Heart and Soul

The Notre Dame baseball team kicked off their season with their first full practice of the season this weekend. Expectations are very high for the 2004 Irish baseball team, and this team will be led by their heart and soul—Javi Sanchez. Sanchez has gone from unheralded situational player to team leader in just three short years. His unselfish play epitomizes the character of the Irish baseball team.

Irish hitting coach Dave Grewe has grown fond of Javi Sanchez over the years. He's seen Sanchez go from an unheralded and raw player to team leader in just a few short years. "We have a couple of players who could be classified as the heart and soul of the team, and Javi is definitely one of them," said Grewe. "He's a tremendous story, from not playing much as a freshman, to what he's done from there. He'll do anything for this team."

The career of utility man Javi Sancez didn't start off with a bang. In his first season as freshman he played in just nine games and failed to register a hit in 13 at-bats. "I wasn't highly recruited out of high school and I just wanted the opportunity to make the travel team, which I did, and I just wanted to work hard," said Sanchez. "Looking back I should have been greedier and tried to make more of it when I got in the game and not just settled for just being in the game. I wasn't as aggressive as I am now.

Sanchez returned for his sophomore season and appeared to be destined for a reserve role. Injuries forced Sanchez into the lineup at shortstop, and he responded by hitting .281 on the season and also played some very impressive defense. Sanchez had a streak of 46 error-free games in 2002, and his solid play helped lead the Irish into their first College World Series appearance in 45 years.

With the injured players returning to the lineup in 2003, Sanchez then put on a different hat for the Irish. The Irish were short on catchers with the graduation of Paul O'Toole and Andy Bushey, and Sanchez was called upon again to step into a role he was very unfamiliar with—playing catcher.

"The closest I'd ever come to playing catcher was catching a couple of bullpen sessions in my freshmen year," Sanchez said. "The transition was difficult. Coach Grewe and I spent countless hours working on it, a lot of individual work, a lot of talking about the game and the pitchers, what the pitching coach is expecting out of us."

Learning to stay focused was also a difficult adjustment for Sanchez. "Probably the hardest thing is that you are in every play more so than at any other position. Sitting back at shortstop you are concentrating on what pitch is being thrown and where you are playing the hitter but at catcher it is an ongoing process and you can't fall asleep for one second. Blocking was the hardest aspect to get adjusted to."

Sanchez' junior season was one of sacrifice, unselfishness and leadership as he sacrificed his body for the team in catching double-headers for the Irish on Saturday, and then coming back to catch another nine-inning game on Sunday for most of the season.

"I think it's a tribute to my parents, the way they raised me. I never took anything for granted," said Sanchez on why he's an unselfish player.

His leadership was present throughout the year including the BIG EAST Conference Championship where he hit .727 (8-for-11) with six RBI and four sacrifice bunts. His effort was recognized as he was named the BIG EAST Tournament M.V.P. His hot bat also led the Irish in regional play as he was 6-for-15 and was named to the All-Regional team.

Sanchez shrugs off his tournament performance as a love for the game, and just doing his job. "I really didn't notice that until someone told me that my stats are a little better (in post-season play). To me it seems that in the post-season my confidence levels rise a little bit. When the stakes are high and the lights are brighter I reach and play with a little more enthusiasm than I can find in a normal ballgame. Towards the end of the season we rely on each other to step up and I take that personally. I want to be that guy that's up to bat when the game is on the line."

Grewe says that Sanchez is a true gamer in every sense of the word. "We have about 20 hitters on the roster, out of the 20 guys that swing the bat Javi is not the most naturally talented hitter. But, when the game is on the line, he's one of three guys that you want up there. He's a true gamer—when the game is on the line, he's going to produce for you. That's his nature. He's a very tough-minded individual, and he plays with a lot of heart."

"I think I am a good leader because I am a team guy," said Sanchez of his leadership role. "I have been around a couple of teams where there has been no chemistry and I have seen teams suffer for that. If nothing at all, if I can't do it on the field then I can do it in the locker room and the dugout. Even if I'm not in the line up I can bring a good chemistry, I think it's something that I bring to the table that helps out the team."

Sanchez says he's now comfortable with the catching role, and he's seen that role help him as a hitter. "It's helped me be a better hitter simply by seeing the ball from the pitcher's hand from a defensive standpoint. It has allowed me to recognize pitches and pick up balls better from an offensive standpoint. I know what to expect out of the umpire's zones having been behind them for a couple of innings receiving the ball and now I'm at the plate so I can figure out my zone as a batter better."

Grewe believes that Sanchez will have an even better offensive year this year. "He'll be a better hitter because he'll have more rest," Grewe said. "He'll be a better hitter because he has more experience, and because he knows how pitchers try to set up hitters because he's a catcher. He's working extremely hard right now, and he's seeing the ball very well."

Sanchez has been a part of some good Irish baseball teams. He says he thinks this team will be the best Irish team he has been a part of. "I think every year I have been here we have gotten a little bit better," said Sanchez. "I know for a fact that this is the deepest team we've ever had. We will have guys on the bench who could start in any school in the country. Our goal is to take it one game at a time and at the end of everything we want to win our next game. I think if we do that we will be champions."

The Irish start their season at the end of February playing in a number of tournaments. Many of the teams the Irish will be playing will have a number of games under their belt already. We asked Sanchez if he thought it was important to get off to a fast start. "It helps to get off to a great start but more important than that is to be better every weekend so come April/May, you are playing your best baseball. Going into the post season you want to be playing your hottest baseball. That is a lot better for us than a hot start and a cool finish."

Sanchez should have a chance to play professional baseball when his season is over. We asked him what he wanted to do when his career was finished at Notre Dame. "My dream has always been to play Division One baseball, and if I get the opportunity to play at the end of this year then great, it would be a plus. As far as my future plans, I'll see what happens. I'll go back to grad school and take it from there. I've always thought about becoming a coach one day or maybe joining the business world. I can't see myself away from the game for too long, I love it too much, I love the people involved in the game."

Coach Grewe also believes that Sanchez would make a fine coach some day. "He's a coach on the field," said Grewe. "I think it's going to work out for him with professional baseball—there are enough guys that really like him right now. There's no question he can be a great coach. I joke about it all the time. I always kid him, ‘hey, are you going to coach with me some day or what?' I would love to see him down the road coach with Paul (Mainieri) or any one of the Notre Dame coaches that will be out there. You hit the nail right on the head with him. He knows how to motive, he believes in the right things, he could be an exceptional coach."

No matter where life takes Sanchez, he will always cherish his time at Notre Dame and putting on the Irish jersey. "I could not have written this any better, just having the opportunity to come to the University of Notre Dame. On top of that to be able to play baseball has been a dream come true."

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories