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The former OSU star is back in Oregon City, working at Stone Creek Golf Club
by: file photo, Former Oregon City and Oregon State baseball star Jonah Nickerson is stepping down from the big leagues and will earn his business degree this fall.

After Jonah Nickerson, Kevin Gunderson and Dallas Buck pitched Oregon State to the College World Series championship in 2006, the baseball world was their oyster.

As early-round draft picks who had mastered hitters at college's top level, it seemed a matter of when, not if, the trio would surface in the major leagues.

Four years later, things have changed dramatically.

Nickerson has retired. Gunderson has been released. Buck is mending from shoulder surgery while pitching Double-A ball.

It's a cruel world out there.

'That's the reality of professional baseball,' Oregon State coach Pat Casey says. 'People don't realize how few players make it to the bigs.'

Now 25, Nickerson, Gunderson and Buck have found out the hard way, despite the optimistic projections of major-league promise.

'Coming out of college [a lot of people said that all three of us would make it in professional baseball],' Nickerson says. 'But people don't understand how hard it is. It's not just skill, but it's timing, too - When you pitch well, who you pitch well in front of, and if the organization needs you at the time.'

'It just shows the whole world,' Gunderson says, 'how difficult it is to make it. Think about how many players are in pro ball, or trying to get there. It's not even funny how stiff the competition is.'

Jonah Nickerson's climb to the mountaintop of college baseball - MVP of the 2006 College World Series after allowing two earned runs in 21 2/3 innings, ending the postseason with a 4-0 record - wasn't even in view when he arrived at Oregon State as a freshman in 2003.

The 6-1, 195-pound right-hander went undrafted out of Oregon City High.

'Looking back, I'm glad I didn't get drafted out of high school,' Nickerson says. 'I'd have been inclined to give in to the temptation to sign and get my pro career started. I wouldn't have been mature enough to make the right decision.

'Things worked out. Had I known what I know now, I wouldn't have signed for even $500,000 out of high school.'

After winning two games at Omaha, after beating Rice on two days rest, after ending the postseason with a 1.23 ERA in 36 2/3 innings to finish the season 13-3, Nickerson was drafted in the seventh round by Detroit. He received a $150,000 signing bonus. After being honored with the key to Oregon City on July 7, 2006, he began his pro career, making five appearances in rookie ball.

Nickerson was solid with the West Michigan Whitecaps of the Class A Midwest League in 2007, going 11-7 with a 4.24 ERA. He was outstanding as he moved up to Lakeland of the high-A Florida State League in 2008, finishing 12-4 with a 3.99 ERA.

'I figured if I kept pitching the way I was pitching,' he said, 'I'd be in the big leagues some day.'

Last year came the first hint of a struggle, after a promotion to Double-A Erie of the Eastern League. He finished 8-12 with a 5.33 ERA, yielding 217 hits in 165 1/3 innings, with 44 walks and 75 strikeouts. Opponents hit .321.

'Not a very good year,' Nickerson says. 'It was up and down. I proved at certain points I was capable of pitching at that level and beyond, but not consistently. I started in the rotation, went to the bullpen, made a pitching change with my arm slot (to sidearm style), went back into the rotation two weeks later and threw 140 innings after that.'

Nickerson was likely headed for Erie again this season. But on Feb. 20, a week before spring training was to begin, he retired from the game.

'It wasn't something I wanted to do with my life anymore,' Nickerson says. 'I didn't have the desire to keep playing. It was time to move on and figure out what's next.'

Thoughts of retirement had lingered in Nickerson's mind the previous two years, 'but I figured I owed it to myself to give it a little more time,' he says.

The nomadic lifestyle got to him.

'I was unhappy being away from home,' Nickerson says. 'It's a grind in pro ball. It's a business, not a team game anymore. It was a tough transition, from winning the College World Series to playing for yourself, basically. That's how it is for everyone in pro ball. It wasn't the right situation for me.'

Nickerson served as pitching coach at Oregon City High this spring. Now living in Lake Oswego, he is working on the maintenance staff at Stone Creek Golf Course and plans to return to school at Portland State University this fall, looking for a degree in business. At some point, he says, he'd love to be a college coach.

'Not sure exactly what I want to do,' he says. 'But I'll have a year and a half to figure it out.'

In November, he'll wed Angela Orns. His best man will be Kevin Gunderson.

Gunderson is living in Happy Valley, giving pitching lessons to youths through the Metro Baseball Academy, and pondering his next move.

Pat Casey is prejudiced, of course. He believes the college experience is better for most players than signing out of high school. He believes Nickerson, Gunderson and Buck all made the right decision to come to Oregon State. He understands the reasons why pro ball hasn't panned out - at least yet - for the threesome.

'Jonah never enjoyed the lifestyle,' Casey says. 'There's a big difference between playing for Oregon State in a team atmosphere and playing minor-league baseball, where you're being paid to play and the people you're playing with are doing the same thing you are - trying to advance.'

Nickerson has no regrets.

'Those are by far the best memories I'll ever have in my lifetime, let alone in baseball,' Nickerson says. 'Nothing can replace those times.'

Casey gets emotional when talking about the trio.

'I can't put into words what those three guys meant to our program,' he says. 'They had the opportunity to play in a team concept. They made some lifetime relationships. Gundy and Jonah are within a year of a college degree.

'Those guys are icons in the state of Oregon. They're the epitome of what college baseball is all about. They don't have to advance to the major leagues to increase their importance. They've got something most guys never get - (championship) rings they can wear on their finger every day.'

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