The vision is set in place before uniforms, cleats or even the Hook C hat is donned on the field. A system that a student-athlete must buy into before even stepping foot in Storrs, a commitment to excellence, accountability and sacrifice that will not only mold individuals into great players but more importantly, great people.
The UConn baseball program’s four pillars have been a staple of the program since the hiring of head coach Jim Penders in the summer of 2003. They represent the mission and core values of the entire program and consist of Graduation, Championships, Creating Leaders and Giving Back. Graduation and Championships have tangible proof in the forms of diplomas and rings. The third and fourth might not be as perceptible, but they are of no less importance to all who wear the uniform.
“There’s tangible proof of Pillars One and Two in diplomas, GPAs, rings, and trophies,” said head coach Jim Penders. “Our impact on their growth in the ability to lead is tougher to touch and feel, but it is no less real when that Husky gives back to his program, to his university, or to his community. That’s the transformational stuff that makes my job the best in the world.”
In a time that former Huskies are having the most success in the professional ranks, the biggest figures have made a conscious effort to give back. Arizona Diamondback’s Nick Ahmed, Boston Red Sox’s Matt Barnes and Houston Astros George Springer have all utilized their platform to make an impact on the world. Colorado Rockies Scott Oberg joined fellow husky big leaguers Mike Olt, Ahmed and Barnes by helping raise funds for the UConn Baseball Stadium Enhancement Fund with his presence at the 2017 UConn baseball preseason dinner.
Ahmed, and his wife Amanda, have started the Ahmed Family Double Play Fund and teamed up with Food for the Hungry to raise money for Striking Out Poverty campaign to help impoverished communities in the Dominican Republic. For every Diamondback’s win, Ahmed will donate $150 to the cause.
“I have been blessed by God and helped by so many amazing people to get to where I am today,” said Ahmed. “I want to give other people the same opportunity and support that I was given to help them achieve their goals and dreams.”
In December 2013, Matt Barnes started his annual Newtown Youth Academy Clinic to give back to a grieving community after the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings. Barnes, a Bethel native, has been joined by pro ballplayers and many of his former teammates, Ahmed, John Andreoli, Mike Olt and L.J. Mazzilli are just a few former Huskies to participate in the cause.
“To me it’s about helping people,” said Barnes. “About impacting something that is much larger than yourself or baseball. The game has provided us with a direct avenue to help people from all walks of life. It is an incredible feeling when you can see the smile on everyone’s face knowing that you truly made a difference in their life.
George Springer has teamed up with The Stuttering Association for the Young (SAY) to inspire children who stutter. The New Britain native, who has lived with a stutter, attends events, speaking engagements and participated in school outreach to give young people a unique and powerful voice.
This summer, Springer hosted his Third Annual All-Star Bowling Benefit to raise money to help send families-in-need to Camp SAY, a summer camp for young people that stutter.
“I feel like it is my job to help anyone, anywhere, get the help and support that they need,” said Springer. “That’s why I am involved with SAY because I’ve experienced what these people are feeling and if I can help them gain confidence and learn to live with a stutter, then I feel like I’ve really made an impact.”
Most recently, Springer came to the aid of his new home, Houston, with support from his hometown New Britain, Conn. The Springer family, along with many businesses in the New Britain area collected donations to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Outreach doesn’t stop with former Huskies but pertains to the current student-athletes. The big focus the past couple years has been well-documented with Grayson Hand, a member of Team Impact that was taken in by the team and Ryan Radue. The Huskies have had their hand in many other projects including working with the Lutz Children Museum to put together their annual farm day, as well as, reading to elementary school children and participating in charity events.
“Giving back to me is the most important pillar,” said sophomore Mason Feole. “As college athletes but more importantly as human beings we have the incredible ability to control how we treat, respect and love others. Even if it is not specific and through a direct program, our team has the opportunity to give back and set a good moral example every day by the we carry ourselves, treat people and how we interact with our fans and alumni at games, as well as other member of the UConn and Connecticut communities.”
Each semester, every UConn player and coach is reminded of the vision and four pillars by signing their names on a commitment to always honor them. Daily reminders are on display in the players’ locker room. The pillars are visible and remind all that the one individual and one team are part of something much bigger and better.
“Without all four pillars, the program’s foundation would crumble, said Penders. “However, Pillar Four is the one that consistently gives me the most goosebumps throughout the year. When I get a check to our stadium fund from one of our former players with “Pillar 4” in the memo line, a wedding invitation or birth announcement in the mail, I can’t help but smile.”
“Even when our guys come back to campus and get back in the huddle to speak to our current team, I get excited,” said Penders. “Giving back is our barometer for the success we had at making them better leaders. If they are more accountable, dependable, caring, self-disciplined, other-centric than when they were rookies, they owe. That was something that Coach Baylock said to me, and as a steward of the program, I need to ensure that spirit continues. If we just helped them graduate and win championships, that is nice, but that is transactional. Those things are in the job description.”