Former Dodgers prospect hits the beach

The Dodgers had their first looks at Prescott Valley, Arizona prospect Ben Diggins in the late 1990s.

A slugger at Bradshaw Mountain High School, Diggins was perhaps more revered for his hitting attributes at the time than his still-developing pitching command. As a senior in 1998, he hit .573 and walked more than three times as often as he struck out, solidifying a high school career that saw him tie the then-Arizona state high school record with 15 homeruns in his junior year.

The 6-7 natural athlete also flashed a fastball that topped out in the upper-90’s.

“There are a lot of players out there that can hit a ball a long way, but there are just not that many guys that have that kind of arm,” Phoenix-based Los Angeles Dodgers scout Tom Thomas told Steve Stockmar of the (Prescott) Daily Courier in 2000.

“I told him, ‘I think that you have a special right arm and I think it has a chance to make you a lot of money someday,” Thomas said.

Thomas was speaking two years after the St. Louis Cardinals had drafted Diggins out of high school in the supplemental first round of the 1998 draft. Choosing instead to honor his scholarship with the University of Arizona, he excited scouts again through a sophomore year in which he went 10-4 with 127 strikeouts in 113 innings and was eventually selected 17th overall by Los Angeles in 2000 and signed for $2.2 million, to this day the fifth-highest signing bonus the Dodgers have ever awarded a player.

Despite the financial commitment shown by then-general manager Kevin Malone, Diggins was never afforded the opportunity to fully develop in the Dodger system and was part of a non-waiver trading deadline move in 2002 that brought utility infielder Tyler Houston and a player to be named to Los Angeles. Diggins was sent to Milwaukee along with reliever Shane Nance, where after seven strong starts in Double-A Huntsville, was a September call-up who made his major league debut as a 23-year old starting pitcher for a team that would eventually finish 56-106. It was the first time since their inaugural season as the Seattle Pilots that the Milwaukee franchise finished with a sub-.400 winning percentage.

After he was roughed up for four hits, six walks and seven earned runs in a 17-4 loss at Wrigley Field on Sept. 2, 2002, he bounced back with a seven-inning quality start at home against St. Louis and eventually finished 0-4 with an 8.63 ERA in his five major league appearances, all-starts.

Despite his won-loss record and ERA, there was plenty of optimism following a season in which he made the jump from Double-A to the majors — until the day came in which Diggins heard the words that every pitcher fears: Tommy John surgery.

Shut down by a torn elbow ligament in 2003 after an excellent start in Huntsville, Diggins made only 16 minor league appearances over the rest of his career, none of them above A-ball.

Now seven years removed from his final minor league start, Diggins is finding a release for his competitive vigor through beach volleyball. Though he refers to it more as a “hobby” than a path towards rekindling his athletic dominance and making money on national tours, it has been an interesting development in the post-baseball life of a former first round pick and major leaguer.

“Honestly, I didn’t even start playing until after I was done [with baseball],” Diggins said. “When I got released in 2006, I went back to school to get my business degree and started playing four-man with three of my other buddies that were hurt. They all had Tommy John surgery and were rehabbing, so we all would just play fours. And then when I graduated, I decided to move out here, and that’s when I got a little more serious about it as far as playing and stuff. It’s a good outlet for just kind of using your competitiveness. With baseball, it was like, one day you were playing, and the next day, it’s done, so you don’t know what to do with that competitive edge. With volleyball, it kind of gives me an outlet with that.”

Diggins recently competed in the qualifiers for the Manhattan Beach Open, part of the Jose Cuervo Professional Beach Volleyball Series. An easy commute from his Newport Beach home, he has competed in the qualifying tournaments of three Southern California Cuervo tour stops, topping out at 33rd place at last year’s events in Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach.

“I think it helps that I’m taller, and the hand-eye coordination thing helps a little bit,” he said. “I think the biggest thing with volleyball is reps. It’s the same as baseball…the hitters go, and they do batting practice all day, swing after swing after swing. Same with volleyball. You’ve got to come out and you’ve got to take serve after serve after serve and hit a lot of balls. It’s similar in that way that you need a lot of reps. It’s a lot of muscle memory stuff.”

Last weekend, Diggins won his first qualifier in Manhattan Beach with partner Ed Lunnen before falling 15-21, 16-21 in the second round and failing to make it to the tournament’s main draw.

“I shanked probably five or six passes. Can’t do that,” said Diggins, who articulated that he’s not as interested in rising up through beach volleyball’s ranks as much as he is trying to find a competitive outlet before putting his business degree to use.

“I’m 33 years old, and it’s at the point where I kind of need to grow up a little bit and get a job.”

Still, good friend and Cuervo Series standout Ryan Doherty sees a lot that he likes in Diggins’ ability.

“When I train against Ben, he puts up one of the best blocks you can ask for. He’s a great guy to train with because it’s so hard to hit through him,” Doherty said.

At one point the tallest player in the history of organized baseball, the 7-foot-1 Doherty was signed out of the University of Notre Dame in 2005 and appeared in parts of three minor league seasons in Yakima, Wash., South Bend, Ind., and Visalia, Calif., before his 2007 release.

Having taken up beach volleyball shortly after his baseball career ended, Doherty has developed steadily in the last five years. He and partner Casey Patterson have won two Cuervo Series events this year and finished as runners-up at the prestigious Manhattan Beach Open, which featured a crowded field that included 2012 beach volleyball Olympians Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal. John Hyden and Sean Scott won the Open, their fourth Cuervo Series win of the season.

Though innate athleticism has helped the former pitchers, there are not many similarities that link the two sports otherwise.

“It’s actually a lot different, because in pitching, we control all the action. We’re the ones who start and initiate everything. And volleyball’s very reactionary,” Doherty said. “You’ve got to be able to dictate what you do based on what the other team does. So it’s really been more interesting for us to try to learn this game where we don’t get to control everything for the start. We have to kind of react to what the other team’s doing.”

He also offered a scouting report on where Diggins stands in his transition to the sand.

“He’s getting better with his wrists,” Doherty said. “It’s tougher for us ex-pitchers to learn snapping the wrists on the ball. If he gets a little bit better with his ball control, he’s going to be a scary guy. He’s going to get picked up by somebody really good.”

If that were to happen, it would be a bonus. It’s not something that preoccupies Diggins, who is more excited to enter the next phase of his career, potentially in business or banking.

Though many former ballplayers gravitate back towards the game that they played since their early youth, Diggins is not focused on rekindling his devotion to the diamond. There was a wisp of tenderness-laced nostalgia that characterized his feelings towards the sport he had at one point dominated.

“It’s still hard for me to kind of be around baseball,” he said. “Maybe at some point, when I’ve kind of let it go a little bit, I’ll be able to get back into it and possibly do something with, who knows, scouting, or being an agent or something like that. At this point, it’s still too hard to kind of be around the game.”

Wherever he ends up, Diggins will take with him a positive outlook and a rounded approach, courtesy of his background, education and athletic prowess.

“At this point in my life, it’s about getting a job, growing up a little bit for me. But I’ll continue to play. I like playing and it’s a good way to meet people,” he said.

“Volleyball people are good people.”