This former SLO High baseball star is chasing his Big League dreams — in an RV

Evansville's Max Duval pitches during the second inning against the Joliet Slammers at Bosse Field in Evansville, Ind., on Friday, July 7, 2017. The Otters defeated the Slammers, 10-5.
Evansville's Max Duval pitches during the second inning against the Joliet Slammers at Bosse Field in Evansville, Ind., on Friday, July 7, 2017. The Otters defeated the Slammers, 10-5. Courtesy Evansville Courier & Press

Ever since Max Duval left the baseball diamond at Cuesta College in 2011 he’s been trying to find his way in the baseball universe.

In the six years since, he’s played for teams in Hawaii, Arizona, North Carolina and seemingly everywhere in between. Now, after converting from a power hitter to pitcher, the San Luis Obispo High School graduate is close to home and closer than ever to his ultimate goal of making a Major League Baseball roster.

But there are still challenges ahead, like how the heck to get the propane to work in his new home — a 29-foot RV.

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SLO High and Cuesta College graduate Max Duval (left) stands with Kevin Mixon in front of their 25-foot Jayco motorhome parked outside a Salinas business. The two friends are living in the RV while they prepare for the upcoming minor league baseball season. Courtesy Max Duval and Kevin Mixon

RV Life

Duval knows what it’s like to live out of a suitcase. He has played for eight different teams since 2014. In 2016, he played for five teams in 14 days.

“It’s pretty volatile. Anything can change at any moment,” said Duval, 26.

Such is the life of a minor league ballplayer.

So after Duval completed the best season of his professional career earlier this year — going 4-0 for the Miami Marlins’ Greensboro Grasshoppers and posting an 8-2 record and 2.28 ERA for the independent Evansville Otters — he was looking for a place to live close to home. He wanted to train for the upcoming season, along with his friend and trainer, Kevin Mixon, without the commitment of a lease.

That’s when Duval’s mom, Jenni, put an interesting idea out into the universe.

“My mom said, ‘We have this RV that we aren’t using, would you guys want to use it?’ ” Duval said Thursday.

It didn’t seem like a real possibility at first, he said, but things got real, real quick.

“At first it started out as a bluff, then I was like, ‘No this makes a lot of sense, let’s do it,’ ” said Mixon, an athletic trainer in the Baltimore Orioles organization.

The two found a place to park the 29-foot motorhome just outside of Salinas, close to Duval’s girlfriend and The Alpha Project, a state-of-the-art sports training facility where Mixon works. This offseason, Duval has spent most of his time there training and fine-tuning his skills as a pitcher, a challenge he’s slowly getting a handle on after converting from a field player during his senior season at the University of Hawaii.

Living in a motor home presents challenges of its own.

Since the RV doesn’t have a shower, he freshens up at the gym before heading back to his home on wheels, parked in the storage yard at a friend’s business. The RV lacks a sewage outlet, too, so he and Mixon either use the toilet at the nearby business or find the nearest bush. Duval even started a blog called “The Minor League Offseason Camping Project” to chronicle his journey.

He puts out daily updates on everything from workouts, pitching advice and the struggles of installing a propane tank.

“(The blog) started as a way to kill free time, now it is getting good feedback and people are like, ‘That’s pretty cool,’ ” Duval said.

Long Road

When Duval left Cuesta College after a successful sophomore season to join Hawaii in 2011, nothing went as planned.

“I got to Hawaii and struggled pretty bad,” said Duval, who batted .186 his junior season. “I was mentally pretty defeated. That was kind of the first time that I had gone through some major adversity on a baseball field.”

Until then, Duval had used his exceptional size — 6-foot-5, 235 pounds — to dominate pitchers. But he decided to visit an alternative universe — the pitcher’s mound.

“I had never pitched before, but I just wanted to get in the game,” Duval said. “But I had no idea what I was doing on the mound.”

He had all the physical tools and had the ability as a right-hander to throw a 90-mph fastball, but he was raw. He considered walking away from baseball briefly, but after a talk with his mom he decided to keep going after graduation. But things didn’t get better quickly.

“I went and played (independent baseball) and struggled again through that for two seasons until I finally found a place to get innings, and from there my velocity picked up,” Duval said. “My stuff and command and confidence got better, and I learned to work the mental aspects of the game.”

He caught on with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization in June 2016 and posted a 1.13 ERA in eight innings. He pitched for four different Diamondbacks affiliated teams before finally finding his groove with the Evansville Otters in the Frontier League. In August, Duval flirted with a perfect game and finished the season with 113 strikeouts in 87 innings and an 8-2 record.

Now his fastball hovers in the 90-94 mph range, and he’s developed a cutter (his best pitch, 86-90 mph), a changeup and a curveball (his strikeout pitch) to go with it.

“That was absolutely crazy,” Duval said of moving around the last two years. “Arizona shipped me all over the country within 14 days, and I was like, ‘This can’t be how affiliated baseball works.’ It was tough to get comfortable at first, but once I finally stuck, I got that confidence and kind of found that routine to where I was successful for the rest of the season.”

Max Duval, 26, had two stints with the Evansville Otters of the Independent Frontier League and pitched some of the best innings of his career. Courtesy California Winter League

Next Inning

Duval is now with the Miami Marlins organization, and he went 4-0 (38.2 IP, 2.09 ERA, 3.11 FIP, 38/5 K/BB) with its Greensboro team before finishing the season in Evansville. But the volatility continues to mark his universe as the Marlins make news with a number of widely criticized moves this offseason under new ownership.

“They got rid of some important pieces that have been there, but they have picked up a lot of young pitching prospects. It’s competition for me,” Duval said. “But at the same time, I am confident in what I am doing here, training and pitching will get me ready for the season. The only thing I can do from there is pitch.”

On the weekends, Duval works for his girlfriend’s parents’ organic farm, and he takes freelance computer work when he can get it. He said he was looking forward to making the two-hour drive south to San Luis Obispo to be with family and friends for Christmas. It’s thanks to them, he said, that he’s able to continue to chase his dream of playing in the Big Leagues.

“There are a ton of local San Luis Obispo people that have helped me and impacted me as a baseball player,” Duval said.

He hasn’t received official word from the Marlins yet, but he plans to join the club in Florida when spring training begins in late February.

In the meantime, Duval will continue to document his life on his blog along the way, he said, “in true millennial fashion.”

Travis Gibson: 805-781-7993, @TravisDgibson