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Eric Rataczak’s five-year journey to the Tennessee baseball field
Eric Rataczak’s five-year journey to the Tennessee baseball field

Eric Rataczak had to play a game.

He grabbed his gear, laced up his cleats – and was told to stop. Rataczak had his metal cleats on and that was a no-go. The game was a co-ed softball game at the University of San Diego, where the use of metal spikes was prohibited.

“I try to run as fast as I can and hit the ball over the fence,” Rataczak said.

This is what life looked like for Rataczak less than two years ago.

Rataczak was a normal student in San Diego, a good baseball player without a place to play. He satisfied his baseball lust with a club team and intramural softball and hoped he wasn’t done yet. The first baseman committed to Tennessee baseball on Monday, the latest culmination of a five-year journey through every level of college baseball that took him from club ball to the reigning national champions.

How Eric Rataczak kept his baseball dreams alive

Rataczak felt he was done with baseball twice.

The first time was when there were no significant opportunities for him after high school.

“Obviously, you’d love to pick a spot when you’re in junior high school, go there, play for three years, get drafted in the first round and be on the show in two years,” Rataczak told Knox News. “But there are good things about the other paths, and mine is obviously a pretty unique path.”

Rataczak graduated from Totino-Grace High School outside Minneapolis in 2019. He skipped smaller schools. He was a good student and wanted to try something new.

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He went to San Diego on an academic scholarship hoping to get a tryout. He didn’t get one and instead played club baseball.

He went home during the COVID-19 pandemic and stayed in Minnesota to play baseball for Minnesota Post Grad from 2020 to 2021. That led to a stint in the Northwood League with the Rochester Honkers in the summer of 2021.

Rataczak started at Wabash Valley College in Illinois in the fall of 2021, but the team already had an established first baseman. He transferred to Arizona Western for the 2022 season but fell short of his standards.

He hoped an opportunity would arise. Several NAIA schools reached out, but none presented themselves that combined his desired athletic ability and academic potential.

“I was waiting for something that wasn’t going to happen,” Rataczak said.

The call that put Eric Rataczak on course for Tennessee

Rataczak thought he was done with baseball for the second time after giving it everything he had at two junior colleges.

He contacted San Diego to ask if he could return. The dean of the biology program reviewed his transcripts and his scholarship was reinstated. He began playing on the baseball club again and also played softball at the collegiate level.

“The whole year in San Diego, I was always depressed inside,” Rataczak said. “It’s hard not to have a good time in San Diego. You can go surfing in the morning, but every day you thought, ‘I wish I was playing.'”

A call from Canada changed his course. The Brooks Bombers in the Western Canadian Baseball League saw him playing at Arizona Western. A coach asked him if he had a place to play that summer.

“I don’t have a place to play at the moment,” said Rataczak.

In the summer of 2023, he went to Alberta for another opportunity to be seen and achieve more.

Niagara learned that summer about the 6-foot-3, left-handed first baseman who hit balls and hit 11 home runs in 50 games. The team was impressed and offered him a chance to join the Purple Eagles. He eagerly accepted the offer and went on to be a standout player.

Rataczak was the 2024 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year after batting .396 with 17 home runs and 71 RBIs.

“I like hitting balls the way some people like running,” Rataczak said. “That genuine joy in it is what kept me going. It’s what allowed me to get a foothold in the baseball world.”

Drew Gilbert, a diabetes diagnosis and a vol

Rataczak played against former Tennessee star Drew Gilbert a few times in high school. They graduated from high school the same year but took different paths in baseball.

Rataczak described his high school self as “skin and bones,” weighing 165 pounds at the time and having no strength in the game. In December 2019, he discovered he had type 1 diabetes. He got the right medication and his weight stayed the same. He gained 20 pounds in a month and now weighs 50 pounds more, at 215 pounds.

“The ball bounced off my racket in a way I had never seen before,” Rataczak said.

He missed a ball at a baseball game in San Diego that went into a home run, and that’s when he knew his game was different. He calls his diabetes diagnosis “the best thing that ever happened to me” and hopes to tell the story of this chronic disease in a way that shows how you can be an athlete despite it.

As Rataczak played, so did his Tennessee fan base from afar. He was a fan of Gilbert, who he said was “more of a celebrity to me than a personal friend.” He saw Gilbert’s legendary walk-off home run against Wright State in 2021. He watched Tennessee break through college baseball in 2022 and was hooked.

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“The passion and everything they played with and what the coaching staff showed really made me a fan of the program back then,” Rataczak said.

Rataczak had decided to enter the transfer portal while also aiming for the MLB Draft following his breakout season at Niagara. He drew interest from a number of programs, including Vanderbilt and Wake Forest. Tennessee quickly held his attention and throughout the process. He kept those feelings under wraps during his recruitment before committing.

He has committed to the Vols, but could still choose to play professional baseball. He is 23 years old, which adds a unique factor to his decision about his baseball future.

“Taking things pitch by pitch and step by step was really important to me,” Rataczak said.

Regardless of his decision, Rataczek knows he is not done with baseball. He still has many games ahead of him.

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you like Mike’s reporting, consider a digital subscription that gives you access to all of the content

By Liam