The COVID-19 pandemic caused some lazy-hazy-crazy days of summer for most baseball players, but several UCSB Gauchos did find their way into the clear.
“I would’ve played for the Bad News Bears if I had to,” said Christian Kirtley, a junior-to-be who actually played for two teams this summer.
The busiest Gaucho was coach Andrew Checketts. With the coronavirus closing down diamonds all over the country, he worked extra innings to get a handful of his players onto summer collegiate rosters.
“We usually place our guys six-to-nine months in advance,” he said. “But we’d think we had something for a player — would have him locked into a league — and then it would shut down.
“We’d move him to another team and then that one would fold. I placed one guy five different times before throwing up my hands.”
“If they could get into a slo-pitch softball league, we would’ve taken that,” he added with a laugh. “We’d take any kind of at-bats, allowing them to get any kind of reps, as long as it was COVID-safe.”
Kirtley spent most of his summer with the Santa Paula Halos. The Halos, like the Santa Barbara Foresters, had to play an independent schedule after the California Collegiate League shut down.
He admitted that the Halos got “spanked on” by the Foresters, who won their eighth National Baseball Congress World Series championship on Monday. But he was happy to face UCSB teammate Charlie Adamson, who pitched in relief for the Foresters six times this summer.
“I took an absolute mammoth swing and he got very, very lucky,” Kirtley said. “I hit a 450-foot popup to right field.
“If I would’ve hit that out, I was going to take about 45 seconds to get around the bases. I would’ve let Chuckie know that, ‘Hey! I hit a home run off you!’”
He’s played infield for UCSB the last two seasons, batting .255 with a team-best six doubles during last spring’s coronavirus-shortened season. The Gauchos would like to move him to the outfield, however, making this summer’s experience crucial to the transition.
“Coach Checks bounced me around a little bit before getting me in contact with the team in Santa Paula and Ojai,” he said. “There was also a league right by my hometown (in San Bernardino), and I called a guy to set that all up for me, too.
“I just put myself out there and he got me on one of the teams.”
He figures he got about 20 games under his belt.
“Once I got into the dugout and stepped onto the field, it felt so refreshing,” Kirtley said. “It was really a place of comfort for me.
“It almost felt like we don’t have a pandemic.”
Catcher Gianni Bloom, a junior college transfer who batted .250 for the Gauchos last spring, played for the homeless San Francisco Seals.
“We were supposed to play at the College of Alameda, but the city never gave us permission to practice or play there,” he said. “We had two or three unofficial practices there and could’ve been kicked off at any minute.”
Bloom, who lives in the East Bay town of Richmond, was invited to weekly workouts on a diamond at the nearby Alameda Naval Base.
“One of my good friends from St. Mary’s High School is a pitcher in the Brewers organization, and he hit me up because I’m a catcher,” he said. “Of course, I was dying to do any kind of baseball.
“It became a weekly thing for whomever wanted to throw or hit. There were some college guys and some minor-league guys, and even some instructors showed up.
“It was just an all-dirt infield, looking over the water at the naval base, but it was great because I was able to get some live at-bats.”
Bloom wound up playing a dozen games for the Seals, who played all their games on the road. They split a pair of games against the Foresters, handing the NBC champions one of their few losses this summer.
“It was really nice to get back to Santa Barbara,” he said.
He also faced Gaucho pitcher Carter Benbrook in a game against the Yuba-Sutter Gold Sox in Marysville.
“He struck me out on a pitch that was up,” Bloom said. “He knows it wasn’t a strike.”
Benbrook begged to differ.
“He was sitting changeup on an 0-2 pitch and I threw him a curveball that got in there,” he argued with a laugh. “It got in the zone.”
The Gold Sox, who played without spectators because of coronavirus restrictions, recently capped the summer by winning their own tournament, the Sierra-Central-Monta Farms Summer Series.
Benbrook, who’s been taking online summer classes from his home in Sacramento, is anxious to get out of the 100-degree heat and back to Santa Barbara.
“Last season was awesome,” he said. “That was the best month of my life, just competing with all the guys. I love being around that group.”
The Gauchos were 13-2 when the pandemic forced the NCAA to halt play. Pitcher Michael McGreevy, a Freshman All-American the previous season, had a win-loss record of 2-0 and an earned run average of 0.99 when the plug was pulled out.
He had planned to play this summer for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox before the Cape Cod League called off its own season in late April.
“In a perfect world, I would’ve been off to the Cape right after finals — and hopefully after an Omaha run,” he said, referring to the College World Series. “I would’ve pitched there a couple of times and, hopefully, then gotten an invitation to the U.S. Team Trials in North Carolina.
“I would’ve gone there and competed against the best guys. That would’ve been my perfect summer.”
He’s instead spent the summer working out in San Clemente with two other Gaucho pitchers, Conner Dand and Alex Schrier.
“There’s a sports park literally two minutes from my house, and we were going there until they shut it down and put in road blocks,” McGreevy said. “We started going to the Little League field where Conner and I played when we were 10.
“It was down a back road where passing cars can’t see you. Park rangers patrol the area because it’s in their jurisdiction. Some of them would just wave to us, but others would say, ‘Hey, get off the field.’
“We’d just go throw in the parking lot to play catch.”
McGreevy, who turned down an offer last year to pitch in the Alaska Summer League after throwing 60 1/3 innings as a freshman, never got onto a summer roster this year.
“I just recently reached out to Checks and he told me that I should start hitting up the intensity and throw every other day,” he said. “Normally the season ends in June and then you break for two months, but obviously, I need more time to ramp up.
“Picking it up a little earlier than normal would be a good thing right now.”
McGreevy has spent part of his summer body surfing at a nearby beach, but it’s not been enough to satisfy his competitive drive.
“I’ve just been looking forward to getting back with the guys and grinding with them day in and day out. I’ve literally been getting jittery while sitting on the couch, just thinking about it.”