‘It’s less about the game now,’ Bringing generations of Triton baseball together heading into the DI era

Photo Courtesy of Mariyah Shad/UCSD Guardian

It’s not about the game anymore. Baseball takes a back seat to renewing old friendships and absorbing all of the knowledge you can from the past generations of UC San Diego baseball players during the program’s Alumni Game, a tradition that goes back more than 30 years. Now, with the move into the NCAA’s Division I on the horizon, the game bridges three distinct eras of Triton baseball for one relaxed and meaningful night.

Some of the alumni come donned in jeans with their families in tow, content to simply be around the program that meant so much to them growing up; others relish the chance to lace the spikes up and take the field at Triton Ballpark once again.

“I don’t think I’ve ever missed a game,” said Rick Nowak, class of 1990. “It’s really about getting together with the guys; This is the one time where a lot of us get together and see each other.”

The game is almost entirely an excuse to bring together the older generations, the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the program from the Division-III era of dirt roads and hidden fields and the College World Series teams of the Division-II era with the current team. And even though a few decades divide the playing careers of the two teams involved in the game, so much of their experiences can be relatable. Even without scholarships or televised games, Tritons of the ‘80s and ‘90s were being drafted into the MLB, just as they are today.

“Every year we had guys getting drafted from Division III, now we’re Division II and clearly moving towards Division I, but [over the years we’ve had] pro ball-players. I was drafted by the Phillies out of here. We had two other guys from my team play minor league baseball,” said Erik Judson, who graduated from UCSD in 1990 after being drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies.

Alumni get the chance to be a part of something that helped formulate their identity back in their college days, and current collegiate athletes, even if they don’t quite grasp the gravity now, get a chance to pick the brains of men that had moved through the program and had manufactured a future for themselves based on some of the principles picked up on the field at UCSD. Without the contributions of the many generations of alumni, Triton baseball would not have the foundation it has today that will allow for a smooth transition into Division I.

“When I look at all of the accomplishments we had, I think we made baseball recognizable [on campus],” said Nowak. “It’s a real sense of pride to know that I helped build that.”

Even if the event is less about the actual baseball being played than a normal game, that doesn’t mean those involved don’t care about competing, or that they won’t remember the score or deciding moments from the game decades later. Current players and alumni alike fanned out over the field just as the sun began bathing the field in pink, taking batting practice, playing catch, and working on fielding ground balls almost two hours before first pitch.

Despite all of the catching up and sharing how their lives have gone in the interim between their playing days and the Alumni Game amongst teammates, moments from the games themselves still stand out to some alums. Those who got a chance to watch former-MLB catcher Bobby Natal, the ‘Babe Ruth’ of Triton baseball as Nowak refers to him, distinctly remember his shining moment in the Alumni game decades ago.

According to legend, Natal and alumni team were chasing the current players heading into the bottom half of the final inning. Despite having downed a 12-pack of beers, Natal, the star of his squad, was called upon to try and extend the contest. Like Kirk Gibson of the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers, Natal stepped onto the field without the physical abilities of his prime (though unlike the injured Gibson, Natal’s hindrance was that his inhibitions were low and that he had swapped his cleats for tennis shoes prior to his at-bat). But despite the odds, Natal carried his team just as he’d done back in the day for UCSD. After being armed with an aluminum bat, the program’s brightest star rewarded his club by hammering a home run to straightaway centerfield, over 400 feet away, to end the game and give the Alumni the win.

“It’s about what happens on the field, but really it’s what happens outside the field and the events that surround it that give us the most legendary moments,” said Judson, who’s been able to get out to more than 20 Alumni games over the years even while working for the San Diego Padres organization.

But the program has moved far beyond the days of Natal’s dominance at UCSD. The glittering ‘palace’ that is the Triton Ballpark of today, which Nowak refers to as a “monument to baseball,” is nothing like the field that the teams of the ‘80s and ‘90s competed on. Far away from classrooms, the old field was tucked in the middle of a grove of Eucalyptus trees, much like everything was back in the days when the student population never approached today’s surplus of over 30,000.

“First of all, we used to have to tell people there was a baseball team,” said Nowak, class of 1990. “Second of all, they’d ask us ‘Where’s the field?’ because you couldn’t see it. There were no lockers [either], so we changed in the parking lot or came dressed from our dorms.”

With the beautiful facility and an imminent move into Division I, there is a general feeling around the program that the baseball team is prepared, in large part due to alumni contributions, to make the jump into the highest level of competition.

“I think Division II baseball is one of the best-kept secrets in the NCAA,” said Kellen Lee, a member of the College World Series teams at UCSD back in 2009 and 2010. “Since there are so many quality teams at the Division II level, it’s preparing all of these guys for when they become Division I athletes next year.”

Even with all of the talk of moving into Division I, the Alumni Game provides a perfect example of why sports make a university special, regardless of the NCAA distinction. Every alumnus I talked to was so visibly happy to be around the team and to be able to, in talking to me, express just how much the program means to them even though they are so far removed from their days as students.

“You see an intermingling of the generations, which gives way to building stronger bonds in the program and it helps people to realize that they’re part of a bigger thing,” said Nowak. “It feels really good to get the recognition and to be able to continue to be a part of this team.”

Alumni from the baseball program, years after moving on from their playing days, still participate not only in this game, but with the baseball program and with the Athletics Department more broadly.

Judson is on the Triton Athletes Associate Board and he helped develop Triton Ballpark. Nowak helped design the new clubhouse at Triton Ballpark and was named to the UCSD Hall of Fame back in 2016. Lee provides UCSD baseball players with the same mental skills lessons he provides minor league ball players in the San Francisco Giants organization.

“When I was a player, I made it a point to connect with the alumni, learning about life and leveraging their willingness to give their time,” said Lee, who has never missed an Alumni game since graduating.

“Now, as an alumni, in the other dugout, I take pride in sharing whatever I can for them. I want to pay it forward to ensure that Triton baseball stays the way it is.”

Without the baseball program and the upkeep of the Alumni game, players of eras past would not get a chance to reconvene and stir up memories of their golden years. Without the Alumni game, old players would lose their chance to pay forward the gifts the game and the school gave them during their formative years.

“The greatest benefit that they’ll get out of this is just seeing what it’s like to be on the other side, when they’re gone” said head coach Eric Newman, who has kept the alumni event going since he took over eight years ago. “It’s good for our players to see the guys that came before them that helped build the tradition of the program and know that one day they’re going to be on that side and feel that same sense of pride.”

All of the emotion and thoughtfulness of the alumni signifies just how important not only the game or the baseball program, but collegiate athletics at UCSD has been over the years. And now that the school is moving into the Division-I era, a whole new generation of athletes will have a chance to bring that same culture of thankfulness and respect captured within the Alumni Game to an even wider audience, something that the players toiling on the secluded field in the ‘80s, separated from the main campus by a freeway and a forest, could never have imagined.