In baseball circles, the ring already has become legendary.
After years of multiple national championships in many sports, UCLA won its first College World Series in 2013, and celebrated with appropriate bling.
So how large is it? Just say wearing it makes it impossible to grip a baseball properly.
“My ring is back home, safe and sound,” said Modesto shortstop Pat Valaika, a key member of the Bruins’ championship squad and ninth-round pick of Colorado in the 2013 draft. “It’s a big ring so I can’t carry it around too much, but it does get me into a lot of UCLA events.”
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As college teams this week continue their quests to reach Omaha, Valaika, 21, is one of two Modesto players who have won College World Series titles. First baseman Jordan Ribera was a freshman on Fresno State’s 2008 championship team.
It’s an experience that can go well beyond just being the best thing ever for players whose baseball careers stop short of the major leagues.
“There are 25,000 fans there, and most of them are rooting against you,” Valaika said. “We had a sports psychologist with us, and he helped us to deal with that. You have to breathe and take it all in one moment at a time and not get caught up in how big the moment is.”
So that’s a major-league skill – being able to relax in extreme pressure situations – nearly impossible to develop with the actual experience. And in the mind of Nuts manager Don Sneddon, it translates to on-field maturity, a special trait in a player like Valaika, who is hitting .320 since joining Modesto from low-A Asheville on May 19.
“He’s a mature player, and that’s why he’s moved as quickly as he has to this level,” Sneddon said. “He stepped in and felt right at home. He’s not overmatched, and he’s not in awe of this type of competition. There will be adjustments made as he moves, and he’ll make them.”
There also will be adjustments affecting Valaika on the Modesto roster, and soon. When Trevor Story comes off the disabled list (hairline fracture of a little finger), probably during the seven-game homestand that opens tonight, the Nuts – between Valaika, Story and Rosell Herrera – will have three natural shortstops on the team.
“If I had my way, I’d have eight shortstops because they’re usually good athletes,” Sneddon said. “There will be some issues, but they’re all good players. You deal with it, and you never know who is going to go up or the other direction. We want to get Story back in the lineup, and then we’ll work out the rest.”
For Valaika’s part, he said if a move is in the offing he’d probably be more comfortable at second base than third, but his real desire is simply to stay in the lineup.
“We all play short, but we also all can play second and third,” he said. “Who knows what it’s going to be, but it will all work out.”
He can only hope it works out as well as it did in Westwood, where the Valencia native got a sense of the Central Valley well before being shipped to Modesto. His college roommate for three seasons was Oakdale High School graduate Nick VanderTuig, and his road roomie was UCLA’s starting third baseman, Kevin Kramer of Turlock.
Valaika claims no responsibility, but Kramer (labrum) and VanderTuig (oblique strain) have been injured this season.
Kramer sat out what would have been his junior season and has been granted a redshirt but could go in the major-league draft that begins Thursday. VanderTuig went to San Francisco in the sixth round of last year’s draft and is with low-A Augusta (Ga.).
“Kevin’s a great dude, and I love him to death,” Valaika said. “I’m thinking that maybe he’ll get drafted this year, but if not he can go back next season – whatever works out best for him. He just needs to get healthy and he’ll be fine.
“I just saw Nick in Augusta, and he’s another guy who just needs to get healthy.”
Such is life in baseball. The odds are against Valaika, VanderTuig and Kramer ever being teammates again, but they’ll always be baseball brothers, bound by their Bruins experiences and a massive ring.
“The College World Series was amazing – one of the best moments of my life,” Valaika said. “It was my second time there, since I went as a sophomore. We knew what the atmosphere was like, so that prepared us for winning the whole thing. It was a great time.”