One of the themes the program stressed at this year's dinner was the tradition that is embedded within the program. To that end, Irish head coach Dave Schrage wanted to implement some new customs at the seventh-annual dinner.
Schrage felt that it was necessary to include the Irish softball team into the event, resulting in their addition to the opening autograph session as well as the player introductions with the hopes of giving the squad some deserved recognition and publicity.
During the player introductions, there were both fresh faces, as well as some familiar ones. The excitement was visible on the faces of the incoming freshman class, largely considered a top five class among baseball recruiting experts. In addition, football players Golden Tate, Eric Maust and Evan Sharpley were all introduced during the reception, and look to make contributions on the diamond this season.
Trying to emulate a ballpark atmosphere, The Opening Night Dinner featured food served in baseball stadiums around the nation, ranging from hot dogs, to nachos with cheese, even going as far as having vendors passing the tables with boxes of pop corn and Cracker Jacks much like the vendors in baseball stadiums.
The ceremony also proved to be an excellent opportunity to honor the late great Frank Eck, who so graciously donated so much to the athletic department of Notre Dame. Coach Schrage informed the audience that this season, the Irish will wear gold helmets etched with the emblem "Eck 44" on the back to honor the Notre Dame great.
Another announcement Schrage made at the dinner was that the Fighting Irish nine will play the South Bend Silver Hawks in an exhibition game before the start of the season. The game will honor Jody Schrage, coach Schrage's wife, who passed away after her battle with cancer in 2007.
When coach Schrage did have an opportunity to talk about the upcoming season, there was the sound of promise in his voice, as well as the desire to prove many around the nation wrong. "I will tell you that we learned a lot from last season," Schrage said. "But we also gained a lot last season. We played a lot of young players who gained a tremendous amount of confidence. We have a lot of veteran players coming back this year that were hurt that are healthy this year, and that's exciting. It's going to be an exciting year, I can tell you that."
The first of the guest speakers was two-year captain and three-year starting shortstop for the Irish from 2003-2006, George Lopez. The Notre Dame standout reminisced about his time as a student athlete at the university, and all the lessons that he learned and took with him for the future. Lopez recounted some of his funnier stories as well as some of the more emotional tales of his experience as a leader on his team, stressing the impact his teammates had on his development on the field, in the classroom and in life.
The final guest speaker was Major League Baseball's commissioner, Bud Selig. Amidst controversy regarding the use of performance enhancing drugs, Selig took time out of his schedule to address the audience regarding the growth and expansion of baseball, offering a glimpse into the economics of the game and the transformations the sport is undergoing in America.
Although the commissioner admitted that Notre Dame is well known for its prestige on the gridiron, he acknowledged that the electricity around the Irish baseball program was palpable.
"Notre Dame is obviously one of America's most renown and enduring institutions," Selig said. "It resonates in history, particularly with football. Today most people still think football when they think Notre Dame, but being here tonight, I'm personally thinking baseball, about the start of a new season. One of the most enduring features about our great game is the sense of renewal, and how that renewal begins in the Spring, and brings with it hope that the coming season will be one in which great things will happen on the baseball diamond."
If its up to coach Schrage and the rest of the Irish, this sense of renewal could signal a chain of victories that could be the start to a promising season that begins February 22 against Liberty at the Clearwater Invitational in Clearwater, Fla.
Opening Night Dinner
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