By Dan Gilles
North Olmsted native and St. Ignatius graduate Aaron Klinec followed a successful high school baseball career with a productive collegiate career at Division III Washington & Jefferson College.
But after graduating this summer, Klinec’s professional possibilities seemed few. No major league team drafted the infielder, despite his career .303 average with the Presidents with one home run, 58 RBI and 39 stolen bases.
The Lake Erie Crushers of the Frontier League, playing their home games in nearby Avon, needed some infield depth for their stretch run, so they reached out to the local product.
“I’m pumped,” said Klinec, who signed with the Crushers on July 30 and will serve as a utility infielder for the remainder of the season. “It’s like a dream come true for me playing pro ball, especially with it being in my backyard since I’m from North Olmsted. It’s awesome to be here playing for the Crushers.
“We’re having a really good season and it’s fun to be a part of it and help out, hopefully get us into the playoffs and win a championship.”
Klinec made his first start on July 31, going 0-for-3 and making no errors at shortstop. And, on Aug. 1, he pinch-ran for designated hitter Russell Moldenhauer in the bottom of the ninth inning, and scored the winning run in the Crushers’ come-from-behind 5-4 win over the Rockford RiverHawks.
“I’ve been here for a week and a half, and I’ve seen five walk-off wins,” he said. “It’s been crazy. Getting out there and being in position to score the winning run, it’s a blast.”
Klinec finished up with Washington & Jefferson in May, coming off the best season of his collegiate career. He had a career-best year at the plate with a .325 batting average, scoring 49 runs (second in Presidents’ Athletic Conference and 39th in NCAA Division III), driving in 27 RBIs and stealing 16 bases.
Klinec, who tied for 23rd in the nation with six sacrifice flies, finished fifth in W&J history with 170 games played and 39 stolen bases.
Klinec also became the first W&J player to win an ABCA/Rawlings NCAA Division III National Gold Glove Award, making only six errors in 231 chances for a .974 fielding percentage in the 2012 college season. He finished his career as a .966 fielder after committing just 27 errors in 798 career chances, moving to shortstop as a senior after starting his first three seasons at second base.
A week after his season ended, Klinec was invited to Avon for a workout with the Crushers.
“They said they liked what they saw,” he said. “I got a call a couple of weeks ago saying that they were thinking about signing me and that they were going to need another shortstop. I’ve been working out on my own this summer, trying to stay in shape.
“Once I got the call, I was pumped and ready to go.”
Klinec became the second W&J baseball player to play professionally, joining Sam Mann, who also played in the Frontier League in 2007 (Kalamazoo Kings) and 2008 (Washington Wild Things).
“Aaron worked very hard for four years and deserves this chance,” said head coach Jeff Mountain, whose Presidents have averaged 27 wins per season during his 10 years. “Our program has come a long way in 10 years. Sam and Aaron are student athletes that we can point to for our current guys and future recruits. They were both excellent students and leaders. We hope to attract players similar to them in our program each year.”
With Klinec in the Presidents’ infield, Washington & Jefferson made its first three appearances in the NCAA Division III tournament, including this year’s squad, which earned the No. 2 seed in the Mideast Regional.
The Presidents posted a 122-57 record (.682) during the past four seasons, with Klinec appearing in 170 of those games (fifth in school history). He was a second team All-Mideast Region and first team All-PAC selection this season, in which they set a school record by going 36-10 – the 14th-best winning percentage in the nation.
Klinec’s defense and speed were what appealed the most to Crushers fourth-year manager John Massarelli.
“He provides some depth to our bench,” he said. “Being a young guy, I see him in a role like I used him (Wednesday) – being a late-inning pinch-runner and a late-inning defensive replacement. If we would have tied the game (Wednesday), I would have inserted him at shortstop.
“It helps what we can do with our club. He plays first, second and short and gives me a solid runner off the bench. His role will be a spot start now and again, but primarily a late-inning option both on the bases and in the field.”
Massarelli said one can never have enough depth, especially at the middle infield positions.
“Last year, especially those last two weeks, we couldn’t find a healthy shortstop on our roster, and that hurt us when we got into the playoffs,” he said. “It’s always good to have some depth to a skill position like short, especially when getting into the stretch run like we are.”
Klinec followed the Crushers closely this season while he waited for the call to arrive.
“I’ve been following the players and the box scores every day,” he said. “That’s all I’m about, is helping this team get into the playoffs and win a championship.
“Through high school, I played in the state championship once and we lost. But I’m all about helping this team get into the playoffs and make a run at it. I’ve been blessed to be part of winning programs in both high school and college, and I’m looking forward to having that continue here.”
Klinec still has family and friends living in North Olmsted, and a bunch of them attended last Tuesday’s game to see his first professional start.
Klinec is the third area player to join the Lake Erie Crushers. Westlake native and St. Ignatius pitcher Chris Rigo was a part of the 2009 Frontier League championship club, while Bay High School pitcher Tim Holmes was acquired by the Crushers this offseason, but elected to retire.