Feb. 5, 2003

Nearly 900 South-Bend area baseball fans were on hand Tuesday night at the Joyce Center Fieldhouse for the Notre Dame baseball program’s second annual Opening Nigh Dinner, with Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry serving as the keynote speaker. The night included a ballpark-style dinner and also featured two videos, one recapping Notre Dame’s 2002 College World Series season and the other previewing the Cubs’ 2003 campaign.

Admission price included becoming members of the second season-ticket-holder base in the history of the Notre Dame baseball program (season tickets may be ordered by calling 574-631-7356). Notre Dame ranked among the nation’s top-40 attendance leaders in 2002, averaging nearly 1,400 per game.

Attendees also had the chance to receive autographs from the current Notre Dame players prior to the dinner and each of the 33 players sat with the fans at individual tables after being introduced to the group. More than 100 pieces of sports memorabilia were awarded as door prizes, including: an Andre Dawson autographed all-star game bat, a Craig Counsell autographed bat, several Ryne Sandburg bobble-head dolls, autographed baseballs and jersey from Notre Dame’s 2002 CWS team, and autographed baseballs from Tony Gwynn’s final game, Mark Mulder and Ichiro Suzuki.

The evening was played out against a backdrop of two largescreen televisions showing the televised broadcasts of Notre Dame’s 3-1 win at Florida State that sent the Irish on to the 2003 CWS (the final inning of the CWS win over Rice also was shown on the bigscreens as the event concluded).

Notre Dame opens its season in mid-February with four games in Tempe, Ariz., versus the University of Dayton (Feb. 21), Newman University (Feb. 22) and Arizona State (Feb. 22-23).

Comments follow below from Notre Dame head coach Paul Mainieri and Hendry, a longtime friend of Mainieri (they were baseball coaches together at Miami’s Columbus High School). Hendry – whose comments touched on both the Cubs and Notre Dame – also was a successful coach at Creighton University, with current Notre Dame associate head coach Brian O’Connor playing on Creighton’s 1991 squad that advanced to the College World Series.

Mainieri’s comments included crediting all of the former Notre Dame baseball players who laid the foundation for the historic 2003 season, with the former players in attendance standing to be recognized by the crowd.

Excerpts from Paul Mainieri comments

“We’re a little disappointed that we didn’t win the national championship last season because we thought we had the ability to do it. But that’s what makes it fun and we’ll have another chance to make it happen this year and strive for that championship.”

“Now we have a new season and new challenge ahead of us. Frank Eck (namesake of Notre Dame’s Eck Stadium) mentioned to me how unbelievable it is that on Feb. 4, with a snowstorm outside, so many people would come out tonight in support of Notre Dame baseball. This is a group of kids in our program that is very easy to pull for. And they play some good baseball, too. Hopefully each and every day they will represent Notre Dame with the class and dignity that we all should represent Notre Dame with. It’s the greatest university on the world and these kids take great pride in representing this university.”

“I can’t guarantee that we will be going back to the College World Series but it’s not going to be because of a lack of effort. These kids are anxious to get the season going. We lost some great players but we have some tremendous players returning and have added some great players. We lost five everyday players but we have two injured sophomores back and four great everyday starters back. We have a great pitching staff returning. You all have read about the loss of Grant Johnson but he is going to make a full return for 2004. In the meantime, these other kids are going to pick up the slack and lead this team and it’s going to be a lot of fun, a new challenge.”

Excerpts from Jim Hendry comments

“I’ve been in baseball for 25 years now and I’ve never seen one man make more of a difference for a program than (Frank Eck) has at this University. I told the team that losers make promises and winners make commitment and Frank should be proud of the commitment he has made to this program and the difference he has made.”

“I’ve always had a love affair with the University of Notre Dame. I don’t know if you realize what you have here. This program is one of the top four or five in the country. You have something here that is almost hard to believe over the past nine years. You have a program that is not only making trips to Omaha, Nebraska, but you’re in the regionals every year, you are hosting regionals, you have facilities in a northern climate that are second-to-none. But you have players, people who come here and get better. They get better on the field and off the field. I don’t think you have a finer molder of young men than you have in your head coach.”

“You have a program here that is professional baseball’s dream program. When you come to see Notre Dame play as a professional scout or front-office person, you are going to get the right kind of player, the kind that run the balls out, play hard every day, compete every pitch and every inning. And you don’t find that very often. You don’t find that in the big leagues.”

“This is no longer considered a cold-weather school that every now and then or every decade produces a pretty good prospect. This University is now loaded with prospects and that’s a credit to Paul and his staff. … You’ve got probably two of the best guys in the country in the same dugout. (Brian’s) reputation in the country is the same as Paul’s.”

“Paul and my relationship started in 1978. I was the assistant coach for his father in the Cape Cod League and we have been like brothers ever since. You have one of the ultimate winners in college baseball. He is in his dream job and I’m in my dream job. We used to sit in the dugout at Columbus High School and make stupid statements like, ‘We are going to be college coaches someday and take our teams to the College World Series and after that we’re going to run a Major League club. And we used to laugh about that.”

“You are going to go back to Omaha, more than once, and you’re going to win a national championship at Notre Dame in front of this whole country.”