“A ballplayer spends a good piece of his life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” — Jim Bouton
And it’s absolutely true — and on Saturday night at the Carriage Museum, it was on full display.
Baseball might have been the reason why thousands of players have traveled to Santa Barbara each summer to play with the Foresters, but it was how those players impacted the community that truly leaves a lasting impression.
As the team honored its latest Hall of Fame inductees — Bob Townsend, Delwyn Young and Ryan O’Hearn — it was apparent that the countless former players in attendance weren’t necessarily there for them, they were there because of what Santa Barbara summer baseball gave to them.
And they haven’t stopped giving back.
About midway through the night, longtime Foresters manager Bill Pintard talked about the growth of the Hugs for Cubs — a program that was born out of his own son’s battle with terminal cancer.
Pintard has never looked or sounded more proud, gushing over visits to houses throughout the community to deliver Christmas trees and visit Cottage Hospital to put a smile on the face of children spending the holidays facing treatment.
He pointed to Christina Songer for her ongoing commitment to growing the program, prioritizing these community connections over everything else.
It’s what allowed brought Henry Miller to the Foresters.
The youngster was diagnosed with leukemia approximately 18 months ago, leaving his parents with obstacles in caring for him, due to work obligations.
Pintard and the Foresters jumped in to fundraise and utilize the Hugs for Cubs program to aid the Millers.
It allowed them to take off work and spend four months in a hospital bed with Henry.
“These battles that we fight, they are bigger than baseball,” Henry’s father, Andrew Miller, said.
“This community develops a lot more than baseball players.“
And that isn’t just now, it all started with Eric Pintard, with his dad carrying the torch to make sure that the Foresters stood for something, on and off the field.
‘Beyond my wildest dreams’
Bob Townsend simply had a vision: He wanted to offer up local ballplayers a chance to stay in town over the summer and play some competitive ball.
Yes, players could take a jaunt up the road to play for the Santa Maria Indians — the preeminent summer ball team on the Central Coast, standing out not only with their play, but also their bright-red, top-to-bottom uniforms.
Townsend began to do his research at the library, learning more about what it took to build a summer baseball franchise.
As he started doing that research, he came across the name “Foresters.” It stood out to him, and inspired him to follow through on creating the team.
“I just wanted to give guys a place to play during the summer, and give the community a team to come and watch,” Townsend said. “But what it has become is beyond my wildest dreams.”
While the baseball has been spectacular — seven National Baseball Congress World Series titles — it’s not what Townsend is most proud of.
He is inspired by the work that the team has done in this community, as well as in Wichita.
The Hugs for Cubs program has allowed players who come to Santa Barbara as young men, and returns them to their respective homes as adults.
“They get to see the impact that they can have on someone truly battling for their lives,” Townsend said. “Playing baseball is a privilege, but it’s only around for a little while. The impact they have on people, that lasts forever.”
Townsend spent many hours with Eric Pintard, joining him at the beach, not to talk baseball, but to talk about life. It had a profound affect on Townsend, something that he carries with him to this day.
“I might have taught Eric baseball, but he taught me life,” Townsend said.
‘They inspired me to be a better person’
Delwyn Young didn’t know what to expect when he came to Santa Barbara.
He met Pintard while playing ball in Riverside — a meeting that would change the course of not only his baseball career, but also his life.
Young would join the Foresters in the summer of 2000, and lit the Central Coast League on fire, showcasing baseball acumen rarely seen, all with a low-key attitude.
While that summer made him a better baseball player — eventually making him a fourth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002 and playing five seasons in the big leagues with 710 career at-bats — it was also the lasting impact of the Hugs for Cubs that kept him connected to the Foresters franchise over the years.
When Young hooked up with a team of former Major Leaguers to play in the NBC World Series, he remembers texting Pintard to try and meet up.
Pintard was excited to hear from him, but told Young that the team was about to make their annual visit to the children’s hospital in Wichita.
Young texted back, “Just tell me when, I’ll be there.”
Now a father of a 17-month-old, Young believes that community involvement is far more important than anything a player can do on the field.
“If you can give a sick kid a chance to disappear into a different world for an hour, then you need to do that,” Young said. “They may never play baseball. We might be the only connection they ever have to the game, but it’s something that they’ll remember forever. I know I remember all the visits, they inspired me to be a better person.”
“It impacted me. It was incredible.”
Morgan Ensberg isn’t shy about why he initially came to Santa Barbara.
“I thought I was going to Santa Barbara to learn and play baseball,” Ensberg said as the keynote speaker on Saturday night.
He was wrong.
“Clearly, that’s not why I was in Santa Barbara. I was in Santa Barbara to meet Eric,” Ensberg said.
Ensberg first met Eric Pintard while he was going through chemotherapy, enjoying his side-splitting humor that kept the dugout loose.
“If he wasn’t one of the top 20 funniest human beings on Planet Earth . . ., “ Ensberg said.
Eric Pintard enjoyed life, even when life challenged him at all ends.
Upon returning to Santa Barbara for a second summer of baseball, Ensberg quickly caught up with his now dear friend.
Eric had decided to stop treatment, instead fighting the disease with his spirit and “Why Not?” attitude.
Ensberg was in disbelief, but Eric returned:
“I’m going to fight, I’m going to take it all the way through.”
Ensberg was in awe.
“Here’s a guy who is just fighting. battling his tale off, when he knows the end,” Ensberg said “This wasn’t going to be some miraculous story like you see in the movies. He knew what the ending was going to be. This guy lived life and fought like i’ve never seen another human being fight. It impacted me. It was incredible.”
And it took nearly 25 years for Ensberg to understand why he had met Eric.
After a playing career that saw him get to a World Series, participate in an All-Star Game and earn a Silver Slugger Award, he started to manage.
He spent six years in the Houston Astros system, leaving to join the Tampa Bay Rays organization for the past two years.
It was in his first year as a manager that he was confronted with a life-altering situation — one of his pitchers, Blake Bivens, couldn’t get ahold of his wife and child.
Ensberg got MLB security involved, only to have it confirmed shortly thereafter that they had been murdered by a family member.
It all made sense in that moment, the experience of befriending a young man from Santa Barbara and how it would impact him down the road.
“I understand now, why I was in certain places. I was in Santa Barbara because I needed to learn to handle death,” Ensberg said. “I didn’t go to the Rays to teach kids how to play baseball. I went to the Rays for Blake Bivens.
“Eric was a part of that.”