PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Point Park University baseball players and coaches were made to feel like big leaguers at the 2012 Avista-NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho, May 25-June 1, 2012.
Indeed, as senior third baseman Lee Bodnar told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the World Series experience was unlike any other for a college baseball player. Another moment that will not soon be forgotten by the Pioneers (53-11), who finished fifth in the World Series with a school-record 53 wins, occurred once the team arrived back in Downtown Pittsburgh.
The Pioneers got some well-deserved recognition in their home city when on June 24, 2012 they were honored at PNC Park - home of the Pittsburgh Pirates - in an on-field recognition ceremony. A sell-out crowd was on hand that day to see the Pirates take on the Detroit Tigers. The assembled fans - which included nearly 250 Point Park fans, alumni, parents and friends - saw the Pioneers be recognized just before game time.
"This whole year is a dream come true," said Bodnar, a three-year starter and the Pioneers' No. 3 hitter in the lineup. "To make it back to the World Series for the first time since 1998 and to be honored at PNC Park in front of a sell-out crowd was unbelievable. As a college baseball player, we got to do things that most people will never get to do in their lives, and we got to do it as a team."
The on-field recognition featured the Point Park players and coaches being introduced by in-game media host Joe Klimchak, who read the team's accomplishments. The Pioneers wore their official Avista-NAIA World Series T-Shirts and were shown with video and school logo on the JumboTron. The Pioneers were invited to the recognition by Pirates president Frank Coonelly, who was on the field to welcome the team. The pre-game recognition concluded with Point Park head coach Loren Torres throwing out a first pitch to the Pirates' mascot - the Pirate Parrott.
Another special aspect of the event was Point Park baseball alum and current utility man for the Tigers Don Kelly joining in on the ceremony. Kelly took time out of his pre-game preparation to be on the field with the Pioneers. He was an NAIA First-Team All-American shortstop at Point Park in 2001, his last of three years playing for the Pioneers. He was chosen in the eighth round of the 2001 MLB draft by the Tigers.
Kelly was unfortunately unable to play in the June 24 game and was kept out of the entire series with a knee bruise that had him day to day. He was injured when he banged his knee off a right-field railing while making a catch in foul territory. He still holds the Point Park hitting record with a .413 career average.
After being invited to the recognition by Pirates' president Frank Coonelly, the Pioneers were thrilled to be a part of the special honor in their home city. Point Park's campus is located right in the heart of Downtown Pittsburgh, and it's just a 10-minute walk to PNC Park across the Roberto Clemente Bridge. In what is perhaps the best ball park view in the majors, the part of the skyline where Point Park is located can be seen in the background of the right field stands.
"To be recognized by an Major League team is a high honor," said Torres, who is in his third year as Pioneers' head coach. "It was a special moment for me personally and I am glad that our program made the city of Pittsburgh proud and represented the state of Pennsylvania commendably. I would like to thank the Pirates and president Frank Coonelly for inviting us for this great recognition.
Of the 24 players on the Point Park roster, 10 were on hand for the ceremony at PNC Park. The Pioneers have 10 players from Pennsylvania, and many of the out-of-state players were unable to be there. In all, Point Park had eight players from Florida, three from Illinois and one each from Ohio, Virginia, Arizona and Canada.
The exposure gained that day at PNC Park, and for making the NAIA World Series as a whole, helped to spread the awareness of the NAIA in a part of the country where the national affiliation is not too prevalent. Point Park is one of only two NAIA schools in Pennsylvania. The other is Carlow, which is located just a few miles from Point Park.
"The NAIA is great level of play, and we've been NAIA our entire 45-year history of competing versus four-year schools," said Point Park Director of Athletics Dan Swalga. "The NAIA has so much to offer for small college athletics, especially with the well-run championships such as the NAIA World Series. We are glad to be affiliated with the NAIA, and we look forward to a strong future of the association."
As far as college baseball is concerned, Bodnar puts the NAIA product and especially the NAIA World Series up against any there is.
"As a college World Series, there is nothing like the NAIA's," said Bodnar, who experience some losing seasons his freshman and sophomore years before breaking through his last two years. "The competition was great. All 10 teams there had a chance to win the title. I would put NAIA baseball right below Division I in terms of quality of play, especially at the postseason level.
All in all, the 2012 season had enough memorable moments to last a lifetime for the Pioneers. The June 24 recognition at PNC Park was a great way to cap it off. And for some, maybe it won't be the last time they are on a Major League diamond. After all, the Point Park players have the example on Don Kelly making it from NAIA All-American to established big leaguer.
"Maybe some of us will get the chance one day to make the Major Leagues," said Bodnar. "Everybody has aspirations of that. Either way, it was great to go down on the field at PNC Park, and seeing Don Kelly there made it even more special. That meant something to us all because he was in our shoes not too long ago, and now he's in the majors. Maybe one day it could be you if you get the chance."
Point Park's baseball tradition is one of the richest in the NAIA. The Pioneers have been to the NAIA World Series 11 times, which is tied for fourth all-time. Point Park had been to the World Series 10 times in the 25 years from 1974-98, and is 2012 appearance snapped a 14-year drought. The Pioneers' all-time won-loss record is 1,158-628-9 (.648).