Gophers set to play in final alumni game

Mark Heise

Saturday marks the end of an era for Minnesota baseball.

At 3:05 p.m. on Saturday, the Gophers start their preseason game against the alumni for the last time within the friendly confines of the Metrodome, 16 years after the annual event began.

Senior outfielder Mike Mee had nothing but good things to say about the alumni game.

“It’s always been a fun time to have the alumni come back and see guys that have been in our shoes and have moved on to higher levels,” he said. “And at the same time, it’s a chance to get some work in to prepare for the season.”

It’s an opportunity that will be missed next year, as NCAA rule changes will move back the starting dates for the season in an attempt to even the playing field among northern and southern schools.

“We got something pushed at us that I’m not sure anyone wanted,” assistant coach Rob Fornasiere said. “But that’s what we ended up with because we couldn’t get an agreement among ourselves as a coaching group.”

The rule change came after a push from the cold-weather teams due to the colleges in warmer climates starting their seasons a full two weeks earlier than the northern schools.

As a result, the start of the season has been pushed back for next year, meaning that playing the alumni game would now be an NCAA rules violation.

“If we were going to lose an event like this, I would have hoped for a more dramatic change,” Fornasiere said. “But we didn’t get that. We don’t really have any more access to the NCAA Tournament, it hasn’t changed the (ratings percentage index) system and it doesn’t allow us to play more home games. It really hasn’t changed much in the North.”

When the game began 16 years ago, former Major League players Paul Molitor and Terry Steinbach – active at the time – headed up the alumni team.

Now, the list includes Robb Quinlan, Luke Appert and Dan Wilson, with the manager fittingly being Molitor, still active in the program.

And while not every former graduate is still able to play the game, players like Kerry Ligtenberg and Jim Brower still partake in the fun, along with Molitor.

“Paul’s been at every one of these games since we’ve started, and that’s a commitment that we really appreciate from him,” Fornasiere said. “We started it to connect the generations of Gopher baseball and celebrate our history, and I think the fact that we’ve done it for 16 years is a reflection of how the alumni feel about the program.”

But even with the loss of a tradition looming in the near future, the current Minnesota team can still find time to enjoy the moment.

“We’re going to try to get some stuff done while we’re out here, but that’s not the focus,” senior middle infielder Dan Lyons said. “The focus is to bring the pros back and have a good time, and we’re going to go out there and try to have some fun.”