Class of ’23: They Were UVA Baseball Stars. Years Later, They’re Graduating

May 10, 2023 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

Sitting in the shadows of the place that hosted some of his biggest achievements, Mike Papi, bearded but otherwise looking the same as he did nine years earlier as a star University of Virginia baseball player, took a big swig of a 16-ounce coffee.

These days, success for the former All-American outfielder isn’t sparked by quality coaching or extra reps in the batting cage.

“Caffeine,” Papi said. “I live off caffeine.”

A late morning meeting at Ivy Provisions, a gourmet deli across Ivy Road from Disharoon Park, was second on Papi’s busy agenda on a warm spring day in Charlottesville. By 11 a.m., he had already done some remote work for his job as an investment adviser representative for Capstone Wealth Management Group. From 3:30 to 6 p.m., he was scheduled to be in a Gibson Hall classroom, participating in a religious studies seminar course.

By sunset, he’d be on his five-hour drive home to Fort Mill, South Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Amber, and their 1-year-old son, Walker.

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This has been part of Papi’s weekly routine since January, when he returned to Grounds to complete his bachelor’s degree and become a UVA graduate, a goal of his since he was a first-year student in the fall of 2011.

The combination of work, school and father demands load his plate, but, Papi said, “I’m just embracing the challenge of doing it all.”

Potrait of Mike Papi

Papi, 30, will graduate next week with a religious studies degree. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Papi is one of two UVA Baseball Hall of Famers navigating the untraditional route of taking their last semester of college more than a decade after their first. The other is Nathan Kirby, a former All-American pitcher who recorded the final out to secure Virginia’s 2015 College World Series championship.

Both Papi and Kirby, a pair of former top-40 Major League Baseball Draft picks who originally left UVA after their junior seasons to play professionally, are set to graduate next week. It’s a feat of dedication not lost on their former coach.

“When we recruit players,” said Brian O’Connor, the Wahoos’ skipper of 20 years, “we talk to them about playing baseball as long as possible. But the value of this degree, for the rest of your life, is what really will carry you through. And [Papi and Kirby] realize that and that’s why they commit themselves to come back here and finish.”

More Than Baseball, a nonprofit organization that aims to better the lives of current and former Minor League Baseball players, released a report last April revealing among its many findings that only 10% of minor league players ever make it to the big leagues.

To reach the sport’s top level, most must first grind through at least three tiers of minor league ball. It’s a journey that’s anything but glamorous and most often leaves players, due to inconsistent play, injury, roster politics or plain bad luck, short of their ultimate goal.

Portrait of Nathan Kirby
Kirby, 29, will graduate next week with a history degree. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

Neither Papi, selected 38th overall by the Cleveland Indians in the 2014 draft, nor Kirby, selected 40th overall by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2015 draft, had the good fortune to ever appear in a major league game.

They both made it as high as the AAA level, a step below the big leagues, before hanging up their cleats for good. Both retired within the last two years, giving way to what happened over the last five months when Papi and Kirby, once touted student-athletes, became simply students writing the next chapter in their lives.

Nathan Kirby: Seeing the Big Picture

Donovan Fifield, a doctoral candidate in UVA’s history department, teaches a capstone course, “Money and Atlantic Empires, 1500 to 1800,” each Wednesday from 3:30 to 6 p.m. in the Rotunda.

Like most instructors, Fifield likes to arrive to the classroom well before the course begins and make any final preparations prior to the students’ arrival.

This semester, his quiet time had company.

“When I show up,” Fifield said, “Nathan’s usually the only other person there for a while.”

Timely appearances have long been part of Kirby’s UVA story. During the 2015 season, Kirby missed nine weeks of action due to a strained lat muscle, only to return in June as the Cavaliers were deep in their NCAA Tournament run and in need of a pitching boost.

Kirby delivered with a six-out save against Vanderbilt University on June 24 that clinched the national title for Virginia. The performance is forever etched in Wahoo lore.

That was Kirby at 21 with, conceivably, a bright future ahead in the sport. He’s now 29 and wears the scars of four upper-body surgeries over the last decade.

He’s not bitter that things didn’t go to plan. He’s thankful, rather, for the perspective he gained during eight seasons in the minor leagues.

“After my surgery in 2017,” Kirby said, “the big anxiety I had was, ‘Am I wasting my time? Is this what I want to do?’”

As a kid growing up in Richmond, Kirby, for family reasons, moved several times. The baseball field, where he displayed obvious talent, became his escape. He drifted there because he excelled there and was rewarded there, but did he really love it there?

Kirby asked himself that question while alone during injury rehab.

“I think differently, and I share different interests than a lot of professional athletes,” he said. "And I realized when baseball was taken away from me that I was interested in a lot of other things.

“While baseball was the thing I was singularly good at, I realized it was just the thing I used to learn about life. It was more so a teacher for me than an avenue for success in the future, which is why you could say I was ready for it to end.”

Kirby threw his final pitch in professional baseball on June 16, 2022. He re-enrolled at UVA months later on a mission to earn the 11 credit hours he had left to graduate after his first stint on Grounds.

The history major took four courses this spring, commuting back and forth from Richmond on Mondays and Tuesdays. After Wednesday sessions with Fifield, he’d stay overnight in Charlottesville at the home of Kenny Towns, his former UVA teammate, and then take his final course of the week on Thursdays.

“I’m having fun,” Kirby said in early April, in a meeting room in Disharoon Park. “It’s completely different than being back in baseball, but I’m enjoying it. Life is about challenging yourself and undertaking those challenges.”

Fifield described Kirby as an engaging student who likes to focus on the entirety of a concept rather than individual details.

“He really loves the big picture takeaway,” Fifield said. “Some people are kind of in the weeds, and he chooses the big concepts and finds them applicable. That’s somewhat rare for students.”

Kirby’s approach to his studies mirrors how he’s attacked life since coming to grips with his baseball reality. He benefits from thinking wholistically about every situation.

It’s what stopped him from getting back on the pitcher’s mound this season.

“I was going to play again, but then I started to weigh out what was going to make me happier as a human,” Kirby said. “In the end, I understood that if I kept playing, I might be trading time with my fiancée, time with my family, time building a family, time getting into a career and making my way back into society.”

Kirby, who plans to marry this fall, is still pondering his next move after next week’s walk down the Lawn. He’s given thought to firefighting, but, right now, he’s “just trying to let the dust settle from baseball,” he said.

Soon, he can finally rest with a UVA degree in hand.

Action shot of Nathan Kirby pitching
Among his many accomplishments as a UVA pitcher, Kirby is best known for recording a six-out save to secure the Wahoos’ College World Series title in 2015. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

“Whatever you’re chasing in life, whatever you decide to do, you can’t give up,” Kirby said. “If you put something on your plate, you need to eat it. And I came here in 2012 with the understanding that I wanted to graduate, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Mike Papi: Paying it Forward

When the baseball-playing chapter of Mike Papi’s life ended in October 2021, he thought briefly about remaining in the sport as a coach, scout or agent.

“But all of those things took me away from home,” he said.

Papi, a headliner on the 2014 Virginia team that won 53 games and finished as national runners-up, is married to the former Amber Fry, a UVA soccer player from 2010 to 2013. The couple welcomed their first child last April.

After spending most of his 20s chasing his childhood dream of playing in the big leagues, Papi, 30, is settled and satisfied.

He has a loving family and a work-from-anywhere job that he enjoys. Among the perks of his position with Capstone Wealth Management Group, Papi gets to speak to young professional athletes, those wearing the shoes he once wore.

“I have clients of all ages and in all sectors of business,” Papi said, “but I’ve really found a niche in the athletic community because I can relate. We talk the same language and I’ve walked the path that either they’ve walked or are going to walk.”

In addition to educating them on establishing a smart financial plan, Papi also weaves in tips on how to handle the roller coaster ride that is professional sports.

It’s a part that comes from the heart.  

“Being a first-round draft pick, my expectations for myself were too high,” Papi said. “I ended up putting way too much pressure on myself, thinking that everything had to be perfect and that you had to fit this mold of what a first-rounder looked like.

Papi walks along the Lawn rooms on his way to class.
Papi walks along the Lawn rooms on his way to class. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

“Looking back, I probably should have just embraced the day-to-day of the development process. But I was trying to get to the big leagues right as I was signed.”

Papi played 796 games of minor league baseball, amassing 76 home runs and 421 runs batted in, without making it to the bigs. But when he retired after nine seasons and a couple of surgeries, he didn’t agonize over the decision.

“Not that it was easy, but it just made sense with my body breaking down and not feeling as confident on the field,” Papi said. “At the same time, we were getting ready to bring a child into the world. I’m a big family guy and I’ve loved every minute watching my son grow up. And if I was playing baseball, I’d kind of miss out on those opportunities.”

A high school friend connected Papi to the wealth management field. A bachelor’s degree – something he was four credits short of achieving when he left UVA in 2014 – is required for Papi to become a certified financial planner, the next step in his new career.

While that’s the driving force behind Papi’s return to Grounds this semester, there is another reason that goes back to when he was being recruited out of high school.

“I come from a family that is very high on academics,” Papi said. “My mom was a school counselor for 30 years. My dad was a school principal for a couple of decades. So they’ve worked in schools and they always pushed my academics very high on the priority list.

“I could have gone to a lot of different baseball schools that were great baseball schools, but maybe not as good academically. So, Virginia was always top choice. And getting my degree was something I always wanted to do.”

Like Kirby, Papi’s course schedule spanned multiple days during the week. He’d save time and gas by staying at the home of UVA assistant baseball coach Kevin McMullan on Tuesday nights.

Papi’s display of resourcefulness and commitment to a goal is commendable, said Kevin Rose, Papi’s instructor for a “Christianity and Ecology” course.

Action shot of Mike Papi
Papi was a two-time All-American player for the Wahoos and a star for the 2014 team that advanced to the College World Series finals. (UVA Athletics photo)

“I knew a little bit about his story,” Rose said, “but I definitely didn’t know until further into the semester that he was commuting from the Charlotte area and juggling family responsibilities. That really impresses me,

“This isn’t as simple as just driving across town to take a quick class to graduate. Like, this is a big undertaking and I’ve been really impressed with how he’s handled it. He has a sense of professionalism that really stands out.”

‘I’m Proud of Them’

A guest of his former coaches, Papi was on the Disharoon Park field during batting practice before a recent UVA game. O’Connor, the Cavaliers’ head coach, introduced him to the current team and then, individually, the Cavalier players came up and shook Papi’s hand.

One of them greeted the program Hall of Famer with a touching anecdote.

“He was telling me when he was 8 years old, they would come to the games,” Papi said, opting not to name the specific player, “and that I was his favorite player and one of the big reasons why he strived to come to the University of Virginia.

“Obviously, I was flattered. But, man, it made me feel old.”

UVA students come in all shapes, sizes and, yes, ages. Their path to graduation can be the traditional route or, in the case of Mike Papi and Nathan Kirby, a detoured adventure that covers a decade.

Either way, a diploma from one of the top universities in the country looks the same. 

“One of the core things that we talk about in our program all the time is finishing what you started,” O’Connor said. “These guys are doing that, and I’m proud of them.”

Media Contact

Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications