Joe Nathan, the All-Star relief pitcher and only Stony Brook Seawolf to play in the major leagues, says his alma mater’s sudden baseball success has taken at least a dozen years.
“It’s not a shock to me where they are,” said Nathan, the Texas Rangers closer who says he started college as a light-hitting shortstop. “If you look at what they’ve done not just this year, but over the years, they’ve been pretty good.”
Stony Brook University, the 16,000 undergraduate-student school 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of New York on Long Island, is among the eight teams in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s College World Series. It’s the first appearance in the final round for the school, which only started playing Division I baseball in 2000.
The Seawolves now play their home games at Joe Nathan Field, built as part of a $500,000 donation the pitcher made four years ago.
“I wouldn’t have made it to pro ball without that school, so it was a no-brainer for me,” Nathan, 37, said before the Rangers played the Arizona Diamondbacks two nights ago in Arlington, Texas. He keeps a framed picture of the field next to his locker. “The place gave me a chance to mature both physically and mentally and become a better baseball player. It was a perfect fit for me.”
Winners of 28 of their last 31 games, including upsets over four lower-seeded teams this month, the Seawolves open play in the College World Series today against UCLA.
They are the lowest-seeded team playing in the double-elimination tournament in Omaha, Nebraska, which culminates in a best-of-three championship series starting June 24. Stony Brook is the first team from the Northeast U.S. to qualify since the NCAA abandoned geographic regionals in 1987.
“The people in the South haven’t heard much about Stony Brook, but they know who they are now,” Louisiana State University coach Paul Mainieri said last week after the Tigers were eliminated by the Seawolves. “They gained an awful lot of respect, not only down here but nationwide. That team can play with anybody.”
The Seawolves advanced from the opening round with wins over the University of Miami, the University of Central Florida and Missouri State University. All three of those were in the NCAA’s top 35; Stony Brook was No. 86.
The team dropped the first game of a best-of-three series to LSU, a six-time College World Series champion, then rallied to earn a spot on the final stage. Throughout the run, players held up an “O” with their hands, symbolic of their quest to reach Omaha.
“We are very tough-minded group, a gutsy group,” Coach Matt Senk said during the LSU series. “They love playing the game, they love playing together and they just keep on playing to keep on playing.”
The team’s run has caught the eye of alumni well beyond Long Island. Richard Gelfond, the chief executive of IMAX Corp. and a 1976 Stony Brook graduate, said today in an e-mail that he is at a business summit in Mexico “proudly wearing” a Seawolves T-shirt.
“I believe the awareness and success of the Stony Brook baseball program will lead to increased engagement, pride and giving by all alums, regardless of economic status,” said Gelfond, who donated $1 million to the school for mercury research in 2010.
Since being drafted in the sixth round by the San Francisco Giants in 1995, Nathan has been a four-time All-Star and had six consecutive seasons of more than 35 saves as a member of the Minnesota Twins from 2004 to 2009. This year, he has a 1.75 earned-run average and 13 saves for the defending American League-champion Rangers. He is in the first year of a two-year $14.5 million contract with the Rangers.
He returned to school and graduated with a degree in business management in 1997. He is the only former Stony Brook player to reach the major leagues, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Stony Brook was a Division III school when Nathan played there, and he said it had a basis for a successful program then.
“They really haven’t skipped a beat since they moved to D-1,” he said. The Seawolves haven’t had a losing season since 2006.
The school was founded in 1957 and is part of the State University of New York system. It charges $5,270 tuition per year for New York residents and $14,720 for out-of-state students.
The team landed in Omaha two days ago, sent off by students and fans waving signs and banners that said, “Shock the World,” the team’s adopted motto that became popular on the social media site Twitter.
Nathan was inducted into the athletic program’s Hall of Fame with the Class of 2006, the same year he was awarded the University Medal, the school’s highest honor.
He said he might be able to make it to Omaha next week to watch Stony Brook play, if the Seawolves haven’t been eliminated by then.
“It’s just been a fun ride following them,” Nathan said. “I felt like a little kid watching them as a fan.”