Senior Spring: Dustin Shirley '18 dominates collegiate baseball, seeks to continue playing professionally
While baseball co-captain Dustin Shirley ’18 has filled the stat sheet and impressed with his sheer athleticism in his time at Dartmouth, his impact off the field and his journey to get there reflect an intriguing story as well.
The Los Angeles native began playing baseball at the age of six along with his older brother Brandon. His progression was similar at first to the typical college recruit: Little League, competitive travel baseball and a top-tier high school program. That changed for Shirley at the end of the summer after his sophomore year, when he was cut from Loyola High School’s talented roster.
“I definitely knew that [baseball] was something that I wanted to do in the future through college, but getting cut made me question that possibility,” Shirley said. “I persevered through that and got back out there and was able to make the team again.”
He bided his time in his junior year, with five RBI in only 12 at bats, before an eye-opening travel team performance and a .337 batting average his senior year. When he was scouted, Shirley, who normally plays on second base, was showing off his versatility by playing first base because top recruits were filling the other infield positions.
Coach Bob Whalen described how Shirley first got on his radar.
“[Shirley] played on his travel team for a scout who is a good friend, and he has a team that they run in the fall where they play locally, but they also do some work in Arizona,” Whalen said. “In talking to this scout, who has several players that he’s recommended over the years, he felt very strongly about [Shirley].”
The match was perfect for Shirley, who had fully overcome his blip at the end of his sophomore summer in high school.
“I always knew that I wanted to play Division I baseball, but I knew that I wanted a good mix between athletics and academics,” Shirley said. “I was being recruited by some bigger baseball schools like the University of Washington and the University of Utah, and I knew that they were better at baseball, but there wasn’t as good of a balance between academics and athletics as was offered here at Dartmouth.”
Shirley slotted in as the everyday second baseman almost immediately, starting 34 of the team’s 43 games at second base while shifting to third base and first base in rare circumstances. Despite a mediocre performance as he adjusted to college play, Shirley showed clear flashes of potential.
“You start with the fact that he really is an exceptional athlete, so his skillset is certainly quite a bit broader than his baseball skills,” Whalen said. “He’s an exceptional runner, he’s got good arm strength.”
Shirley went back to southern California over his freshman summer, where he honed his talents in the California Collegiate League. Over winter breaks, Shirley took advantage of having his brother Brandon, a University of California, San Diego player, in the area. The two trained together during following breaks as well.
“For the last three years, we have both been playing baseball at the collegiate level,” Shirley said. “To have him to work out with and train with has been really helpful and really keeps me at it and keeps me going.”
Shirley was plugged in again at second base the next year and started all but one game, breaking out with five triples and a 50-hit season, including a .405 batting average in league games. He was awarded All-Ivy League honorable mention for his tremendous season.
While Shirley took a step back his junior year in terms of batting average and slugging percentage, he asserted himself as a team player by racking up a career high 24 runs batted in, a .350 on-base percentage and an Ivy League-leading seven sacrifice flies.
Whalen emphasized how Shirley’s athleticism benefits the team beyond what the statistics read.
“I think he brings a real lot because he has the ability to run, go first to third, steal a base on his own without giving up an out, but he also has the ability to drive the baseball,” Whalen said.
Coming into senior year, Shirley had worked hard to build upon his previous two seasons.
“He actually got a lot stronger this past year,” best friend and teammate Hayden Rappoport ’18 said. “He’s put on a lot of muscle and is able to hit a lot more home runs, more doubles.”
The increased strength has provided a major boost for Shirley, as his career-high 11 doubles and three home runs, including a walk-off homer on Saturday versus Brown University, have elevated his slugging percentage to .448.
Remarkably, his power emergence has occurred as he has shifted to the outfield to capitalize on his speed and athleticism. Coach Whalen cited Shirley’s flexibility in moving to the outfield as another example of Shirley’s team-first mentality.
“Not surprisingly to me at all, [Shirley said] essentially, ‘Whatever you think is best for our team. Just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it,’” Whalen said. “I didn’t doubt that he would take that approach, but not every kid would do that, particularly as a senior who has already had a fair amount of success.”
Shirley’s motivation to keep playing and working hard comes from a few primary areas.
“Definitely my teammates — I don’t want to let them down when I go out and compete and just give my all to the game,” Shirley said. “[I worked] my hardest to give [past seniors] the best opportunity to go out in the best way by winning an Ivy League championship. We fell short, but that was my motivation to make their last note a positive one.”
More emotionally, Shirley plays with the burden of the loss of his grandparents, two enormous fans of his.
“Growing up, my grandparents on my mother’s side wouldn’t miss a game, just like my mom, dad and brother,” Shirley remembered. “I wear a pendant to remind me of them. I wear it while I play and that motivates me as well — just the thought that they’re looking down and watching me play.”
Off the field, Shirley’s impact is perhaps even stronger, as he admirably fills the role of leader and friend to all.
“He’s a very, very good listener,” Rappoport said. “If he’s your friend, he’s there whenever you need him, and he makes sure that everyone is doing alright.”
Whalen added that relationships are very important to Shirley.
“He has a real, infectious kind of personality, and he’s very much a relationship-based guy,” Whalen said. “Friendship is important to him.”
Whalen has been impressed by how Shirley’s personality has translated into a successful leadership style.
“Sometimes you get guys like that, and it takes them longer in a leadership position to understand that there are times you have to separate your friendship with your friends and teammates to fulfill your role as a leader,” Whalen said. “Not every guy can do that. I’ve been very pleased that he’s done a very good job of that.”
Shirley’s emphasis on friendship has shaped his understanding of the team culture.
“It’s [a team culture] of acceptance where everyone feels like they have a role on the team,” Shirley said. “I try to perpetuate that, keep things light and make sure people are having fun.”
Shirley’s leadership shines through in his work ethic as others follow his example.
“Baseball-wise, he works hard in everything he does, so everyone wants to keep up to his speed,” said Rappoport, who trains with Shirley in Los Angeles during the offseason. “When you see other people work hard, it makes you want to work hard as well and match their intensity.”
As the Big Green hurtle toward the end of the regular season, Shirley is working his hardest to bring an Ivy League championship back to Hanover.
“The ultimate goal is to win an Ivy League Championship,” Shirley said, in advance of Dartmouth’s doubleheader against Brown. “We’re in a good position because we’re in a spot where we can control our own fate because if we win these last nine games, then there’s no chance we’re not in the Ivy League championship, and that’s within reach.”
Beyond this season, Shirley has his hopes set high on continuing his baseball career.
“Definitely getting drafted and playing at the next level [has] always been a dream of mine, something I’ve dreamt of as a child,” Shirley said. “To see that dream come true would be incredible.”
Regardless, Rappoport is confident that Shirley will make a name for himself in professional baseball or otherwise.
“I hope whatever he wants to do happens for him,” Rappoport said. “He’s an outstanding student as well, and I think he’ll excel at anything he wants to do because he has a great work ethic and is able to succeed at anything.”