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Opening Night Dinner Featuring John Grisham Draws Nearly 1,300

Feb. 6, 2004

Nearly 1,300 South-Bend area baseball fans were on hand Thursday night at the Joyce Center Fieldhouse for the Notre Dame baseball program’s third annual Opening Night Dinner, with bestselling author and baseball enthusiast John Grisham serving as the keynote speaker while former Notre Dame All-American Steve Stanley also provided an inspiring speech to the large gathering (with the crowd numbering some 300 more than the previous two Opening Night Dinners).

The night included a ballpark-style dinner and featured several video presentations. The admission price included becoming members of the season-ticket-holder base for the Notre Dame baseball program (season tickets may be ordered by calling 574-631-7356).

Attendees also had the chance to receive autographs from the current Notre Dame players prior to the dinner and each of the 37 players were seated with the fans at individual tables after being introduced to the group. Several pieces of sports memorabilia were awarded as door prizes, including: four box seats to a New York Yankees-New York Mets game; autographed jerseys and bats from the 2004 Notre Dame team; a bat autographed by Stanley; an Adidas apparel gift pack; autographed photos of Major League players Derek Jeeter, Sammy Sosa, Brett Boone (plus Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda); and various t-shirts, pennants and official Notre Dame baseball fitted hats.

The evening was played out against a backdrop of two largescreen televisions showing the televised broadcasts of Notre Dame’s win over Arizona at the 2003 NCAA Fullerton Regional (the final inning of the CWS win over Rice also was shown on the bigscreens as the event concluded).

Notre Dame opens its season on Feb. 20, versus San Diego State at the USC Classic (followed by games that weekend vs. the host Trojans and Louisville).

Excerpts follow below from the comments of Notre Dame head coach Paul Mainieri, Stanley and Grisham (please note that the full audio will be placed on, available to College Sports Pass subscribers, and includes many stories and anecdotes that are not detailed in the below summaries):

Paul Mainieri INTRODUCTION OF Steve Stanley
“Cory Mee saw this guy play at a Team One Showcase in Lexington, Kentucky. Cory came back and said, ‘Paul, I saw this kid play and he’s not the most awe-inspiring physical specimen but man is this guy exciting. … Steve came on his visit and I said I need to recruit this guy for one reason: I need to have somebody to stand next to in the team picture and not feel real small.

“The first day of fall practice rolls around. … And Steve goes out to center field for 15 minutes and I watched him make about six or seven diving catches. I called Steve over and said, ‘Steve, you are going to be our starting centerfielder every day for the next four years. Just relax and play.’

“Fast forward a little bit and now it’s January and Steve comes into the office … and he says. ‘I just feel so inadequate. I’m so small and so weak. I’m not as good a hitter as these guys.’ And I said, ‘Steve … the most important thing is that you go out to center field and catch every ball that is hit. The second-most important thing is to get on base any way you can and put a lot of pressure on the other team. The third-most important thing is to steal bases and get into scoring position for the big hitters. The fourth-most important thing is come to the park every day with that hard-nosed attitude and be a leader of our team. And the fifth-most important thing … is to get some hits every once in a while.

“I told him when the games start, that’s when you are going to shine. Well, about (380) hits later, the guy finishes up as arguably the greatest player in Notre Dame baseball history. Not only was he a great player, he was a passionate person. Everything that he does, he does full-blast.

“Players that have the passion, dedication and commitment to a team like Steve don’t come along that often. He’s a role model for all our players on the team now.

Steve Stanley COMMENTS
“… We went to Mississippi State our sophomore year and (John Grisham) probably remembers the regional. Coach Mainieri let us know that these fans are pretty loud and they are going to come after you if you don’t let them know that you’re going to be hard-nosed. … Many of the fans probably thought that I was a high school player of the batboy. They looked at me and one of the guys said, ‘Look, there’s Rudy.’ Another said, ‘Who left the hat out in center?’ and finally one of the guys said, ‘Don’t worry about it Stanley, we’re going to cut the grass so you can see better.’ It’s wonderful privilege to have him here.

“In the four years that I was here, coach Mainieri always told us that we would never fully appreciate our experience at Notre Dame until you leave here. And that’s absolutely true. But I could never understand what he meant … because it already seemed as good as it gets. … When I played my first summer with Modesto in the California League, there were throngs of fans who would come out just to watch because I had played at Notre Dame. And many people from the Notre Dame Club of Modesto always would come out to watch. That was really special that 3,000 miles away this program could touch so many lives. Last year, in Midland, Texas, we had just plugged the phone in and it rings. I though it was a salesman because nobody else knew this number. He said, ‘This is Jim O’Neill. I want to welcome you to Midland. I’m an alumni of Notre Dame.’ … The Notre Dame club is just so strong.

“I was sitting in my apartment and thinking back on the four years. It was a wonderful opportunity. … Players like Matt Nussbaum and Jeff Perconte taught me how to lead and they absolutely were a part of that World Series team. This is kind of a closure where we can move and excite this 2004 team to do the same thing.

“I’d like to introduce you to a symbol that many of you have seen before on our jerseys … the shamrock. In the fifth century, Saint Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to symbolize the trinity. Years later, an anonymous source use the shamrock to represent the mind, the heart and the spirit – which are pretty central qualities to having a successful team here at Notre Dame.

“The first leaf our minds as players at Notre Dame. Our teams always in that our clubhouse and dugout discussions would consist of philosophical questions. …. Coach Mainieri recruits athletes who can also think for themselves and can represent the school with class and dignity. … In the spring of 2002 we had the best GPA ever in his tenure and we were ranked #1 in the country. Not many teams can say that. This all starts from the top down and coach Mainieri stressed all the time that education comes before our athletic talents.

“The second leaf goes straight to the deeper spirit. Although spirit sometimes is difficult to grasp in a tangible way, in some ways it usually is expressed on a baseball field through a team prayer, a postgame dogpile or even a high-five after a run has scored. … It also makes me think of the joy when J.P. Gagne threw that final strike to send us to the College World Series. Spirit is a powerful thing and is more important than talent and expectation. If you don’t have any spirit on this team, you’re not going to go very far but I believe that you will. … I remember a time in the 2002 season when we came together before we played West Virginia and had a meeting with only the team. What I remember is not what we (the captains) said but what the guys on the team said. Guys who were not usually emotional showed how much this team really meant to them. I remember the unity we felt as a team. … We were able to put aside individual goals for the team goals and I think that’s why we went so far.

“Finally, the last leaf represents the heart of the team. In my experience, the will and the heart of the team can … win a starting job or change an entire season. … I remember coach Mainieri said he was glad that our freshman class had heart. … I jut want to challenge you guys, especially the seniors, make sure you take on your shoulders to carry the load and play with heart, mind and spirit and we’ll be treated to another wonderful season of Notre Dame baseball.”

“Remember when I was telling you about Stanley coming into my office that one January? I forgot to tell you that he started out his career 0-for-17. … And I told him, ‘I lied, start getting some hits.’

“It is my honor to welcome to Notre Dame a true living legend … and the greatest in his chosen profession. … He’s equally as a great a human being. This guy does more things and never gets any credit. He is so involved in his church, he has started a baseball program for underprivileged kids in Brazil. He built a little-league baseball complex on his property. … We met for the first time last spring in Jacksonville. He has more knowledge about the game of baseball than most people. … John got to meet Matt (Laird, brother of Grisham’s son’s roommate at Virginia) and learned a lot about the Notre Dame baseball program. … The respect that our players had earned from the Mississippi State fans (after the 2000 NCAAs) was being expressed to John and he became intrigued by this baseball program in the north. … Little did I know that this guy had been taking notes all along. … He recommended Brian O’Connor for the job (at Virginia). … and Brian said ‘What about John Grisham’ (as the ND keynote speaker). … And I said, ‘John, I just figured you owed me one.’ …”

“It’s really a delight to be here on the campus of Notre Dame for the first time. I grew up in Mississippi and way down there you don’t find a lot of Notre Dame fans. … I wanted to be here tonight because I do feel like I owe you one. I am a huge fan of this baseball program.

“Much to my surprise, Virginia is considered to be a northern state when it comes to baseball. … I’ve become keenly aware of the unleveled playing field when it comes to college baseball. I hope that someday soon we can get a common start date.

“A few years ago Notre Dame began attracting a lot of attention and it happened gradually Paul and Brian were building this wonderful program at this great school. The real wakeup call was a few years ago when we looked up one Tuesday morning and Notre Dame was No. 1 in the nation. That was a huge moment for a lot of us who realized that it can be done. And then Notre Dame went to Omaha in 2002 for the College World Series … and we became frantic Notre Dame baseball fans, because they were winning. I became a real fan of this baseball program, simply because of the quality of the coaching, the quality of the kids. The fact that you could go to Florida State in a Super Regional and win two out of three to qualify to go to Omaha. That’s a great accomplishment.

“This Regional when Mississippi State and Notre Dame met three times in less than 24 hours. I could not go down to watch those games. There were huge crowds and the fans are really rabid. My brother was there with his cell phone and every 30 minutes I got the updates. He said, ‘You got to see this guy from Notre Dame. His name is Stanley and he’s a great player.’ … He called me after the winning home run. … the phone rings about 45 minutes later and he said. ‘You’re not going to believe what’s happening. Our fans have surrounded the Notre Dame dugout. … The fans are cheering, some of them are crying, they are clapping for the Notre Dame players, the kids are all emotionally worn out. Our fans literally swept the Notre Dame fans onto the bus and it was a wonderful moment.’ I heard these wonderful reports about that regional game.

“I wanted to be a baseball player when I was a kid. … My family moved around and … I was never about to sign up for the little league because we got there too late. When I was 12 years old, I finally got to put on a uniform.

“… When I transferred to Mississippi State, it was my third college in three semesters. I loved the midweek games and take a thermos of coffee and watch great college baseball. And I realized after a few games, watching guys my age and really we were pretty much in the same boat. Before long, they would be scrambling around trying to get a degree and find a job. I kind of grew up in that ballpark one night.

“… It’s been very rewarding the past 25 years to watch college baseball become such a popular sport. … I think there are a lot of reasons for that. … College baseball is fun to watch and it’s my favorite sport. I go to Omaha every chance I get, just to watch great baseball. … The reason I love college baseball is because it’s great baseball played by great players. A lot of these kids were drafted out of high school, they don’t sign and they come to college. They are fundamentally sound and they know the game. They know how to bunt, hit-and-run and steal and win games. College baseball players hustle and nothing is more important to watch a kid hustle, that’s one think we loved about Steve Stanley.

“… College baseball players … love their schools. Respect is the cornerstone of college baseball. These kids respect the game, they know how to play it, they respect their schools. They respect their coaches. Matt Laird … was over at our home and I was very anxious to talk to Matt about Notre Dame baseball. … It’s rare to see college players say nice things about their coaches. They respect them and they play hard for them. … He smiled and said, ‘We have awesome coaches at Notre Dame. … College players respect officials and it’s very rare to see a college player argue with an umpire. You very rarely see bad behavior. … College players respect the field, a lot of them do their own field work. … That’s why I love college baseball, because it’s a great game played by great kids at a great school like this.

“I encourage you to come out and watch your team play. College players respect their fans. … You have great college baseball here. You have a wonderful program, played by great kids and run by a great coach. So I encourage you to support the team and I hope to see you in Omaha. Thanks a lot for having me.”

Javi Sanchez’s PRESENTATION TO Steve Stanley
“On behalf of the 2004 baseball team, I’d like to thank Steve Stanley for taking the time our of his day to be here tonight and share his experiences with us. You don’t understand how much this kid has impacted this program, I can tell you about 30 years from now, there still will be a piece of Steve Stanley in this program. … I always will look up to Steve and he’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had. We just want to wish him the best as he continues to prove himself in the professional ranks.”

Note: see upcoming audio link for full comments from the Opening Night Dinner speakers (including several stories and anecdotes that are not detailed above)