Jan. 31, 2011
By MARK PATTON, NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
Mike Zuanich launched seven baseballs high into the Saturday afternoon sky, giving the sign that his budding career may soon follow.
The big first baseman-outfielder won the Home Run Derby at UCSB's Baseball Fanfest, a reunion at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium which drew four alumni with Major League experience.
But the only big leaguer to challenge Zuanich, a Class A slugger in the Colorado Rockies' organization, was Virgil Vasquez.
"I couldn't let a pitcher beat me," Zuanich said after defeating the Los Angeles Angels' righthander, 7-4. "Couldn't let that happen."
Outfielders Ryan Spilborghs of the Colorado Rockies and Skip Schumaker of the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as infielder Chris Valaika of the Cincinnati Reds, opted to just sign autographs and mix with the fans.
"No, no, I'm here to watch and chirp and make fun," said Valaika, who was called up to the Reds in August of last summer. "It's a great event, and the turnout has been awesome here.
"The dinner last night, and this. Look at how many alumni come back. I can remember when we had this many guys when I was young and playing here. It's a great thing they're doing here."
A big draw was the 10-year reunion of UCSB's 2001 NCAA Tournament team, which featured such stars as Spilborghs, Schumaker and Vasquez. Spilborghs noticed all the younger minor leaguers who were also in attendance.
"It shows that there's a lot of good recruiting, there's a lot of good baseball being played here," he said. "With the coaches we have, guys are getting better when they're here.
"This is a jump for a lot of guys from college to the next level and I probably wouldn't be where I'm at if it weren't for being at UC Santa Barbara. It says a lot about our coaching staff here and a lot about Santa Barbara and UCSB."
Spilborghs, who is also a Santa Barbara High graduate, bought a home in Santa Barbara last year and spent the offseason training at UCSB.
"Bronts and Myro and Jason have been very kind just letting me get my workouts in," he said, referring to coaches Bob Brontsema, Tom Myers and Jason Lefkowitz. "But it's nice to see all my old Gaucho buddies.
"There are a lot of pro guys, as you can see, more than people realize. This is a really, really good baseball program."
Zuanich, 24, is hoping to soon join Spilborghs in Denver. He had a big season last year at Single-A, batting .333 in 68 games in Asheville of the South Atlantic League and Modesto of the California League.
"My power numbers were down last year, so I know going into the season that I need to put up better ones," Zuanich said. "I've just been trying to work on my swing, put more lift on the ball."
He hit only four home runs in 266 at bats last year after belting 14 in 233 at bats during the 2009 season.
Zuanich showed plenty of pop with several of Saturday's swings, one of which sailed over the scoreboard in left field and bounced off the roof of the Parking Services building.
"It's different being out here," Zuanich conceded. "I'm still a month away, so I'm still trying to work things out -- just iron everything out to get ready for the season.
"I look forward to this every year. It's the first one for me where we've actually had sun. It's awesome to be out here and see all the guys and enjoy Santa Barbara."
Spilborghs was clearly enjoying seeing his former UCSB teammates.
"It's like a homecoming," he said. "A lot of the people are friends and family, and wives and girlfriends of a lot of players who are here. It's just a comforting thing being back in Santa Barbara. It's 72 degrees and -- what? -- Jan. 29? You can't complain about anything."