Sitting in a seat at Progressive Field in Cleveland, five-year old Sam Donko sat and watched the Cleveland Indians take on the Chicago White Sox. Thanks to his parents, Richard and Jill, young Sam began to fall in love with the game of baseball. Nobody has been more of a recipient of his love for the sport than himself, and the VCU Baseball program.
In 2016, his first season in Black and Gold, Donko went on to secure a VCU record 20 saves, which also led all NCAA Division I baseball. Coined with the phrase, “Get In The Truck” by his teammates, Donko has already acquired three Preseason All-American honors. He is back for one more go around with only two goals in mind: to win, and for himself, to get drafted.
“There’s only one real goal, and that’s for me to get drafted this year,” said Donko. “That’s obviously always there, but I don’t ever think about it when I go out there. I focus on winning, and that’s what I want to do this year. I want to go to a regional, super regional, and hopefully go to Omaha. It’s my last year of college baseball, my goals are to help this team win. Then if I am able to play professional baseball, then that’s great. I just want this team to succeed and win games, then if all works out that would be great.”
Donko grew up in northeast Ohio, and first got into baseball as a five-year-old. He looked up to Jim Thome and Frank Thomas as role models in his quest to become a professional baseball player.
“All I wanted to do was watch them, and I told my mom, ‘We need to watch Jim Thome and Frank Thomas’. So she set it up and we went, and I was about five or six. That’s when I fell in love with the game, and I got to watch those guys play. I never really watched the pitching side of the game, I was always more interested in the offensive side. That jump started my watching it on TV and playing little league. Those guys were my heroes really. They were super stars. I always wanted to be like those guys, you know? I had an Omar Vizquel VHS tape on how to field a ground ball.”
That turned into playing catch almost every day, both with his father, and sometimes if need be, his mother.
“So I fell in love with those prime time Indians guys, and then everyday I would ask my dad to go outside and play catch everyday as he got home from work, and he always said yes. I was blessed to have a dad that would always go out there with me, and if my dad wasn’t available my mom would be out there with me playing catch and throwing a ball around. She wasn’t the best, but she got the job done.”
Donko began his playing days in Coach Pitch. As he began, he started out with some pretty ripe knowledge.
“I will always remember my first practice, my dad and my friend’s dad were the coaches. They told me to go out to second base, so I ran out to the base and stood right on top of the bag. So they always joke with me about that.”
Only playing a small amount of travel ball growing up, Donko just fell into his local Babe Ruth league, and ultimately playing in the B League in Youngstown, Ohio. While being able to play the game at a high level for the area, in some ways it wasn’t the best recruiting exposure for a young kid with big dreams.
“I never did any showcases; I only did one. It was a PBR thing in Pennsylvania, and [former teammate] Matt Davis was there. That was the only thing I did, and I was 18. But yeah, just playing locally in the B League kind of limited my exposure. But at the same time, I played against really good players. There’s a guy I played with who plays at George Washington right now. Kid from St. Bonaventure was also there. So even though the exposure wasn’t there, the talent level was. There are some kids that play in the ACC in that league, but I just don’t think I got as much exposure as I could have at a younger age.”
Donko eventually chose to attend Iowa Western Community College. A program that consistently sent it’s players to top Division I programs, Donko saw it as his opportunity to make something of his baseball career.
“[Guys] were going to top Division I schools and teams that were going to Omaha, and I saw that their head coach really worked getting his guys into improving their ability. So I went there for two years, and my first year I didn’t do that well. I was only a bullpen arm, just a regular guy. I really learned the game, because in college baseball the game gets sped up on you when you get thrown in as a freshman. I think my experience in junior college really helped me with that and my ability. There was really no limitations to what we could do, so we were out there all the time, every day of the week. That helped me progress as a baseball player and as a person. I got to play with great athletes, as the guy who won the College World Series [last year with Coastal Carolina] was my catcher. I was challenged every day, which booster my confidence and my level of play. It was a really good fit for me.”
His time in Iowa was helpful for his development as a player, and even for others as he admitted to “picking corn for some guy because he donated a bunch of stuff to the program”, and ultimately led to his chance at Division I baseball when the VCU Rams came calling.
“The first time Coach Hay contacted me was in February or March [of 2015]. I was hurt, as I had just broken my foot and I was out the entire fall of my sophomore year. So I didn’t have pro day or scout day or anything like that. So I really didn’t have any schools looking at me. But Coach Hay called, just communicated with me a little bit and he wanted to see how my season played out. Then I went up to New England in the summer, and that’s where he really got to see me play. I was fortunate enough to like what I had, brought me on a visit, met the coaches, and here I am.”
Taking the mound for the first time on Feb. 19, 2016 for the Rams against Kennesaw State, Donko pitched a clean one-third of an inning. it kicked off one of the best seasons by any collegiate pitcher in NCAA Baseball.
“It was a dream come true, really. I mean, growing up as a kid, I always saw it as baby steps. I saw my first step, which was to make varsity baseball in high school. Then my next step was to try and play college ball somewhere, and that’s how I got to Iowa Western. Then I moved onto pitching at the Division I level, and when I got to take the mound at Kennesaw [State], it was surreal. I achieved a goal, and not many guys get to go out and play Division I sports. Then to have a successful year like I had, it was a dream come true and awesome to do that here at VCU.”
Donko credits his environment growing up for his tough athletic ability, as growing up across the street from him was his cousin, Peyton Aldridge, who plays for the Davidson Wildcats Men’s Basketball team.
“He was always my go to for athletics. It was always me and him. We grew up playing football and baseball together. Not much on the basketball side, as I’m not a full athlete like him. But I remember his dad had one of those radar buckets, where you throw it and it would read how fast you can throw. We used to be out there all the time just to see who can throw harder. He might have beaten me a couple times, but I mean, I think I got him now. But we were always athletic guys together. Every time I’d go over, we would throw or shoot around with a basketball, we were always doing something athletic together. We kind of made each other into athletes with all of the sports we would play together, and how equally athletic we were in most of them.”
While growing up with two other siblings – an older sister who is in graduate school at Kansas, and a 14-year old younger brother who he says will be better on the mound than him – Sam takes his accomplishments with humility, but holds one above all.
“I once ate 50 wings at this bar and grill next to my high school,” said Donko. “I still go in from time to time, and they ask me ‘Hey, you are the kid who ate 50 wings’, I always get a kick out of that.”