come back to Saint Leo and finish my degree," he says.
The Saint Leo Lions baseball team hovered around .500 while Koons was playing with them, but he says the conference they were in was one of the toughest in Division II of the NCAA.
"TheSunshine State Conference in baseball is almost like a Division I conference," he says. "We beat Michigan one year and played a lot of really good teams."
Following college baseball, Koons went to play in the Coastal Plains League in Virginia in the summer of 2005.
"On the first day of the MLB draft, I didn't hear anything. Then on the second day in the 27th round, I got a call from the New York Mets. Your dream kind of comes true in that moment. I honestly didn't expect it, and it truly was an exciting time. I remember going to the facility for the first time and seeing my name on a locker."
In the 2005 draft, Baseball America rated him as having one of the best sliders and as the best pick of the late rounds. That same year, he started playing with the Kingsport Mets in the small country town of Kingsport, Tenn. This would be just one of several smaller markets he would visit throughout his career.
"I played and lived in some small towns that didn't have much nightlife," he recalls. "We stayed in small hotels, rode buses everywhere and got a stipend for food. Some players do stay with host families who actually host them at their homes. If you've ever seen the movie Bull Durham, it's very much like the lifestyle of the minor leagues. But you have to remember that only 1% of people get to ever do this, so it was a lot of fun."
Koons first tore his ACL at the end of the 2005 season. The following year, he spent some time with the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Gulf Coast League Mets.
In 2007, he started out with the Savannah Sand Gnats, a Single A team in the South Atlantic League in Georgia. He then returned to the Cyclones, a short-season A team in the New York-Penn League
"Brooklyn has had the third-best attendance in all of the minor leagues, so it was always exciting to play there," he says. "The team gelled really well. We started that season 25-5 and ended up losing in the league championship."
In 2008, he played for the Amarillo Dillas in Texas. The Dillas were a member of United League Baseball, an independent league. Brady Bogart, the manager of the Dillas at the time, also was a Saint Leo alumnus and still holds the Lions' school record for lowest earned run average (ERA) in a season. Ronnie Lowe, another former Saint Leo player, was also on the Dillas.
As a relief pitcher, Koons once sported a 94-mph fastball. His repertoire included a fastball, curveball, slider and changeup.
Throughout his baseball playing days, he was exposed to the likes of Jon Lester, David Price, Brandon Crawford, Daniel Murphy and Austin Jackson.
"You could just tell these guys were so different than everyone else," he says. "For a player to be successful, consistency is the key. So many minor league guys continue to make some mistakes here and there, which tend to hold them back from advancing to the majors."
He admits he's already had seven surgeries related to his playing days and adds that a good majority of players go through similar physical challenges both before and after they hang up their cleats.
"I think I had the potential to make it to the majors, but I just couldn't stay healthy," he confides.
From the Baseball Diamond to the Classroom
Since he was in college, Koons has had a positive influence on young people. From participating in the Great American Teach-In to serving as the director of a YMCA location in Tampa, he has spoken in front of youngsters of all ages. He now teaches social studies at Howard Blake High School and serves as the pitching coach at Robinson High School, both in Tampa.
"Being a teacher, I feel pretty free and don't have a lot of strings attached to this type of job. But I will say that you're more of a parent than a teacher to these kids, which makes the job more rewarding than some other kinds of work where you don't feel that purpose as much. I had one student who wound up graduating as a fifth-year senior, and it was our conversations that I think really helped him get through."
As a coach, his latest baseball team had an ERA under 2.0.
"When I first got into coaching, I learned pretty quickly that I needed to simplify things for the kids. Once I did that, I know I became a better coach."
In his words, the journey from working in front of thousands of fans to only a few dozen high school students has been a little humbling.
"I definitely miss the competitiveness of playing baseball," he says. "I think when people leave professional sports, it's similar to coming out of the military because of the change in lifestyle. Going from being on the mound in the ninth inning with two outs and the bases loaded in front of almost 10,000 people to teaching in a high school classroom in front of 25 kids has been a bit of a transition."
Photo credit: The photograph included in this blog post was originally produced by Allen Greene of NYFutureStars.com.