Most college baseball players will play the game, no matter whose name is on the front of their jerseys. Several Gauchos traded in their UCSB gear in late May and scattered across the globe to keep pace with their professional counterparts and play through the summer.
Sophomore-to-be shortstop Chris Valaika logged the most miles during the extended season, adding stamps from Japan and Taiwan to his passport while helping his USA Baseball National Team sweep the FISU II World University Games tournament. Valaika had previously spent summer months playing baseball in Mexico and Curacao as a member of age-group USA teams and has brought home a medal each time he has left the country.
Incoming junior right-handed pitchers Steve Morlock and Michael Martin traveled a more modest distance to play for the Peninsula Oilers of Kenai, Alaska, but were still a world away from Santa Barbara in the Land of the Midnight Sun. Surprisingly, the constant light and rugged conditions did not affect the Gaucho aces much at all during their stint in the Alaska League.
“The sunlight made it easier, to be honest, because we could sleep in until about noon every day,” Martin said. “Being from Red Bluff, I’m used to wilderness and country, so it wasn’t a culture shock to me.”
Returning seniors Matt Wilkerson and Chris Malec played for the home team, the Santa Barbara Foresters, but learned about hitting with wooden bats, playing every day, and taking long road trips on buses as professional players do in the minor leagues. In July, the Foresters embarked on a 13-day, 12-game bus trip as far as arid Vacaville and Marysville in northern California, and Wilkerson and Malec had to balance summer school schedules with the doubleheaders in triple-digit temperatures.
“The most difficult thing about the summer was adjusting to the travel and doing summer school at the same time,” Wilkerson said. “I wish I could have taken second session and been at the yard a little more.”
The two-week National Baseball Congress Tournament in Wichita, Kansas wiped out any chance of Martin, Wilkerson and Malec enrolling in classes in August. Martin jumped from the Oilers to the Anchorage Bucs, also of the Alaska League, and took the ball against the Mat-Su Miners in the final losers’ bracket game of the double-elimination tournament. Though Martin and the Bucs did not earn a win in the elimination game, Martin enjoyed a fine summer that included two memorable shutouts in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
“I shut Anchorage out and when I joined the Bucs, they thought Morlock had done it, so they were talking about him,” Martin recalled with a laugh. “It seemed like there was a jam every inning [in Fairbanks], but somehow I found ways to get out of them, and that helped a lot.”
Malec, Wilkerson and the Foresters enjoyed more success in the NBC Tournament, advancing to the final round of six teams through the winners’ bracket before bowing to Prairie Gravel of Chicago in their final game. With high stakes and win totals, Wilkerson learned about playing on a very successful team and about a new level of competition.
“Not having done it in college up to this point, I don’t think I would have known as much about winning as I do now,” Wilkerson reflected. “Winning in college is a lot different than winning in high school, and winning at this level with this caliber of players is definitely something I’ll be able to carry into this year.”
The Gauchos met many players from across the country this summer that they will probably not see until the College World Series, if ever, but plenty of students from the Big West dotted the rosters of the NBC teams. Martin played with Cal Poly juniors Garrett Olson and Brandon Roberts on the Anchorage team and enjoyed the times they had together, but acknowledged that the field is a place of business during the spring.
“Knowing guys on the other team really doesn’t change anything,” Martin said. “You want your friends to do well, but you don’t want to take away from yourself doing well.”
Wilkerson is not slow to admit that the friendships he forged this summer would last into the college season, but he agrees with Martin that the game takes precedence.
“It’s fun because you show up early and have a lot of downtime and you can catch up with those guys,” Wilkerson said. “It doesn’t change the game at all, though.”
Friends or no friends, several Gauchos played winning baseball this summer, and are bound to take that experience into the spring season. For now, classes beckon and fall ball awaits the Gauchos in October.