PAWLEYS ISLAND — While the College of Charleston baseball team gets ready to open a season in pursuit of its third straight NCAA Tournament appearance next week, the slugger who dazzled major league scouts while leading the 2015 Cougars in hitting prepares for another morning 76 miles and a new world away.
Nick Pappas leans over a vegetarian omelette with conviction.
“My basic reason for quitting baseball is that I wasn’t happy and I wanted to have a close relationship with God,” says Pappas, 21. “I just wanted to drop everything and follow Jesus. It was a huge leap of faith. And it was hard for me to leave. It took me two years of contemplating.
“It was probably worse than that; I was depressed.”
Pappas doesn’t leave any grits on the table at the Eggs Up Grill, but he might have left a million dollars when he bolted the College of Charleston in September. Pappas hit .337 with 12 home runs in 2015 and finished strong, blasting three home runs in the NCAA tournament’s Tallahassee Regional. Former College of Charleston head coach Monte Lee said the consensus he got from talking to scouts last spring was that Pappas projected as at least a third-round pick in the 2016 Major League Baseball draft, the first year he would be eligible to be selected.
All draft picks have “slot values” — recommended signing bonus figures. Third-round slot values for the 2016 draft range from $801,900 to $548,600. Second-round slot values climb as high as $1.4 million.
A comeback is possible. Pappas wants to major in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology at Clemson, where Lee is about to start his first season as head coach after leaving the College of Charleston. But that move is as complicated as it is likely.
For now, Pappas lives in a Pawleys Island apartment with his new wife Amber and takes classes at Horry Georgetown Technical College.
“It’s like I told Amber, ‘If God wants me to make a million dollars, I’ll get it eventually,” Pappas says. “If God wants me to play baseball again, he’ll make a way.”
The camera doesn’t lie. There was no happiness in Pappas’ face as the 6-3, 225-pound first baseman crosses the plate after a home run against Auburn in the NCAA Tournament.
“I got initial joy, sure, but I hated the attention I got,” Pappas says. “That’s why I rarely smiled after home runs. It was like, ‘It happened, I did it, let’s get back in the dugout.’”
Before the Cougars played Auburn a second time in Tallahassee, Pappas approached teammate Morgan Phillips.
“Dude,” Pappas said, “I just want to lose. I just want to go home and go fishing.”
Never mind that Pappas homered twice in that game. He didn’t like baseball, didn’t like the College of Charleston party culture and hated that both kept him from attending church on Sundays and Wednesday nights. His baseball-related fun was hunting ducks with catcher Erven Roper and hunting deer and wild hogs in the Francis Marion National Forest with pitcher Nathan Helvey.
Pappas and his father became exceptionally close after his mother died of colon cancer when he was 10 and without siblings. Joe Pappas taught his son to appreciate the outdoors. But it was friends at Dutch Fork High School who brought Pappas to his first service at NewSpring, a non-denominational church in Lexington.
Gradually, Pappas’ focus turned away from baseball. The Cape Cod League, baseball’s most prestigious college summer circuit, came calling last summer. Pappas hit .182 in nine games for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks before coming home with a sore hamstring.
“I hated every game we played,” Pappas says. “I couldn’t relate to anybody. Most of the players were going out partying and trying to get with girls and I would be in bed by 9 at my host family’s house.”
The Harbor Hawks tried to get Pappas to stick around and get healthy.
“I didn’t want to just sit there and watch games,” he says. “I wanted to go home and fish.”
Pappas was all but sure about leaving baseball when new College of Charleston head coach Matt Heath started fall practices, as many coaches do, with lots of running drills.
“This is stupid,” Pappas told himself. “I don’t enjoy baseball enough to be killing myself like this.”
Then the final straw.
“Coach Heath wanted us to do 6 a.m. conditioning,” Pappas says with an incredulous look, “on opening day of duck season.”
Pappas fired off a two-page letter to Heath and asked teammate Bradley Jones to pass it along. Pappas bolted for Beaufort and two days of duck hunting with his cellphone turned off.
“As soon as I turned my phone back on, it was buzzing with interest from all kinds of other colleges and junior colleges,” Pappas says. “But if I go back to baseball, it will be Clemson, not because of Coach Lee but because I fit best there with what I want to study.”
Lee said NCAA rules prohibit him from commenting on a potential recruit. Pappas met last week with Heath to “clear the air” but doesn’t plan to return to the College of Charleston.
Pappas checks his watch. After breakfast, it’s off to class at Horry Georgetown Tech, where there is no baseball team but sometimes baseball conversation among students. Just the other day a few of Pappas’ classmates were arguing about how many home runs a high school player had to have to get a college scholarship while Pappas sat quietly.
“I was thinking, ‘If only you all knew,’” Pappas says. “I could have told them all about it.”
Big-league scouts loved what they saw of Pappas last year, particularly his left-handed power, one of baseball’s most valued “tools.”
“Power and track record for consistent contact to get to that power,” a scout for an American League East team said. “You don’t come across those kinds of tools — and proven tools at the college level — every day.”
Things are very different now. Baseball is a tight-knit, proud collective. Turn on the sport, it turns on you.
“He’s a (soft player),” a scout from a National League East team said. “A senior sign (low signing bonus after his senior year) at best.”
The scout from the American League East team elaborated: “I can guarantee you that quitting on your team, no matter what level, is viewed as being well beyond a red flag.”
For the record, Pappas isn’t thrilled with scouts or agents, either.
“I started really seeing what they want when I was in the Cape Cod League,” Pappas says. “If they can make a dollar on you, they go after you. If not, they could care less. I don’t want to work for people who are going to believe in you only if you’re doing well.”
Some teammates and coaches thought Pappas turned a corner in the fall of 2014. The principled player who rarely cussed let out a loud word nationally recognized for messing up in athletics as a ground ball went through his legs at first base. The passion, they thought, there it is.
Instead, Pappas chided himself.
“I thought, ‘If this is what baseball is turning me into, I don’t like it,’” Pappas says. “Granted, being competitive, it might be my fault. But I just enjoy myself more in woods and water.”
He hasn’t picked up a baseball or bat since leaving the College of Charleston in September, and hasn’t missed it.
“I killed a lot of deer with my crossbow and I shot a lot of ducks this fall,” Pappas says with a grin.
Nick Pappas is ready for the devil’s advocate questions, and smiles when asked to pardon the term.
Even if you don’t love baseball, why not put up with it another few years? Why not see what kind of money you can make and where it takes you?
“This decision didn’t happen overnight,” he says. “It was a two-year ordeal. Leaving was like a means to an end. People have said I should use baseball as my platform. I fought with that for a year or two. I wanted to be happy.”
Most jobs are an apprenticeship early on, and you pay your dues. Why not treat baseball that way?
“My chances of getting to major league ball are so slim that why not go into a career where I know that, even if I don’t enjoy it the first five years, I’m sure I will get to where I want to be in that field? In baseball, it’s so much extra work and a lot of people who only care for you if you’re doing well for them.”
What about attending a Christian school and playing baseball there?
“Only if it’s in South Carolina. I’m not leaving South Carolina.”
“Of course, there’s a few,” Pappas says. “I mean it would have been different if I wasn’t very good at baseball. There’s always going to be, ‘What if I would have stayed?’ and ‘How much money would I have gotten?’” But I’m trying to be happy with it. It’s taken me six months to somewhat get over it.”
“I’m not trying to be a Bible-thumper,” Pappas says as breakfast is winding down. “Notice, I haven’t given you any verses or anything. I’m just following Jesus the way I want and the way I think he would want.”
Attending the College of Charleston was a blessing, Pappas believes, because it allowed him to meet the former Amber Vella of Chapin.
“I’m going to date that girl,” he told teammates.
Pick-up line: “I want Jesus to be in the middle of our relationship.”
The newlyweds attend a church in Myrtle Beach, where they are involved in a small group Bible study with other young couples. Nick works with the youth ministry.
“My biggest wish is that the people in baseball would understand that the sport isn’t their life,” Pappas says. “It doesn’t love you the way you love it. I just hate seeing people put all their eggs in one basket.”
Pappas didn’t discuss his decision to leave the College of Charleston with his father Joe and stepmother Sandra. They got the news via a text from head coach Matt Heath.
“They were finally OK with my side of it,” Pappas says. “But, I don’t know, I feel like they don’t know what to do with their lives now that they don’t have to come to Charleston and watch baseball games all the time.”
There is nothing to see at Horry Georgetown Tech. Pappas says he “feels dumb” taking basic courses required because many of his College of Charleston credits didn’t transfer. He is paying for school. Every penny counts.
Pappas says thanks for the breakfast.
“But as long as me and Amber steward our money, God will take care of us,” adds the power-hitting first baseman Monte Lee called one of the best players he’s ever coached. “You don’t have to have a million dollars to be happy. Once I figured money isn’t that big of a factor to me, it made baseball not that important.”
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff