Tom Sox players focused on more than baseball

He gave up just one run in eight innings of work, but watched the opposition put three runs on the board in the final inning to steal a 4-3 victory.

Having surrendered one earned run through three starts this summer for the Tom Sox,

McCracken has put the finale of his sophomore season at Hopkins to rest, but baseball is far from all that brought him to Charlottesville.

He’s happy to be part of the team’s best start in program history, but he’s focused on making a difference on a global scale.

“There’s a purpose. We’re trying to save lives,” McCracken said. “I’ve always been focused on trying to make as much of a difference as I can, and I feel like I can make a real difference here.”

McCracken is one of 10 Tom Sox players splitting their time this summer between baseball and professional internships, which range from research on rare diseases to commercial real estate management.

“Our ability to find these players internships is a huge competitive advantage we have here in Charlottesville,” Tom Sox Vice President Jeff Burton said. “We can go to some of the best schools in the country and entice really smart guys and great players because we don’t make them choose.”

McCracken and fellow pitcher Drew Scott (Yale) are spending their summers in the lab with local biotechnology firm HemoShear Therapeutics, developing therapies for liver diseases that have plagued children for centuries and adult diseases that currently affect more than 30 percent of Americans.

“We’re working hands-on in the lab and doing research side by side with a department head,” McCracken said. “I feel like I’ll be able to take this experience and go anywhere with it.”

HemoShear spun out of the University of Virginia in 2009. In 2015, the company developed a human model to aid in the research of two disorders for which there are no cures: pediatric liver diseases known as organic acidemias, which can cause severe neurological disorders and cardiac arrest, and non-alcoholic steato-hepatitis (NASH), an advanced form of fatty liver disease, which affects 30 percent of Americans and often leads to cirrhosis of the liver or cancer.

HemoShear Head of Innovation and Co-Founder Brian Wamhoff called fatty liver disease the fastest-growing disease in the world and said McCracken and Scott are on the front lines of a battle for a cure.

“It’s rare that we find interns who are also athletes, but one thing all these guys have in common is they’re off-the-charts smart,” said Wamhoff, who sees compelling parallels between the worlds of baseball and drug discovery.

“Like baseball, drug discovery is a game of averages and both are the ultimate team sports,” he said. “You have to know how to work as a team, be transparent and adapt to failure. No matter how smart you are, biology has a way of fooling you in the lab. You seem to fail more than you succeed, but like a long baseball season, you can come out on top and find success in patients (or on the field).”

McCracken is spending his time researching non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, using

HemoShear’s human model to detect changes in gene expression and proteins. Scott’s focus is on the company’s pediatric liver diseases, which Wamhoff said the company hopes to have in the drug-trial phase in late 2018.

For both, the experience they’re earning in Charlottesville this summer will serve them for a lifetime.

“You can learn biology, physics and math in school, but with drug development, the only way to truly learn the process is by literally doing it,” Wamhoff said. “These guys are earning experience I didn’t get until two years ago.”

Not only will McCracken and Scott leave HemoShear with a deep understanding of the drug discovery process, the diseases they’re researching and the technical aspects of the lab, they will present research on unrelated topics, which Wamhoff said will be critical to HemoShear’s future research.

“I’ve always kind of been a big vision guy. I want to be successful and make a difference,”McCracken said. “With this experience, I feel like I won’t need an internship next summer to get a job.”

The internship program has been around as long as the Tom Sox — three years. Burton said two players were in the program during the inaugural season. That number grew to six last summer, and this year’s crop of interns numbered 15 before a few fell off due to injury or scheduling conflicts.

Burton has never been shy about saying the Tom Sox organization is about more than baseball. The club is committed to developing people in all areas, not just on the diamond.

“It’s about life development, not just baseball development,” Burton said. “Baseball is just the vehicle to get involved in these kids’ lives.”

 

Sustainability is life

Another Johns Hopkins product, rising junior Preston Betz, is spending his days this summer with Apex Clean Energy, a local company focused on the research and development of renewable energy sources — a subject close to Betz’s heart.

“We only have this one planet and we have to leave it in a better place than we found it,” said Betz, an earth and planetary sciences major. “Sustainability is a big part of my life, and getting this experience is huge.”

Betz is working with the company’s business development department, assisting with weekly research updates and helping with day-to-day operations in the office. He’s up every morning at 7:30 a.m. to be at work by 9, and it’s not unusual for him to return to his host family at midnight or later after a long evening of baseball.

“You can go anywhere and get reps,” he said, “but between the baseball, the town and the internships, Charlottesville has the whole package.”

 

The ACC to the office

Wake Forest’s run to the NCAA Super Regionals delayed pitcher Drew Loepprich’s arrival in Charlottesville by a couple weeks, but he hit the ground running.

Loepprich debuted on the mound in Saturday’s win over the Harrisonburg Turks. He also made his debut last week in the offices of the CB Richard Ellis commercial real estate agency, where’s he learning the ropes of day-to-day property management.

“I’m learning how to talk to customers and research market trends,” Loepprich said. “It’s really important to get real experience on the job and with balancing work and baseball.”

A weekend starter for Wake Forest, Loepprich would normally spend his summers in the Cape Cod League. He’s one of a slew of older players Burton targeted while recruiting this summer’s team.

“He probably doesn’t come without the internship,” Burton said. “Older guys usually have the draft or the business world in their immediate future. Where else can they play 40-plus games a summer and get this kind of experience?”

 

Back for Round 2

Richmond pitcher Matt Olson is back for his second season with the Tom Sox. It was all baseball last summer, but this year, he’s learning the finer points of business and marketing at ACAC.

“Hands-on experience is incredibly important,” he said. “You’re learning things you won’t from a book.”

Olson isn’t a marketing major, but he’s spending much of his time with that department while helping with the fitness facility’s day-to-day operations. It’s all part of becoming a well-rounded businessman.

“The main reason I came back is this is such a great baseball community,” Olson said. “And I couldn’t pass up the opportunity at this internship.”

The Tom Sox are off to a 12-5 start to the season and recently found themselves ranked No. 17 nationally among summer baseball teams, but Burton said the work being done off the field is what sets the program apart.

“We have a higher caliber of ball player here and a high caliber of character in terms of emotional development, and that’s going to help you win games,” Burton said. “It’s not uncommon for these guys to roll into their host families at 1 a.m. and still have to get up for work the next morning. But we still want to win and expect excellence in everything we do. That’s what’s going to pay off for these guys 10 or 15 years down the road.”

Tom Sox interns

  • Sean McCracken, Johns Hopkins, HemoShear Therapeutics (biotech firm)
  • Drew Scott, Yale, HemoShear (biotech firm)
  • Drew Loepprich, Wake Forest, CB Richard Ellis (commercial real estate)
  • Joe Burris, CNU, Out Front Media (sports/marketing promotions)
  • Brandon Johnson, Richmond, Foxhaven (hedge fund/finance)
  • Preston Betz, Johns Hopkins, Apex (solar energy)
  • Sean Byrnes, Elon, UVa Credit Union (banking)
  • Layne Looney, Richmond, Greg Allen (private equity)
  • Matt Olson, Richmond, ACAC (management)
  • Michael Derenzi, Georgetown (legal research)

Ron Counts covers Central Virginia high school and prep sports for The Daily Progress and C’ville Varsity. Contact him at rcounts@dailyprogress.com, (434) 978-7245, or on Twitter @Ron_CDPsports.