Spartans kick off 2019 in style with annual First Pitch Dinner



Head coach Jake Boss speaks at the First Pitch Dinner/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

Luke Sloan, Assistant Sports Editor

EAST LANSING, Mich – The chilly temperatures and snow outside the Kellogg Center didn’t signal signs of baseball season, but the festivities inside surely did.

Michigan State baseball celebrated the start of the 2019 season with its 14th-annual First Pitch Dinner, an event that featured a three-course meal, player autograph session, silent auction and multiple speakers.

Over 500 family members and friends of MSU baseball enjoyed the evening, displaying their support of a program that will take the field in less than three weeks in pursuit of a Big Ten title. Head coach Jake Boss Jr. expressed his gratitude to the supporters while reflecting on what the annual dinner means to his team.

“It’s the sign that the season’s right around the corner, it’s our kick off night so to speak,” Boss said. “You get to bring in a lot of alumni that come back for us, it’s great to see those guys, it’s great to see so many people in the community that support our program.”

The night began with player introductions from master of ceremonies Jim Cotter, followed by an invocation by junior pitcher Caleb Sleeman. Boss took the microphone after dinner, giving a special shout out to the MSU baseball alumni and parents of current players before presenting Jay Gooding with the Alumnus of the Year award.

Gooding is a Michigan State graduate and co-founder of Aqua Pharmaceuticals. He helped to fund recent baseball projects such as the Dominican Republic trip, and the infield heating project and lights at McLane Stadium.

Succeeding Gooding’s acceptance speech and closing out the event was keynote speaker Jim Leyland, who offered words of baseball wisdom to the players, along with stories and jokes that delighted the intrigued crowd. His time at the podium was both introduced and concluded with a standing ovation.

“It’s humbling for sure,” Boss said of Leyland’s presence. “For our guys to hear some of those stories, I think it’s everyone’s goal to play in the big leagues someday, and he certainly has a different perspective than a lot of us. He’s logged plenty of games, he knows what he’s talking about. It’s exciting for him to be here for sure.”

Leyland boasts 21 seasons as an MLB manager, including winning a World Series championship in 1997 with the Florida Marlins. He made three-straight National League Championship Series appearances from 1990-92 as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. His Detroit Tigers tenure lasted from 2006-13 and saw the veteran skipper compile 700 regular-season wins, four division titles and two American League championships. Leyland is only the seventh manager to win pennants in both leagues, and the third to win Manager of the Year in both as well.

Senior outfielder and team captain Dan Chmielewski praised Leyland as “a baseball legend” while stating he was honored to hear him speak.

“I grew up watching the Tigers when he was managing, it was a surreal moment to shake hands with him,” Chmielewski said. “I felt like a little kid again.”

Spartans in the Dominican Republic

Michigan State turned to the foreign ranks to gain valuable playing experience for the upcoming season, traveling to the Dominican Republic on Dec. 15. Six games against Dominican Republic teams, community service and cultural excursions headlined the agenda of the six day trip.

“I wanted these guys to have an experience they would never forget, the baseball side of it was a bonus,” Boss said. “We helped out and painted a couple houses, went to a Winter League game. To understand the talent that comes out of the Dominican Republic was important for our guys to see.”

The NCAA allows teams to make foreign trips once every four years, with this experience marking the first trip to the Dominican Republic for the Spartans, who traveled a full roster including eight returning starters from last season.

Community service activities consisted of painting and house repairs in the village of Boca Chica, where the team stayed during the trip. Players and coaches were offered unique cultural experiences in the Dominican Republic, partaking in a tour of colonial Santo Domingo and attending a Dominican Winter League game.

“It was great to get out there and compete again, it broke up the monotony of the offseason,” Boss said. “We played very well, which was encouraging. But most importantly we wanted to give those guys an experience of a lifetime.”

Back to the grind

The Spartans held their first official practice of 2019 this past Friday, getting back into structured work with just under three weeks remaining until the season opener.

“It was good to hear the bat hit the ball and throw the ball around the infield, things like that,” Boss said.

Baseball won’t be played in frigid East Lansing until Mar. 20, when Central Michigan visits McLane. Early season action features matchups with New Orleans, Coastal Carolina and North Carolina State.

“Guys have been working hard since September, and now we’re three weeks away,” Boss said on returning to practice. “The anticipation continues to build and we’ll be ready to go out and compete against New Orleans in a couple weeks.”