Some players never get a second chance in professional baseball and there are those who do who never make good on them. Nationals’ outfield prospect, Steven Souza Jr., has taken full advantage of his second chance and then some. After a strong spring training in 2014 that saw Souza hit .355/.429/.806 in 31 at bats with three home runs, Souza knew he could be getting his chance in 2014. When Nats outfielder Denard Span was put on the shelf on April 12 because of a concussion, that call came sooner than Souza had expected.
Souza said, “When I actually got the call, I lost breath. It was so surreal, and to be so early . . . I thought there might be a chance maybe throughout the year but it was the second week of the season and my family was all together and they started crying so it was really special. . . . that first day was just cloud nine”
On April 13, 2014, in Atlanta, Souza made his major league debut, coming into the game as a defensive replacement in the seventh inning and striking out in the eighth against Jordan Walden, but even that, and a 10-2 loss to the Braves, couldn’t dampen Souza’s mood. “Once I got there, I couldn’t stop smiling. Guys kept joking about me. I was standing in the outfield during BP and they asked me, ‘Why are you still smiling?’ I couldn’t stop smiling, I was so excited.”
Souza has overcome many trials on his path to the major leagues. Drafted 100th overall in the third round by the Nationals in 2007, Souza signed on for a $346,000 bonus and thought he had conquered the world. He didn’t know how to transition from being a high school student to being a professional baseball player and didn’t handle the ups and downs very well, “I had a weird first four or five years where I’d do really well for periods of time and then I’d really struggle. [There were] a lot of distractions in my life: things away from the field – chasing women, drinking a lot. You know [I] just had different priorities. I wasn’t a very good teammate; I was pretty selfish.”
Souza’s statistics in his first four years of professional baseball bear out his tendency to be streaky. In 2007, in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, he hit only .194/.299/.340 and in 2008, despite seven home runs and 22 steals in 296 plate appearances, he could only manage a .213/.312/.339 triple slash line at the Short-Season-A and Class-A levels, posting a .453 OPS in July of that year with the Vermont Lake Monsters. He had wide swings in his performance in 2009 before something changed in 2010.
Grinding out another baseball season for Hagerstown in the South Atlantic League, Souza looked for some chemical help to get by. “I started slipping when I was doing really well and I was like ‘I can’t slip, I have to keep this going.’ We got off the bus and I knew I was tired so I took Concerta which I ended up getting suspended for,” he said. Concerta is a stimulant used mainly to treat ADHD and is banned by Major League Baseball. Souza and teammate J.R. Higley were suspended for 50-games that July.
Souza admits that he should have taken the hint that baseball was giving him but it took one more run in before he started to turn things around. Getting into an argument with Potomac manager Matthew LeCroy, Souza left the team and went home to Everett, Washington. “[I] just really felt like it was me against the world. I came home and it was kind of taken away from me. . . . Baseball was everything that I was and now, I was just a normal person and I had to figure out who I was.”