Nearly five years after Michael Deeb’s football career unceremoniously ended with a medical disqualification, the former Notre Dame linebacker is still chasing a professional baseball career.
The 25-year-old Deeb will travel to Cary, N.C., this week to live with a former teammate and play in exhibition games against teams in the summer collegiate Old North State League until another opportunity arises. The left-handed outfielder and first baseman just wants to find reps and at bats wherever he can.
“My job at this point in time is to find somewhere that I can be playing games, and that’s somewhere that I’m going to be able to do it,” Deeb said. “I’ll get an opportunity to play a lot of baseball.”
Finding live baseball of any kind is a rarity in the United States right now during the coronavirus pandemic. Even Major League Baseball has made a mess of solidifying a plan to start its 2020 season. Minor League Baseball is on hold too. Smaller independent leagues are left grappling with how to run their organizations as well.
All Deeb can do is try to stay ready for his next chance to impress. In February and early March, Deeb played in exhibition games in Fort Myers, Fla., against the Kia Tigers of the Korea Baseball Organization. In early May, he was picked as one of four players to compete in a fan vote for a spring training invitation to the St. Paul Saints of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball. Deeb didn’t rally enough online support to beat right-handed pitcher Connor White.
What Deeb is really chasing is an opportunity he already had last year with the Chicago White Sox organization. He signed a minor league contract with the White Sox in December of 2018 and was assigned to the Kannapolis (N.C.) Intimidators, the Low-A minor league affiliate.
Deeb spent the following spring training in Arizona, but his audition was wrecked by injuries. He tried to power through a sports hernia. Then he injured his shoulder. Deeb was assigned to the Great Falls (Mont.) Voyagers in the Rookie Advanced Pioneer League in April, but he never left Arizona. He was stuck in extended spring training with his body not cooperating. The Voyagers released him June 4, 2019.
“Having a torn abdominal is not really a way to play sports,” Deeb said. “I gave it everything I had. And then in June, I ultimately got released being that I was damaged goods.”
Deeb spent the rest of the year recovering from sports hernia and shoulder surgeries in his home state of Florida. He picked up a job in business development at Barwis Performance Center in Deerfield Beach, Fla., which allowed him to work and rehab at the same facility. That’s where Deeb spent all his time preparing for more opportunities this year.
Deeb, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame with a film, television and theatre major and a Master’s degree from Bethune-Cookman in organizational leadership, knows he could find a more lucrative career if he gave up baseball. But his limited financial obligations allow him to keep chasing his dream.
Deeb isn’t buried in student debt. He doesn’t have any children. He isn’t married. His girlfriend, Quinn Gleason, is a professional tennis player.
In Deeb’s mind, baseball remains his present and future.
“I haven’t found anything that makes me feel as alive as I am when I’m with a team competing and trying to win,” Deeb said. “That just fires me up. I’ll be able to find ways to keep going at it.”
Deeb tried to play through a left elbow injury that first started bothering him as a freshman at Notre Dame. He played with a protective brace that extended from just below his shoulder pads down to his forearm. But nothing could protect him from repeatedly feeling like he was getting hit on his funny bone.
“It just wasn’t working on the football field,” Deeb said, “because anytime I would make contact or lock out my arm or do anything to use my left arm, I’d get that funny bone feeling and my arm would fall down.”
Deeb tore the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his elbow and the ulnar nerve was sliding out of place. He could no longer play football at a high level and was only risking further injury by continuing to play.
Deeb’s football career officially ended in August of 2015 just before what would have been his junior season. He was given a medical disqualification, which allowed him to remain on scholarship but no longer eligible to play. The former three-star recruit from Plantation (Fla.) American Heritage ended his career by playing in only the last two games of his sophomore season and not recording a stat.
“Is this the end of my athletic career?” Deeb asked himself. “Do I give everything up? Heck no. My love for competition was still there and the fire was inside of me. It was killing me that I couldn’t be on the field competing in football.”
Deeb was on track to graduate from Notre Dame following the fall semester in 2016. While finishing up his academic career with the Irish, Deeb opted to have Tommy John surgery to reconstruct his UCL. He was able to rehab on campus and finish his degree.
“I was still getting up at 5 o’clock every day, showing up, rehabbing and working out twice a day,” Deeb said. “I was still going at something with that same intensity. So I said, ‘You know what? We’re going to change gears a little bit.’”
Deeb decided he would pursue baseball, a sport he also played in high school. In his senior year at American Heritage, Deeb hit for a .354 average with four doubles, one home run and 29 RBIs in 28 games, according to MaxPreps. He figured he would try out for an independent league and try to work his way up the ranks as a pro player.
Then Deeb connected with Bethune-Cookman assistant baseball coach Jason Bell. He offered Deeb the opportunity to graduate transfer to Bethune-Cookman to play baseball with his final two years of eligibility while pursuing a Master’s degree. All Deeb had to do was work through all the paperwork to make it happen.
Deeb credits Brent Moberg, Notre Dame’s director of compliance, for helping him sort through everything.
“I remember sitting in his office for like three hours one day just going through this whole packet I had to turn in,” Deeb said. “When we finally got it in and it went through and I was able to compete that spring, oh man it was sweet.”
Deeb was still in the final stages of recovering from Tommy John surgery when he enrolled at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla. He wasn’t an everyday player and started only four games that 2017 season. He hit .280 in 25 at-bats with two doubles, one triple and five RBIs.
The following season, Deeb started 32 games and hit .262 with five doubles, 17 RBIs and 12 runs scored. His numbers weren’t earth-shattering, but he was starting to find his groove.
That summer, as he finished up his Master’s degree online, Deeb joined the Plattsburgh (N.Y.) Thunderbirds of the Empire Professional Baseball League. He caught the eyes of EPBL chief operating officer and vice president Jerry Gonzalez during training camp before the June-August season.
“He had a strong bat,” Gonzalez said. “He could throw well. He could move for a big guy. We were thinking this guy should be a linebacker somewhere. This guy would be a great football player. That’s how we found out he was a football player.
“When you started getting to know the things that he had done, it just became more and more impressive. We decided to go ahead and put him on a team in the league. We just wanted to see what he was capable of doing.
“He showed way too much — more than we expected.”
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Deeb didn’t show any lingering effects from his elbow injury. He became a hitting machine for the Thunderbirds. Deeb hit .352 with 10 doubles, one triple, three homers, 43 RBIs and 32 runs in 44 games. In 192 plate appearances, Deeb registered a .427 on-base percentage.
At season’s end, Deeb was named the 2018 EPBL MVP.
“He was playing as good as anybody can play,” Gonzalez said. “He performed so well, you would think he was perfectly healthy.”
Gonzalez said every year since the EPBL’s first season in 2016, at least one player has signed a minor league contract. The league consisted of six teams in 2018 with two in New York, one in New Hampshire, one in Maine and two in Puerto Rico. Deeb’s stint in the EPBL also included a series against the Puerto Rican national team.
When the White Sox signed him, Deeb was told his play in Puerto Rico was an important selling point. Unfortunately for Deeb, he wasn’t able to match that level play as he fought through injuries in spring training.
That’s why Deeb is still looking for the next opportunity. But his past has shown that he can bounce back from an injury. Deeb’s previous experiences taught him how to handle adversity.
“That mindset turned into learning how to train, learning how to work, learning how to get better,” Gonzalez said. “That’s exactly what he was about. His mentality has always been so positive. When you have a guy with a mentality like that, he can do anything.”
Deeb long ago found the positive in not playing last year. Because he was injured, he maintained his rookie status which will give him more opportunities for roster spots in leagues that have to carry a certain number of rookies on each team.
Not much has gone as planned for Deeb’s athletic career since high school. Even when he started pursuing a baseball career, he didn’t imagine being the only person on a bus in Puerto Rico that didn’t speak Spanish or that he’d post a video on Twitter in the hopes of getting an independent league tryout.
Even a month ago Deeb didn’t know he’d be temporarily moving to North Carolina for an undetermined amount of time to play in exhibitions against collegiate players. But the uncertainty isn’t going to stop him from pushing forward.
“I don’t know what the next thing is going to be, but I just keep going at it,” Deeb said. “As long as I’m healthy and until they rip a jersey off me and tell me I can’t anymore, I don’t see any problem with keep going at it.”