From first glance, it’s quite clear to see what matters most to Dan Valerio – his family, his relationship with Jesus Christ, and his love of baseball.
At an early age, Valerio began playing baseball. Often playing catch with his father, who is one of his biggest supporters and the reason the 23-year-old fell in love with the game.
“I would say my dad is one of the biggest reasons that I fell in love with the game,” Valerio said during a phone call with Dugout Dish.
While attending Red Bank Catholic in New Jersey for two years, Valerio hit .400 on junior varsity and was still told by his coach that he wasn’t good enough because he wouldn’t pass the guys in front of him.
“I transferred back to public school after that and in my junior year, we won a state title. I didn’t hit great, but I was consistently working hard at my craft.”
In his senior year at Monmouth Regional High School, Valerio received all-conference and a scholarship to Rowan College at Gloucester County in South Jersey. “The coaches believed in more than I believed in myself and pushed me.”
While attending Rowan College from 2014 to 2016, Valerio led the team in doubles in 2016 as the Roadrunners reached the NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) World Series twice.
“I hit a walk-off home run to reach the World Series. It was a moment I won’t forget – I was the kid who was told he was not good enough and was discouraged in high school.”
He continued to rack up numerous achievements while playing at Rowan College. This included: First-Team All-County, All-Conference, All-Shore, All-Region, and was named Playoff MVP.
Valerio went on to transfer to North Carolina Central in the fall of 2016, but his life soon had other plans for him.
“I was hospitalized with dehydration that turned into overtraining syndrome. My body was depleted from working too hard and not taking care of myself. Along with that came anxiety and depression. It was a rough time in my life, but it led me to find Jesus Christ.”
While Valerio found Jesus Christ and his faith, he withdrew from NCC and returned home to New Jersey. Feeling reinvigorated, he enrolled at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida in the fall of 2017.
“I felt good and had earned a starting position.” But life had other plans for him and his close-knit family.
“I got a call from my mom that my dad had a massive stroke. He has always been the backbone of our family. He had worked for 55 years and was everything to us. Nothing had prepared me for him to get sick,” said Valerio.
He continued, “The stroke took away his ability to walk and he had lost function on his left side.”
Valerio went back to school and finished the season. Although he and his family faced a new reality, he broke multiple school records. “I hit 17 home runs, .390 and was an All-American. Back when I was a freshman, I had written down goals to hit .400 and be an All-American. It felt good accomplishing it all through hard work and perseverance.”
His team went on to win a World Series and he continued to play through the summer with the Cape Cod League. He even shared a room with the number one draft pick, Spencer Torkelson.
One of his favorite memories comes from the World Series. “The school rallied around me. A GoFundMe was set up to raise money so my family could be at the World Series. My dad was in a wheelchair/walker, but he made it to the first game. I hit a home run in the first night game and got a photo of my dad standing up and raising his fist.”
He played a different role during his senior year. He hit .350 with 11 home runs and was a pre-season Golden Spikes – which was the Top 50 players in the country at every Division I level. “Coach Dinkel allowed me to be myself. He knew when I needed to be pushed and held accountable.”
Despite his success, Valerio went undrafted and headed to Michigan to play in the United Shore Professional League. “I decided to leave [the league] and come home. It didn’t feel like the right fit. I was a free agent and trying to get my name out there. I wasn’t going to stop.”
While back home, Valerio became involved in a youth group at Well Spring Church in Toms River. He spoke to students at his alma mater and completed his sports management degree online, all while helping his family continue to adjust to their new normal.
In the early days of 2020, when everything seemed bright, Valerio signed with the Windy City Thunderbolts in the Frontier League. He was excited, looking forward to playing for a new team and league. But with COVID-19 on the rise, his opportunity to shine in 2020 in Chicago was wiped away in June when the Frontier League canceled the season.
With his talent, it wasn’t long before Valerio caught a break. In July, the Somerset Patriots started the Somerset Patriots Professional Baseball Series. A 13- game series against the New Jersey Blasters at TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater, New Jersey.
“It’s been an incredible and amazing experience with first-class players and organization. The talent is some of the best competition I have faced, especially on the mound with Double and Triple-A guys. It’s allowed me to transition from an amateur player to a professional.”
Not only has Valerio been able to play professional baseball this summer, but he has also remained close to his family. “It’s been awesome. My family has been able to come to a few games. My dad has been able to come.”
He continued, “For the past two years it’s been difficult and a huge change in the family setting and emotions. We’re taking it one day at a time and hoping for a miracle that he can walk one day. But the fact that he is still breathing and I can go home and talk to him about the game, it’s incredible.”
As for how Valerio is handling COVID-19 and 2020: “People are handling it differently but for me, I’m choosing to have faith over fear. Love people better than I did yesterday. The Lord has allowed me to keep moving forward.”
During his time with the Somerset Patriots, Valerio is hitting .296 with five runs, eight hits, one double, three RBI, a .333 SLG%, and .444 OBP% in his 11 games started.
And when asked if there’s any advice he would give his younger self: “I don’t want to look back and say I didn’t give it my all. I have been able to reflect on why this is happening. I was being tested in each of these moments and your strength ultimately keeps you going.”
(Photo Credit: Chris Jones/ALPB Photography)