Meet some Waves baseball stars who traded their blue and orange jerseys to play in prestigious collegiate summer baseball leagues around the country.
By Sarah Fisher
Chandler Blanchard retrieved the baseball and gathered his thoughts for the next pitch. He had been a member of Pepperdine’s baseball team for two years and considered the Waves to be family, thinking of each player as a brother. So when he stepped up to the mound to throw the next ball to the opposition, he had to stop and recalibrate; on the plate, bat in hand, and ready to swing was one of his brothers, Aaron Barnett.
Every year, players from colleges across the nation spend two months playing in one of a number of prestigious collegiate summer baseball leagues, giving them extra competitive experience and more opportunities to be scouted for Major League Baseball. Fifteen Waves played in various leagues this summer, and so it was that Blanchard and Barnett came face to face as adversaries in the Cape Cod Baseball League; Blanchard for the Orleans Firebirds and Barnett for the Chatham Anglers, both based in eastern Massachusetts.
“I had no clue that Aaron was up to play, and it was just surprising,” Blanchard remembers. “But we both got into game mode and forgot that we were teammates back home. I tried to get him out—successfully!”
Blanchard’s Firebirds ended up winning the Cape Cod Baseball League’s East Division tournament. Waves head coach Rick Hirtensteiner (’89) likens the experience to a little healthy sibling rivalry and champions the opportunity for his players to compete outside their comfort zones.
“It is good for them to go out there and play against the best competition collegiately, and succeed, so they can come back and continue to be the leaders that we need them to be,” he says.
The summer leagues teams tend to be located in small towns that house the players with host families. The relatively brief, intense timeframe of the competition means that the players must immediately step up to the plate as soon as they arrive in June.
“The day I got there, they gave me my uniform and told me to show up the next day at 3 o’clock for a game,” says Blanchard, a junior majoring in media production.
“That was the most challenging part—to adjust and become familiar with new teammates and coaches without having practiced together,” echoes junior Matthew Gelalich, a psychology major who played for the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks as part of the Alaska Baseball League.
Though an injury in early July unfortunately cut short his experience, Gelalich was able to adjust to his new team and surroundings.
“The team has a tradition of playing a midnight game where we start at 10 PM and don’t use any lights;
up there it doesn’t really get dark in the summer. That was a lot of fun. Summer also gave me a chance to work on some parts of my game that needed improving,” Gelalich adds.
Barnett, an economics major now also in his junior year, calls summer baseball “a whole different beast.” He bonded with his new teammates quickly on and off the field, taking trips to the beach together on rare days off. Without the pressure of the regular collegiate season, he says it did not feel as highly competitive, but playing with and against some of the brightest talents from around the country challenged him in other ways.
“Facing that kind of talent definitely makes you pull more out of yourself and work harder, which can only be good thing,” Barnett muses. “It shows you where you need to get to. The more you dedicate yourself to getting to that point, the better you can help your team back home.”
Enrico “Kiko” Garcia traveled to Minnesota to pitch for the Willmar Stingers in the Northwoods League following a successful freshman year for the Waves, who won the West Coast Conference (WCC) tournament for the second year in a row earlier this summer. He bonded with his host family, throwing baseballs in the yard with their three young children, and appreciated Willmar’s enthusiastic support of the Stingers.
“Our team had a few walk-off home runs, and it was awesome, because the whole town supports every game and they were all screaming. It was a really great atmosphere,” Garcia says.
Now a sophomore and business administration major, Garcia’s time in the Northwoods League increased his confidence in himself as a pitcher. “To get more experience and get the feel of pitching at more college hitters helped. And without any schoolwork, I could just focus on baseball. I tried to do as much work as I could to get ready for the season and be a better player for the Waves.”
Those who were able to play this summer returned to Malibu emboldened, stronger than ever, and happy to be reunited with their Waves family, back on the same team again. As Barnett explains, it’s “fun playing with a new group of guys but you miss the strong camaraderie you have with your collegiate team.”
He and his teammates face the 2016 season (kicking off February 19) excited for the chance to go for a third consecutive WCC title and— fingers crossed—progress even further this year.
“This summer was a big learning experience, mentally and physically, and absolutely helped me prepare for this season at home,” Blanchard says. “I think we can do it; I think we can go further.”