Former Wildcats head to spring training

    Yankees manager Joe Girardi. Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr, licensed by Creative Commons

    It hardly seems fair that as we barrel headlong through the doldrums of midterms and brutal winter weather, the sports fans among us begin to be bombarded with plenty of lust-inducing pictures of the American pastime from sunny Florida and Arizona. While spring training is a time for optimism amongst baseball fans, for those without allegiance it is far more likely to induce only envy. Fortunately, we are here with an antidote: a round-up of Northwestern alums throughout the baseball world to give you someone to cheer for and forget just how cold your toes really are while walking up to Tech.

    Joe Girardi (McCormick ’86) | Manager, New York Yankees

    Who would have thought that Northwestern’s most successful graduate in professional sports would be a baseball player? It’s hard to dispute Joe Girardi’s supremacy in the world of former Wildcats: his 15-year catching career included three World Series rings before rapidly transitioning into a managerial role where he quickly thrived, winning the NL Manager of the Year award with the Florida Marlins just three years after his retirement from playing. In 2008, a year after being fired in Florida, Girardi replaced Joe Torre as the Yankees’ manager; he would go on to lead them to their 27th World Series championship in his second season.

    Had Girardi not made it in the big leagues, odds are he would not be at a loss for employment. While at Northwestern, Girardi was an industrial engineering major — not exactly a free ride. Northwestern not only gave him a degree, the beginnings of a superlative baseball career and a connection to Chicago (he would be drafted by the Cubs), but also something more lasting: his wife, Kim, another Wildcat.

    J.A. Happ (WCAS) | Starting Pitcher, Houston Astros

    J.A. Happ left Northwestern early, and at times he seemed cursed for spurning the call of a senior season. It took a few years for Happ to build on his tremendous talent as a left-handed pitcher, fighting injuries, an inconsistent role on the team, and a competitive major league roster. After years trying to stick in the Philadelphia Phillies starting rotation, Happ was unceremoniously traded last season to the Houston Astros as the centerpiece of the Roy Oswalt deal. Entering his first full season with the Astros, Happ’s place in the major leagues is finally secure; what remains unclear, is how much better he can really get.

    While his major league legacy remains unwritten, Happ might very well be the best pitcher in Northwestern history. He is the only pitcher to be named first-team All-Big Ten three straight years in school history, and would very likely have expanded that record to 4 years had he not left after being drafted in 2004. In his junior season he lead the Big Ten in ERA with a 2.68 mark, all but ensuring he left his budding career in the history department.

    Mark Loretta (SESP ’93) | Front office, San Diego Padres

    Northwestern’s first ever first-team All-American player in 2003, Mark Loretta went on to carve out a solid career for himself in the majors before retiring in early 2010. In 15 seasons as an infielder, Loretta compiled a solid .295 career batting average with 768 RBIs before hanging up his cleats. Now, he’s back on the bottom of the totem pole, attempting to work his way up through the San Diego front office.

    In climbing the ladder Loretta might be wise to remember his days in Evanston, whether he was a brother at Fiji. Ultimately, with the San Diego staff filled with former players like Brad Ausmus and former executives like Josh Byrnes, Loretta will have to channel his pledge days if he wants to make it all the way up the ladder to GM.

    Eric Jokisch, LHP (WCAS) and Chad Noble, catcher (WCAS ’10) | Chicago Cubs

    The most recent departures from Evanston, pitcher Eric Jokisch and catcher Chad Noble, were drafted last summer by Chicago and were eventually signed by the Cubs before beginning the arduous climb toward the major leagues.

    Jokisch, a former psychology major and stand-out pitcher on last year’s team, chose to leave Northwestern early after being drafted in the 11th round of the amateur draft. He played for both the Arizona League Cubs and the Boise Hawks, sporting a 6.98 ERA in 15 outings (seven starting, eight in relief).

    Noble, who graduated last June after playing four years of catcher for the Wildcats, was also drafted by the Cubs in the 37th round. He and Jokisch were treated similarly, as he spent most of the season with Arizona with a short stint in Boise. The former economics major had a similarly rough welcome to professional baseball, hitting .223 over his first 31 games, although he did notch a respectable 18 RBIs during that span.

    For both Noble and Jokisch the majors are a distant goal, but the pursuit begins like every other baseball dream: in the spring, on a practice field, with mindless repetition.

    Jon Heyman (Medill ’83) | Reporter, Sports Illustrated

    It wouldn’t be a round-up of Northwestern alums without a journalist, would it? Jon Heyman is one of the biggest names in the world of baseball writing, serving as one of SI’s point men for Major League Baseball as well as one of sports television’s leading baseball pundits. While for many ballplayers spring training is drudgery, mindless workouts and meaningless games, for journalists, it’s simply an excuse to migrate to warmer climates for batting practice. Direct your anger thusly.

    Editor’s note: The spelling of Eric Jokisch’s name has been corrected from “Erik.” Thanks to commenter anon for pointing out the error.


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