Oct. 2, 2012
By Jeffrey Piascik
On Sunday, the UConn Baseball program welcomed back close to 30 alumni to J.O. Christian Field to take part in the annual Alumni Game and team awards ceremony. Head Coach Jim Penders, who played for the Huskies from 1991-1994, proudly addressed his current team, the alumni, and the many families of players who made the trip to Storrs in front of the Husky dugout before the game. Penders fondly recalled the memories of his playing days and stressed to his players the importance of building character and becoming an active part of the UConn Baseball family, something which he feels is a staple behind the program’s success.
The idea that Huskies, past and present, represent something bigger than themselves has led to a team attitude and culture that has helped the program produce tremendous results in the past decade. Assistant Coach Josh MacDonald, who returns back to Storrs for his second season as part of the coaching staff, echoed Pender’s sentiments.
“Most of these guys end up becoming your best friends and becoming like family,” MacDonald said. “We keep in contact because the alumni are such an important part of this program. Most of the success of this program couldn’t be possible without the guys that played before us. “
Pierre LePage, who was drafted in the 13th round of the 2010 MLB draft by the Chicago Cubs, was one of the many alumni who made the trip back and spoke about the remarkable respect that the program shows for former players and coaches.
“I made the best decision of my life coming here and playing for the state that I live in. It is something that I take a lot of pride in,” LePage said. “It’s such a great atmosphere; it doesn’t matter if someone graduated in 1980 or 2012- when we get here we’re all in it together.”
Longtime Cape Cod Baseball League coach Harvey Shapiro exemplifies the UConn family ideals that Coach Penders is trying to embed in the minds of the players. Shapiro, who graduated from UConn in 1970, frequently travels to Storrs
to talk to Coach Penders and his staff.
“UConn athletics is a family and you feel like you’re part of that family. It’s a privilege to be back and see some old friends,” said Shapiro reminiscing on his days in Storrs. “When you’re younger you think of a particular game, hit, play as your fondest memory, but as you get older you think about the friendships- and these are people I’ll always remember.”
Since Penders took over as head coach in 2004, the UConn baseball program has grown significantly in both academic and athletic success. Coach Penders emphasizes the importance of player maturation in the classroom as well as on the diamond. The program’s belief that individual development and growth is crucial to their experiences at UConn not just as a player, but as a student as well, has been one of the driving forces behind the alumni’s formidable success.
“Coach Penders was extremely important to my development,” said pitcher Matt Barnes, who left the program following the 2011 season after being drafted in the first round of the MLB draft by the Boston Red Sox. “This was the step in between high school and pro ball where I did most of my developing. His help with my work ethic and mentality helped me take my game to the next level.”
Infielder Austin Wasserman, who played from 2005-2006 for the Huskies, offered his praise for Coach Pender’s ability to communicate effectively with his players.
“Coach Penders was probably the most influential person, in baseball terms, who helped me physically and mentally understand the game, and ultimately helped me out in pro ball. He’s Just a really great guy who knew the game inside and out and knew how to handle the kids and that was really important to me.”
The Alumni Game has become a tradition that players look forward to each fall, offering them a chance to reconnect with old teammates, as well as meet the players that are competing for roster spots in the upcoming spring.
“This is one of my favorite times of the year,” LePage said. “There’s always a great turnout with all the guys. To see the people that are here now, many of whom I played with, and also compete with the guys who played before me is a really special thing. It’s a great event.”
Many of the Alumni were seen laughing and joking with each other during batting practice and pregame stretching, warmly reminiscing on their careers at the collegiate level.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Barnes said. “You get to see everyone you haven’t seen for a while and enjoy some baseball with some old friends.”
With Andy Baylock, UConn’s head coach from 1980-2003, present in the visitor’s dugout, Jack Hurley (’87) took the reigns as manager for the day. Joining Hurley on the alumni squad were classmates Michael Buckmir at shortstop and Dave Lanese at first base.
Colonel Nate Goldberg, who played for Connecticut in 1951 and 1952, was the oldest alum in attendance and traveled all the way from Southern California along with his wife Marilyn.
After all was said and done, the game ended in a 6-6 tie between the alumni and current Huskies. No matter what the outcome of the game is, year to year, it is evident that the opportunity to play and embody the spirit of UConn baseball is something that the players take very seriously. After all, there is no better way to honor the tradition of UConn baseball than to compete against some of the finest athletes that the program has ever produced.
When Coach Penders’ final roster steps onto the dirt at J.O. Christian Field in March we can be assured that this group of players will be playing for something more than individual stats; they’ll be playing for the UConn baseball family and the long line of history that shaped the program into what it is today.