Four days ago, he became a major-league draft pick.
Sitting in the living room of his family's home in Snohomish on Thursday — one day after the Los Angeles Angels selected him in the 37th round of the 50-round 2010 Major League Baseball draft — Struhs still hadn't made sense of how quickly things have changed.
“It hasn't sunk in yet,” he said, wearing a red Angels cap on his shaved head.
Lately life has been a whirlwind — finally in a good way — for Struhs. He graduated May 25 from the Excelsior Youth Center in Spokane, where he spent six months learning to overcome his dependency on drugs, specifically the highly addictive pain-relief narcotic OxyContin.
Now Struhs is back doing what he loves most: playing baseball. He's competing for a Seattle-based select team while waiting to see what the Angels have to offer.
The Angels have until Aug. 15 to sign the 6-foot, 190-pound Struhs. If they don't get his signature on a contract by then, they lose his draft rights, meaning Struhs likely would attend a junior college and re-enter the draft next year. Struhs wants to do everything he can to impress the Angels — and to keep his life on course.
“I feel like this is my opportunity right here,” said Struhs, 18. “I need to take it because I've let so many other opportunities go. I'm definitely not going to let this one go.”
‘He could do it all'
It didn't take long for people to notice Struhs' talent. At age 10 he made the South Everett Little League All-Star team.
The next year Struhs was the only 11-year-old on the league's 12-year-old All-Star squad.
“He was the fastest kid out there,” said Max Whitt, a 2010 Granite Falls High graduate who played with Struhs on the 10-year-old All-Star team and became Struhs' closest friend. “He hit for power and hit for average. He could do it all.”
By the time he was a freshman in high school, Struhs was the starting left fielder on Cascade High School's varsity. By chance, L.A. Angels area scout Casey Harvie noticed Struhs when Harvie was scouting another Cascade player, then-senior third baseman Steven Souza. Struhs' footspeed and potent left-handed swing impressed the scout.
“He was so aggressive on the bases. He was somewhat of a free swinger, but he had a pretty swing and good bat speed,” Harvie said.
At the time, Struhs, a gifted fielder, also stood out because of his shaggy hairstyle modeled after a well-known big-league star. “He looked like a miniature Johnny Damon,” Harvie said.
But while Struhs excelled in baseball, he was faltering off the field. He started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol at age 14, he said. Then, as his circle of friends changed dramatically, he tried prescription drugs, “just popping pills every once in a while.”
Once in a while turned into every day. Struhs lost touch with Whitt and wasn't as dedicated to baseball. His slow slide became a plunge.
This past fall, on Nov. 23, Struhs badly wanted to celebrate with his family and friends. It was his 18th birthday. But instead of enjoying that milestone event, he was cooped up in Spokane's Excelsior Youth Center.
Struhs' path to the treatment facility was preceded by a barrage of new lows sparked, he said, by his dependence on painkillers. After playing well for the first-ever Glacier Peak High School baseball team in the spring of 2009 and earning all-league honorable mention as a center fielder, Struhs nosedived.
For the third time since he started using drugs heavily, Struhs had a run-in with police. On this occasion his ex-girlfriend accused him (falsely, Struhs said) of stealing $100 from her. His probation period from a previous charge was extended.
Then Struhs entered the county's juvenile drug court program. He stayed clean for a while, he said, but relapsed and in July was sent to the Lakeside-Milam Recovery Center in Burien. He completed the program in 39 days. It wasn't enough.
“I just fell apart. I ran from drug court and I started using heavily with my old friends,” said Struhs, who began taking OxyContin daily.
Avoiding a drug court warrant, Struhs lived on the streets for about two months.
Even though Tagen Struhs was struggling again, a dwindling flicker of hope — his dream of playing pro baseball — kept him going.
“I thought, ‘I'm young. I still have the possibility to achieve my goals,'” he said. “But every day that I kept doing (drugs) it kept fading away.”
Finally, Struhs gave in and agreed to try another treatment program. He moved to Spokane for what turned out to be a rebirth.
Isolation and redemption
There were dozens of times when Struhs wanted to leave the Excelsior program. But, with encouragement from his friends and his adoptive parents, Craig and Kim Struhs (Tagen's biological mother is Kim Struhs' sister and he said he didn't meet his biological father until this past October) he bought into what the Excelsior staff taught him. After about two months of inpatient treatment, things started to make sense, he said.
“They were just there for me more. They were there to listen and help break down everything from my anxiety to my anger to what triggers me and what helps me the most to stay sober,” Struhs said.
A staff member gave Struhs a gift that motivated him even more: “Beyond Belief,” the autobiography of Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton. In the book, the Ranger all-star detailed his battle with drug and alcohol addiction, and his subsequent inspiring rise to stardom. For obvious reasons, it spoke to Struhs.
“That book,” Struhs said, “I think it saved me.”
After six drug-free months at Excelsior, Struhs completed the program. His adoptive parents and some friends, including Whitt, attended a graduation ceremony in Spokane on May 25.
“He seemed like the old Tagen — the same one from when we were 12 years old,” Whitt said. “It was a powerful moment.”
Struhs missed his senior baseball season at Glacier Peak, but several scouts contacted Grizzlies coach Bob Blair to inquire about Struhs. One of them was the Angels' Harvie, who watched Struhs in 2007 and again in 2009. A day after Struhs finished treatment in Spokane, he worked out for Harvie at an Everett batting cage.
Struhs had not swung a bat in eight months. Yet, despite the rust, he impressed Harvie.
“The first three pitches he hit were totally solid,” said Harvie, adding that Struhs showed great bat control.
A week later, Harvie watched Struhs' debut with the Seattle Select summer team at a game in Sumner. Struhs, who said he was extremely nervous, went 2-for-3 with a double, drove in two runs and stole a base. Harvie liked what he saw. On Wednesday, he convinced Angels executives to take a chance and draft Struhs, who became the 1,134th player selected in the three-day draft.
“I didn't even expect it,” Struhs said. “It was a really big shocker.”
“We've all screwed up before,” Harvie said, “and I think it's ridiculous to not give this guy a second chance.”
Struhs would not have been eligible for the draft if Blair, the Glacier Peak baseball coach, had not recently mailed a letter in support of Struhs to MLB officials, Blair said. High school seniors are eligible for the first-year player draft, but Struhs does not currently attend a high school and did not graduate because he spent most of the school year getting treatment in Spokane.
Whether or not he signs with the Angels, Struhs plans to earn a high school equivalency diploma by taking General Educational Development tests at Everett Community College. Meanwhile, he wants to get back in shape and prove his value to Harvie.
Struhs is “definitely going to make it,” Whitt said. “He's got his mind set on what he wants to do and he's not looking back.”
“He's a brave kid,” Blair said.
Struhs can't erase his past slipups and will always battle the temptation to return to his old, destructive ways. But, largely because of baseball, he has plenty of motivation to stay clean and reach his potential.
“It's amazing,” he said. “I feel like I'm back to myself — it's me.
“I feel like I'm Tagen again.”
Mike Cane: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam.
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