By: Ryan Moran, SMC Athletics
MORAGA, Calif. — It’s November, a perfect time for baseball excitement to commence. The Saint Mary’s baseball squad is taking the field and one returning junior in particular spent his summer living out a lifelong dream.
Say hello to sloshy fields and tarps, because fall ball is underway.
“As far as talent, I think we’re better, more talented than we were last year,” said Head Coach Eric Valenzuela.
The 2016 West Coast Conference coach of the year led the Gaels to places the program had never seen. A few firsts were reached, including: a regular season WCC title, a trip to the NCAA tournament, and four SMC players in the top-20 rounds of the Major League draft.
“I don’t want that to be a standard. I want us to get better,” said Valenzuela. “Every year that we’ve been here, we’ve gotten better, so I want that to continue to trend.”
PLAYING ON THE BIG STAGE
Whether Valenzuela’s foresight equals wins won’t be decided until spring. As for now, the men will demonstrate what work they’ve done in the off-season. Zach Kirtley, returning Junior and last years biggest bat (.323/.504/.428), spent his summer playing in Cape Cod, where 250 of the nations top players gather to play on a diamond with the same 90-foot bases that are in Moraga.
Only this stage is a bit different.
"I failed a lot out there and it's made me a better player. I learned so much from failing." - Junior Zach Kirtley
Imagine you attended a small, 10-dollar-cover-charge venue in San Francisco some 15-plus years ago, and Kevin Hart was given five minutes to be on stage. And after that, he exited through the front door, and if you wanted, you could initiate a conversation with him.
“Hey, I saw that guy before he made it big,” one might say when his HBO special airs in front of a massive sold out crowd.
That’s the allure, the glamour, and the reality of the Cape League. A percentage of those who are invited to play will eventually play in the Major Leagues, if history is any indicator.
Bay Area’s own Buster Posey and Brandon Belt spent a couple of summers in the Cape. Kris Bryant, a former West Coast Conference Player of the Year and recent World Series champion with the Chicago Cubs, showcased his talent there as well.
Or how about Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Frank Thomas. The point is a ballplayer does not simply stumble into the Cape League, nor do they just decide that’s how they will spend their summer. There is significance involved.
Kirtley is now permanently etched into the list of Cape Cod League Alumni.
“It’s a dream come true, but it’s also a goal come true,” said Kirtley. “Something like that I saw as a little kid – that’s something I’ve been driving my whole life for.”
SUCCESSES AND FAILURES
He finished off the summer league among the top-10 for rankings in both home runs (3) and RBI (19) totals. Though, Kirtley will surely tell you the areas he wishes he had done better in.
“I failed a lot out there and it’s made me a better player. I learned so much from failing,” said Kirtley.
This brand of monumental experience often translates to amplified confidence, according to Valenzuela, and the call for convincing that extra confidence can only help a team unwilling to rest on there laurels is of no necessary need.
“We hear everyday that we’re even better this year than we were last year,” said Kirtley, despite the loss of seasoned, stud players. “We’re grinders [and] we’re going to be a lot scrappier than we were last year.”
SPRING IS COMING
The club lost six seniors. They do, however, have multiple returning juniors slated to make a big impact on the coming season. Kirtley noted the productive off-season of Joey Fiske and Brett Rasso, both of whom fall into the returning junior class.
Coach Valenzuela has in the past said he needs a group of guys to show up and properly do their job, rather than a designated leader or captain. It’s fairly transparent and seemingly simple.
“Each person has an obligation individually, and team wise, that they need to do,” said Kirtley. “Everybody, including myself, needs more knowledge, and more progress – playing like a pro, because everyone wants to be a pro, and you got to work your way up to be [one].”
Baseball is a game of failure. It’s grueling and few succeed in making it their career. But adding playing in the Cape League, and productive stats while there, is a bullet point on the resume scouts will surely not miss.
“He [Kirtley] wants to play in the big leagues,” said Valenzuela. There’s a difference between a guy that has a real shot in playing in the big leagues – they go about their business a little different.”
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