May 7, 2000
By Pete LaFleur
If you had the chance to catch Notre Dame taking batting practice before today’s game, you might have sworn that freshman Brian Stavisky has been hitting home runs all his life.
But that’s not the case. Although he proved capable of smacking whiffle balls over his grandparents’ house as a four-year-old, Stavisky’s first official home run didn’t come until the tender age of eight-when he cleared a 220-foot fence in a Little League game. By the time he was 12, Stavisky turned in a season in which he hit more home runs (16), over 320-foot fences, than games played (15).
His four-year prep career yielded 46 home runs over the course of 60 games and this season-in a year when home runs are down by 20 percent all across college baseball-Stavisky has left the yard 13 times to break the Irish freshman record (11) set by Brant Ust in 1997 (no other Irish player has hit more than six homers this season).
Yet to understand Brian Stavisky, one must do more than simply gawk at his tape-measure blasts during any given BP session. The 6-3, 230-pound lefthander was listed by Baseball America as the No. 5 prospect among current college freshman, and those type of projections are not typically tossed at the feet of one-dimensional players-no matter how far they can hit a baseball. Rather, Stavisky has drawn the raves of scouts and his teammates due to a developing all-around game that has produced a BIG EAST-leading five triples, improved efficiency at the plate versus off-speed pitches and going to the opposite field, and some “hang-a-star-on-that-one” plays while patrolling his defensive position in right field.
“The sky is the limit for Brian right now and people are just beginning to see the type of multi-dimensional player that he can become,” says sixth-year Notre Dame head coach Paul Mainieri, who has seen 20 of his former Irish players move on to pro baseball. “Brian always has had the Notre Dame spirit in his system and he has improved as the year has gone on. He used to flat-out dominate in high school and it took some adjusting to the college game.
“The thing about Brian is that people may be in awe of his huge home runs, but they don’t see him coming out three hours before a game to practice his defense-it’s things like that which will help him be a great player and which make him a tremendous team player. He has 180 at-bats under his belt and has worked hard on hitting breaking balls and changeups and going to the opposite field when teams pitch him away. Brian already is a great leader for us and is the type of player that we want leading the Notre Dame baseball program.”
Current Irish pitching coach/recruiting coordinator Brian O’Connor had seen Stavisky play at the 1999 Team One Showcase in Clemson, S.C., and Mainieri flew in as well to get a first-hand look. Stavisky-whose cousin Dan Stavisky was a pitcher with the Irish from 1995-98-turned in what he called “a pretty decent showing” at the Showcase, versus some of the nation’s top prep pitchers, including a 91 mile-per-hour fastball that he quickly redirected over the fences.
“We had been close to Brian’s cousin Dan during his career here and Dan pushed for us to consider signing Brian,” recalls Mainieri. “Once I saw him play, I knew that we wanted him badly. It’s interesting because Brian even wasn’t sure how good he was, because he came from such a small hometown and had not gained all that much exposure on a national level. But we told him that we felt he could excel on the college level and that’s all Brian had to hear-because he really wanted to come to Notre Dame.”
If not for his strong convictions to attend Notre Dame, Stavisky undoubtedly would have been selected higher in the 1999 Major League draft than his 12th-round selection by the Montreal Expos. His four-year prep career included playing two seasons with Oswayo Valley (Pa.) High School before serving as two-year team captain at Port Allegany (which did not field a baseball team until ’98)-with his combined stats boggling the mind: a .582 batting avg. (142-for-244), 1.287 slugging pct. and .725 on-base pct., 46 home runs, three triples, 28 doubles, 79 walks, 140 runs, 160 RBI, just 11 strikeouts and 60-20 team record.
Possibly one of the most impressive statistics from Stavisky’s prep career was that he averaged 4.2 home runs for every time he struck out and his strikeouts were spaced out by an average of nearly 30 plate appearances. That type of dominance quickly changed on the college level, as Stavisky had equaled his prep strikeout total by Notre Dame’s 17th game of the season. He routinely chased balls that were out of the zone and had trouble hitting off-speed pitches. And consecutive 0-for-4 games on April 12-13-still his only back-to-back hitless games all season-had Stavisky reaching new levels of frustration.
“I was really frustrated after those games, but it all changed that weekend at West Virginia. I had some family and friends there and it made me comfortable having them there” says Stavisky, who proceeded to fashion a 10-game hitting streak that led to him being named BIG EAST player of the week (he remains the league’s only freshman to be so honored this season).
Stavisky’s talents extend outside baseball and beyond the realm of athletics. His youth sports exploits included posting a school-record 1,948 career points in basketball, turning in a runner-up finish at the national Punt-Pass-and-Kick competition and shooting a 74 in his first 18 holes as a member of the varsity golf team. Off the field, he played trumpet in the school band, performed the lead role in the musical “Grease” and graduated first in his class with a 3.9 GPA. That level of all-around success has continued at Notre Dame, as Stavisky posted a 3.87 GPA in the 1999 fall semesters and has been accepted into the prestigious Academic Honors faculty mentoring program for student-athletes.
The everyday life of a Notre Dame student also has appealed to Stavisky. “There’s a lot more you can learn from going to college, aside from just playing baseball,” he says. “I thought that before and believe it even more now. I’ve grown up by being out on my own, relying on others but also doing things for myself.
“The Notre Dame community is a great thing for support and activities. Living in Keenan Hall, I’ve had the chance to experience things like the Keenan Review (an annual talent show), football pep rallies and dances-things that bring the dorm together. There are so many guys that you can count on in the dorm-just like on the team-and those types of things have helped me adjust to college life.”
Stavisky’s rookie season has included several memorable moments, ranging from the subtle-like when his low line drive broke the webbing in the glove of West Virginia first baseman Kevin Olokowski-to the unforgettable, such as the home run he launched in early April at Connecticut. The ball carried high over the leftfield fence, cleared the back portion of the UConn softball field and landed in the service road-some 100 feet past the edge of the fence. Conservative estimates put the blast at 450 feet and evoked memories of a towering shot by former Seton Hall great Mo Vaughn that smacked off the soccer stadium, on the far side of the service road.
“That was one of the best-feeling home runs I’ve ever hit,” says Stavisky. “Sometimes, it feels like you didn’t even hit it and that’s how it felt on that home run.”
Stavisky’s teammates count themselves among his biggest fans. “It’s like how people show up to watch Mark McGwire take BP-everyone on the team feels that way,” says senior first baseman Jeff Felker. “We stand there in wonder of what he can do-I’ll never forget the balls he hit into the upper deck at the Metrodome.
“But the guy has had a pretty solid freshman year. He really adapts well from one pitch to the next and I’ve seen him hit home runs on a pitch that he missed badly on earlier in the game. Brian also has played some great defense for us in right field this season and when he gets moving is one of the team’s best baserunners-but those are things that get overshadowed by his power.”
As he nears the end of his first season with the Irish, Stavisky hopes to improve on his batting average with runners in scoring position (.250) and with two outs (.262) while continuing to cut down his strikeouts (he has 31 in 50 games, but none in the last four). Known for strong wrists and a lightning-quick bat, Stavisky has come to realize that he often is his own worst enemy at the plate.
“The most important thing for me now is working on having more balance at the place, because sometimes my wrists get me out in front out pitches too much and I don’t have the best control of the bat,” he says. “It’s been a great season, but I want to help this team do even greater things down the stretch.”