Opening Night Dinner a Hit for Baseball Team

An All-Star roster of speakers made Monday's 2006 Opening Night Dinner a memorable experience for those in attendance showing their support for the Notre Dame baseball team. From Cubs general manager Jim Hendry to head football coach Charlie Weis, words of wisdom were aplenty for the 1,700 gathered at the Joyce Center Fieldhouse.

That's not all the spectators were treated to. An all-you-can-eat ballpark dinner, packed with hot dogs and nachos and cheese, was on the menu. Also, attendees were given season tickets to the Irish home baseball games and a copy of the 2006 Notre Dame baseball media guide.

But it was the attraction of speakers that head coach Paul Mainieri had assembled that was the big draw of the evening. Former Irish great Aaron Heilman, who Mainieri called "the greatest pitcher in the history of Notre Dame baseball," took some time off from his preparations for spring training with the New York Mets to be one of the featured speakers. Heilman, who won 25 of his last 26 games pitched for the Irish and was four-time All-American, talked about what drew him to the prestigious university.

"I didn't want to be the top dog on campus," Heilman said. "I didn't want to go somewhere and get lost in the shuffle. At Notre Dame, I was afforded that opportunity to explore those opportunities and just how good of a pitcher I could be."

Mainieri, in his introduction about his former star pitcher, talked about the struggles Heilman had during his initial semester on campus. To make matters worse, Heilman's dad was in the hospital. But with the comforting presence of his teammates and encouragement from Mainieri, he was able to make it through that difficult first period to become one of the premier players in the country. That togetherness among players past and present was something that was still strong when a group of them gathered at the head coach's house not too long ago.

"After all those years, the bonds were still strong," an emotional Heilman said about his former teammates. "Guys I hadn't seen for four or five years, it was like I saw them yesterday. It really meant a lot to me."

Weis, the biggest draw on the Notre Dame campus, followed Heilman's speech. Known for his tireless work habit in turning around the football program, Weis made it clear that he is an avid baseball fan. Self-described as a New York Yankees fan, Weis spelled out in deep terms how the game of baseball, not football, is the true example of what a sport is all about.

"I've been coaching football now for a long time," Weis said. "Football is a job. Baseball is America's game. That's what it is. It's a game where parents can take their kids to a game and buy a couple of hot dogs and some popcorn and watch the players play and spend some quality time with your family while a game goes by. And you want to know something? There is not a greater feeling in life than that. That's what it is all about."

Weis talked in length about the camaraderie of baseball and how special the moments between team members can be. He told a story of when he was a senior in high school, a number of players quit the baseball squad frustrated because of playing time. The head coach told Weis and his remaining teammates that they could either go ahead with the 10 players left, bring some guys up from junior varsity or call back some of the people that were cut. Weis and the others chose to forge ahead with what was left and it paid off. They finished runners-up in the state tournament.

One of the lighter moments of the night came when Mainieri was joking about Weis's roots in New Jersey. Mainieri said it was a good thing that Weis got out of the state before it was too late. As usual, Weis was more than prepared with an ample comeback for the baseball head coach.

"Isn't it funny that he's making fun of Jersey and his name ends in a vowel?" Weis jokingly asked.

This was Mainieri's show. It was the big kickoff before the baseball season begins on February 23rd against Indiana State in Millington, Tennessee. This year's squad is loaded with talented, experienced players and has led to the team being ranked 21st in the pre-season poll. Notre Dame has won the Big East Tournament the past four seasons and number five and a trip to the NCAA's could be in their sights.

"They have great potential and high expectations for this upcoming season," Mainieri said of his team. "We've got not only a great group but an experienced group. We got two seniors and a junior in our pitching rotation. We've got a lot of guys in the bullpen who have been through the battles. We're going to have a good pitching staff. Our everyday lineup is filled with veteran players. We could start as many as six seniors. That's an experienced baseball team and you don't see that too often in college baseball." Top Stories