COVER STORY

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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Today, you’ll find Acosta at most Lions home games, in dark sunglasses and a polo shirt, riding the umpire (“Come on, Blue! It’s right down the middle, Blue! You’ve got to call it both ways!”), and happy to recount those magical seasons. You won’t hear even a whisper of his honors. Instead, the Columbia Hall of Famer will proudly reel off the names of his teammates. He’ll gush about Mike Wilhite ’78CC, ’07GSAPP, the center fielder who batted .448 in 1977, and then, in 1978, hit eight home runs, breaking the Lions record set by Columbia Lou. He’ll recommend the baseball books written by pitcher Bob Klapisch ’79CC. He’ll tell you Paul Bunyan-esque tales of Bob Kimutis ’76CC, the 245-pounder so intimidating that opposing pitchers walked him 25 times in 29 games.

DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER: The 1976 Ivy League champs, now.

On April 23 of this year, in the middle of a Lions double-header against Princeton, the 1976 team gathered on Robertson Field to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of their championship season. When these guys get together, it’s like stepping into a time machine. Yes, Acosta is now officially titled the Honorable Rolando T. Acosta. But Bob Kimutis still calls him “Freshman.”

Among the ’76ers on hand that sunny Saturday was the coach, Dick Sakala ’62CC, who led the Lions from 1973 to 1977. Ask Sakala about Acosta, and he has two words: Juan Marichal. “That high leg kick, that beautiful motion. Rolando was our difference maker,” Sakala says. “We played three games a week, one on Friday and a double-header on Saturday, and we always started Rolando on Friday so that we could go into the weekend feeling relaxed.”

Right fielder Charlie Manzione ’76SEAS was there with his Worth aluminum bat, with which he hit .303 in 1976. He points to his head when he talks about Acosta. “Rolando was an extremely smart pitcher. He had this ability to read the hitter and set him up so that certain pitches were almost impossible to hit. And he’d locate his pitches: up and down, side to side. He never threw down the middle of the plate.” As for the team, Manzione says, “Everyone got along. No cliques, no personality questions. We had a great mix of upperclassmen and newer players, and we fed off of each other.”

Forty years later, the Lions, under coach Brett Boretti, are making their own history. Since Boretti took over in 2005, the Lions have won four Ivy League titles.

“The coaches do a great job at building team culture,” says Kanemaru. “They’re different because they don’t necessarily recruit the guys who are the best players but the guys who are the best fit. We want the players who will become a part of our family, not selfish players who care about stats.”

A tight-knit clubhouse has become one of the program’s main selling points to recruits, and it’s yielded tremendous return. Kanemaru is a prime example. “Aside from Columbia, a few schools in California were recruiting me,” he says. “So I called around and asked about the environment on campus and in the locker room. I talked to Coach Boretti, and he really emphasized what the team is all about.”

Kanemaru hopes to soon join teammates George Thanopoulos ’16CC (drafted as a pitcher by the New York Mets), Jordan Serena ’15CC (drafted as an infielder by the Los Angeles Angels), and Gus Craig ’15SEAS (drafted as an outfielder by the Seattle Mariners) as a Major League Baseball draft pick. His 2016 numbers shouldn’t hurt his case: a .340 batting average (second on the team to infielder Will Savage’s .367), and a team-leading .573 slugging percentage.

Still, he considers himself as much a psychology major as a ballplayer. After all, like Acosta, Kanemaru chose Columbia primarily for the education.

“I know baseball won’t be there forever,” he says.

It’s a mature perspective. But someday, perhaps, Kanemaru will be like Acosta, sitting in the stands with his old teammates, telling stories of the past while watching the future, and he’ll know that this perspective, while wise, is not necessarily true.  

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