In the storied history of UC Irvine baseball, no one has hit more home runs than Francis Larson. Yet when the record-setting catcher graduated in 2010 with an offer to play in the Angels’ minor league system, he did what might be expected from a philosophy student: turned his back on convention.
Larson chose instead to matriculate at the prestigious London School of Economics & Political Science, diving headfirst into one of the most challenging academic environments in the world. But as the damp, chilly English winter turned to spring, his baseball dreams revived. And the Angels’ offer still stood.
So in April, Larson — a Yorba Linda native and 2010 UCI Scholar-Athlete of the Year — signed with his hometown team and reported to extended spring training at its Tempe, Ariz., facility. He hasn’t turned his back on LSE, as the school is called, and is finishing up the spring term in his spare time.
Q: What’s it like to play professional baseball while still taking classes?
A: Since I signed, life’s been a little hectic. I’ve been working out all day and then studying at night, meeting about 60 new faces, and readjusting to life as an athlete. I never realized how hard it is to study something when you’re 6,000 miles away from the classes. The distance makes it seem extra esoteric. I’m enjoying it, though. And Starbucks is enjoying my business.
Q: During your senior year at UCI, you were drafted in the 22nd round by the Angels but went to LSE instead. Why?
A: The short answer is that I needed perspective. I’d spent the bulk of my life in Orange County. I grew up in Yorba Linda, went to high school in Anaheim and then college in Irvine. These are all wonderful places — I mean, Yorba Linda is called “the land of gracious living” — but I needed to see something other than a Southern California suburb.
Also, I’d spent virtually all my free time since I was about 6 years old playing baseball. Now don’t get me wrong: I love baseball. It stretches beyond strikes and runs. I just love being on a team, winning on a team. But when you’ve never not been on a team, you start to wonder what life’s like out there.
Additionally, I’d been good at school since I was a little boy; I always liked to learn. When I played baseball, though, I couldn’t spend lots of hours on academia. So while I did well in college course work, I thought to myself, “What if I devoted myself full time to this sort of stuff? Who knows what could happen.”
After being drafted, I had some major questions to answer. I didn’t want to go into pro baseball and always be wondering what life would’ve been like if I had pursued working with my mind. If I was going to commit to something, I wanted it to be a full commitment.
Q: How was your experience at LSE? What did you study?
A: It was mind-blowing — and that’s not hyperbole! I moved to London in August, with no apartment and no idea what life in a big city was like. But once I got the hang of living in ultra-central London, I started to really enjoy it. There’s so much energy there. Every day, I was riding the Tube, with everyone dressed in nice suits, reading the Financial Times. You can feel the pulse of business and the financial markets there. That’s something I’ll never forget.
When people hear I’m at LSE, they automatically think I’m studying economics. What I’m studying is closer to socioeconomic theory. My master’s program is in philosophy of the social sciences. To be honest, though, I learned the most outside class. Although the department’s the best in the world for this particular discipline, I learned more about the practical side of life than the theoretical.
And when I say “practical,” I mean things like the business world and the financial markets. LSE is on the edge of London’s financial district, and all the major investment banks recruit there. The students are in an investment banking hysteria; the vast majority of them are looking to enter finance. It’s truly a mania. When I investigated to see what all the fuss was about, I found out I absolutely love the financial realm. I met a lot of international students who want to take over the world. You don’t move to London to just get by; these people were intellectual go-getters.
Q: Why did you choose to come back to baseball?
A: There was a point in London when I had seen what I wanted to see. I found out what it’s like to pursue academia full time, sit inside all day reading arcane theory, be around super-goal-oriented people. I saw how big-city business life operates, what it’s like to live in another culture. I learned what sort of industry I want to be involved with in the future and what it’s like not being on a team.
My conclusion from all this? There’s no better job on planet Earth than being paid to play a game. The idea that someone would give me money to play on a team, in the sun, in front of people, is just incomparable. If you go to work for Goldman Sachs, you won’t get that. You might get close, but it’s not like baseball. I found out where the grass is greenest: on a baseball field.
Q: You might be the only professional baseball player with a degree in philosophy. How does this help you, especially as a catcher?
A: One of our pitching coaches here in Arizona is really into philosophy — or what most people think is philosophy. He asked me whether I’d read The Art of War, and I told him that’s not what we read in philosophy.
But sure, it’s an asset to me as a baseball player. Once you’ve dealt with the most fundamental, difficult ideas conceivable, you can sort of take things inside the lines in stride. Everything is simple. Baseball becomes a game about hitting a ball, not about “doubles” or “runs.” You see life for what it is. Then it starts being fun.
Q: What’s harder: understanding Immanuel Kant’s doctrine of transcendental idealism or hitting a curveball?
A: Here’s something telling: If you can understand Kant, you can get paid $60,000 a year to teach undergrads. If you can hit a curveball, well, you can potentially get paid millions.
Q: What’s your plan for the next few years?
A: I used to think planners were the ones who win in life. They aren’t; it’s the opportunists. For now, I’m going to hit and catch baseballs.
Q: Anything you want to say to your fans at UCI?
A: Thanks for all the support. The UCI fans did something really amazing: They wouldn’t just root for the brand, UCI. They’d root for the guys on the field. That was huge, and I enjoyed being on the receiving end of that.