The original headline and article contained an error and have been changed. See the bottom of the article for additional information.
Playing professional baseball at the big-league level is for the one-percenters. Or, more accurately, the one percent of the one percent of all players who actually possess a skill that can secure them a job.
Cutting it as a dentist is no easy feat, either, and it’s usually not just a backup career path.
As a sophomore at the University of Arizona, a budding baseball player named Jeff Turchi had a moment of realization during batting practice. The pitcher threw, and he thought he saw a fastball coming. Turchi swung, whiffed and looked for the ball. It was in the dirt. The pitch wasn’t actually a fastball but a slider down and away, faster than any slider he had seen.
“If that’s what it looks like at the next level, that’s too much for me,” he thought. “And I’m fine with that.”
Turchi was not a part of the one-percenters, but he was close, pursuing the sport as far as he could. It took Turchi to many places ““ including a stint as a semi-professional ballplayer ““ and introduced him to a number of future baseball luminaries.
But baseball did not get Turchi to where he is today, teaching at the UCLA School of Dentistry. That path he forged on his own after he left the sport behind him. Turchi has had a baseball career and a long run as a dentist, but he now finds himself working a part-time job teaching dentistry at UCLA, three days a week.
He’s not retired ““ not even close with two daughters in college and two more back at home, but he’s perfectly content.
Working at UCLA is a dream job for him ““ it’s the school he grew up at, the place he watched basketball games as a kid, and later, where he got his degree.
So how did Turchi get back to UCLA? By remembering everything he learned along the way and every person he met, all while carrying an immense pride for the place he keeps coming back to. When Turchi landed this job in the summer, it was a homecoming of sorts.
How many students at UCLA can say they’re moonlighting as a professional athlete?
It’s not allowed under NCAA rules, but Turchi wasn’t playing by the NCAA’s rules when he was a student at UCLA. He bounced around a couple of different schools ““ first L.A. Harbor College, then Arizona, then College of the Canyons. Turchi finally gained admission to UCLA but didn’t even think about trying out for the school’s baseball team. He simply wanted to be here.
Turchi was raised a Bruin fan thanks to his father, a dentist in the L.A. area, holding season tickets during the gilded age of UCLA basketball. Banners were hung regularly in Pauley Pavilion, players were going on to star in the NBA and the words of coach John Wooden were etched in the minds of all UCLA fans.
When Turchi found his way back as a transfer student, he managed to keep playing baseball thanks to a semi-professional team run by a San Francisco Giants scout. He was an infielder who hit for average, not power, and had the speed to beat out slow grounders for infield hits. At the time, baseball’s minor league ranks were a fragmented mess, but he found his niche.
“These were guys that had contracts in the trunk of their car,” Turchi said with a laugh. “They would pull them out and sign guys in a parking lot.”
Turchi played on the weekends and into the summer, watching the minor league system filter out the real pros from the semi-pros. It was well past his realization that he couldn’t cut it at the big leagues and he too would get weeded out, but not before carving out a unique career.
Turchi starred as a Forrest Gump of sorts in the baseball world, running into the early careers of various successful baseball figures. His roommate at Arizona was Terry Francona, a future two-time World Series champion manager. His College of the Canyons coach was Mike Gillespie, later a champion manager himself with the USC Trojans.
Perhaps the most fortunate recipient of Turchi’s golden touch was Andy Lopez. After Lopez graduated from UCLA with four years on the baseball team under his belt, his next stop was at L.A. Harbor College, where he served as an assistant and coached a young Turchi.
Turchi’s father got wind of a promising baseball coach helping his son out and thought to return the favor. So he used a connection with a local superintendent to land Lopez his first head coaching gig, when he wasn’t even looking for one.
“I wasn’t approaching a coaching job in any way, shape or form at the time,” Lopez said. “All that started with a phone call from Turchi. I said, “˜I’ve got nothing to do, I’ll come down and coach at Mira Costa High School. What the heck.’”
Nearly four decades later, Lopez is in charge of the defending College World Series champion Arizona Wildcats and has cemented himself as one of the college game’s all-time greatest coaches. The accolades speak for themselves: Over 1,000 wins, three National Coach of the Year awards and the distinction as one of two coaches to ever win a College World Series at two schools.
“After that phone call, I took the job,” Lopez said. “Thirty-six years later, here I am.”
Their paths would cross again. After Turchi graduated from UCLA, Lopez hired him as an assistant at California State University, Dominguez Hills ““ where a man named Dan Guerrero was a young athletic director at the time. There, Turchi picked up a teaching credential and started to give the academic world some more thought.
Getting into dentistry was always in the back of Turchi’s mind, thanks to his dad.
He attended the University of Pacific’s Dugoni School of Dentistry in San Francisco. When it came time to take the board exams, he had an added advantage from his time on the diamond.
“(The proctors) said, “˜We see that you and all these people that played sports don’t get stressed’,” Turchi said.
“Baseball, it’s just you. When you’re there with a patient, and you’ve got someone there grading you, telling you whether you’ve got a license to pass or go back to flipping burgers, it’s a certain amount of stress, but I never felt stressed by it.”
He owned his own practice, then transitioned into consulting. But he always wanted to get back into teaching, thanks to all the great teachers he had in his past. Wooden laid the foundation for the way he thought about the future. Lopez ““ also heavily influenced by Wooden ““ coached in a simple, firm manner. Francona, who he stayed in contact with, demonstrated how to lead.
When UCLA came calling, he couldn’t say no. He even quit his work as a consultant, a job he was well-compensated for. It had become mundane and Turchi felt as if he wasn’t making a difference. Here at UCLA, he focuses on changing the culture of the classroom and opening the lines of trust between teacher and student.
More than anything, Turchi is content with where he is. Just like he found a way back to UCLA to be a student, he’s found a way to be a lecturer at a place he loves, even if that meant quitting a full-time job for a part-time one, and that’s fine with his family.
“This is kind of his way to get in,” his wife, Kristi Turchi said. “Hopefully something opens up and he could stay there.”
Jeff Turchi still maintains his roots to baseball by keeping in touch with those who influenced him, and they’re always willing to oblige with some tickets whenever he can catch a game. For Turchi, his life’s transformation from baseball player to dentistry school lecturer has plenty of connections to the past.
“I can’t just work here part-time and pay my bills,” Turchi said.
“So there will be some other things, but I look forward to this. … You want to do more and feel like you’re affecting people in a positive way. Because I had so many of those people: Baseball coaches, teammates, instructors.”
Email Ryan at [email protected]
Correction: Jeff Turchi is a lecturer at the UCLA School of Dentistry.