Diamond Day

NCAA Ivy League baseball champs past and present meet on their home turf.

by Eric Kester Published Summer 2016
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Photographs by Mike McLaughlin

Normally, Rolando Acosta ’79CC, ’82LAW cherishes shadows. Like the double play, shadows are a pitcher’s best friend, adding an extra layer of deception to a curveball as it flitters toward the batter through the dark lines cast by a tree or grandstand. But during a frigid afternoon last February, Acosta, four decades removed from his days as ace of the Lions’ pitching staff, became troubled when he looked out on Robertson Field and noticed a cluster of shadowy figures in the distance.

Acosta had been running on the track next to the diamond, trying to sneak in some exercise. Free time had become scarce since he’d been elected a New York Supreme Court justice in 2002. What puzzled him now was why, in such un-baseball-like weather, people were on the field — his field, the one he’d played on as a Lion and over which he felt a kind of guardianship.

JUSTICE ON THE MOUND: Rolando Acosta, a New York Supreme Court judge, was once a star pitcher for Columbia.

That feeling is understandable, given what he achieved there. In the history of Columbia baseball, nobody has pitched more innings (336.2) or won more games (22) than Acosta. This slice of real estate at the northern tip of Manhattan is as much a home to him as the Dominican Republic, where he was born and raised. He often jokes that the only two things that matter in the DR are religion and baseball, and that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.

Acosta’s childhood revolved around baseball. When he wasn’t playing it, he’d gather in the center of town with other poor kids to watch the San Francisco Giants on television. In the 1960s, the Giants were island favorites: their star pitcher was Juan Marichal, known as the “Dominican Dandy.” But Acosta’s parents wanted more for their kids. So, at the age of fourteen, Acosta moved with his parents and four siblings to the Bronx, where he had to learn a new language, a new measuring system, and a new culture.

Baseball, though — that was the same. Here, the mound was still 18.4 meters (or 60 feet, 6 inches) from home plate. Here, a catcher flashing an index finger still meant “bring the heat.” Upon arriving in the Bronx, it didn’t take long for Acosta to find the nearest pitcher’s mound — that little island where he felt most at home.

Home for Randell Kanemaru is Santa Ana, California. But on that February day, as wet snowflakes pelted his cleats and cap, home surely felt even farther away.

The sophomore second baseman took the 1 train up to Hal Robertson Field at Phillip Satow Stadium, where he joined a small group huddled on the infield. The snow was picking up, but when it landed on the field’s synthetic turf, it instantly melted.

“It doesn’t matter if it snows or rains,” Kanemaru says. “If it’s above 32 degrees, we’re definitely going to squeeze some work in.”

For college-baseball powerhouses like the University of Central Florida and the University of Houston, year-round mild weather is a major advantage. But what the Lions lack in climate they make up for in commitment (and synthetic turf). That’s why they’re out there on days when fly balls twist wildly in winter gales, and when cold metal bats punish your hands with a bone-rattling sting if you miss the sweet spot.

The hard work has paid off. From 2013 to 2015, the Lions won three consecutive Ivy League championships. The program is now capable of attracting even the most elite players, like Kanemaru, who, as a freshman, started 41 games and batted .296 on his way to being named the 2015 Ivy League Rookie of the Year. It was one of the best years by a Lion freshman since 1976, when a young right-hander notched 52 strikeouts in 73 innings and posted a 3.33 ERA. Those numbers belonged to the lone figure now poised by the running track, watching Kanemaru and his teammates.

“Hey, isn’t that the judge?”

The players waved, shouted hello, urged Acosta to come down and throw some batting practice. Acosta smiled and declined. The last time he accepted their invitation, his body couldn’t keep pace with his ageless competitive streak. He threw hard and he threw well, but he was so sore the next day that he couldn’t raise his arm to wash his hair.

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