Baseball is the highlight of many Americans’ summers. For a good deal of UCLA students, that means spending warm nights in the bleacher seats and tuning into the MLB All-Star game.
However, for members of the Bruin baseball team, it means throwing themselves fully into baseball by way of participating in summer leagues across the country.
Success in baseball depends on consistency. Since it is slower and more methodical than basketball and football, players need to play as often and steadily as they can throughout the year.
Thus, when the college baseball season ends, players don’t hang up their cleats. Summer leagues offer the chance for these ballplayers to keep their skills fresh throughout the year.
UCLA’s schedule ran late this year, with a trip deep into the postseason. With a weeklong break in between getting home and heading off to summer ball, it was a quick transition for the Bruins.
“It’s nice to have a break but baseball is consistency-based, and taking time off really hinders your performance,” said rising junior infielder Pat Valaika.
Valaika, who plays with the Chatham Anglers of the prestigious Cape Cod League, is just one of 19 Bruins playing for competitive summer leagues.
Over the years, UCLA has had many players selected to spend their summers with teams on the Cape. The league is well-known for producing future Major Leaguers ““ Buster Posey and Nomar Garciaparra are just two examples.
This year, Valaika and rising junior infielder Kevin Williams are playing in the storied league. Williams is with the Brewster Whitecaps.
“It’s fun to play against them, like I just played against Kevin Williams recently. … It’s cool because you know them, you have an edge and it’s just fun to compete against them,” Valaika said.
Not only do current college players compete in summer leagues, but rising freshmen who have yet to step foot on campus do as well.
Rising freshman pitcher Hunter Virant is playing for the Walla Walla Sweets alongside rising sophomore infielder Shane Zeile.
“It’s been really cool,” Zeile said. “We’ve bonded a lot and I get to let him know what UCLA’s going to be like.”
Summer offers the chance to focus solely on the game. During the year, the Bruins are student-athletes, putting time into both homework and baseball.
“It’s a change, in some ways it’s more relaxed and in some it’s more difficult. You’re trying to improve, trying to lift and get stronger. But it’s strictly baseball, which is easier,” said rising sophomore infielder Kevin Kramer, who plays with the La Crosse Loggers.
College baseball is competitive, with the ultimate goal of winning an NCAA title. However, summer ball comes with a far more relaxed attitude in terms of wins and losses, giving players the chance to take time and learn about the game from each other.
“I’ve talked to a lot of hitters here about their approaches, and it’s definitely like you use them as resources,” Kramer said. “And we also learn from different coaches. … It all helps everyone ““ it’s interesting and exciting.”
The Bruins are coming up on a year of great change, as eight of last year’s juniors have signed major league contracts, forgoing their last year of eligibility.
These players made up the majority of the starting lineup, making way for plenty of new starters next year all over the diamond.
“We’re going to have to have a lot of leaders step up. … Luckily we have a lot of depth, we have a lot of guys who will step up,” Zeile said.
Players like Zeile are exactly those whom the summer leagues most benefit. With such a veteran Bruin squad last season, he was primarily a designated hitter or pinch hitter.
The summer leagues offer the chance for Zeile and others ““ who will likely take on a far bigger role next season ““ to get back in the mode of everyday play.
“When you’re coming off a role like I did … you don’t get a lot of consistent at bats, and in summer you play every day,” Zeile said.
“It’s important because playing that much gives you confidence, and confidence makes you play well.”