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The Miracle on Morningside

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Ivy@50: Baseball Champs, 1976 [from 10/20/2006]

Courtesy of Jonathan Tayler ('09), Columbia College Today
Photo credit: CCT

Kurt Peters (’78) couldn’t believe it. For the first time in a long time, Peters and the Columbia baseball team were on the right side of the ledger against Harvard, and it wasn’t close, either. The first game of the Saturday doubleheader had seen 19 batters cross the plate for the Light Blue. Game 2 was well on its way to being a rout as well. But Peters, the Lions’ starting third baseman, was still hearing it from the Harvard dugout.

“I had to listen to it the whole time,” Peters says. “We’re kicking the [stuffing] out of them, and they’re ragging on us.”

So when Peters came up to bat, he decided to show up the jeering Crimson squad. Peters tried to bunt for a base hit, a violation of baseball etiquette when your team is comfortably in front. His attempt rolled foul, and when Peters returned to the Columbia dugout, head coach Dick Sakala began to reprimand his third baseman. Sakala didn’t get far, however, before the towering figure of first baseman Bob Kimutis ’76 intervened.

“Bob was a big, burly guy with a handlebar mustache, and he used to chew tobacco,” Peters recalls. “He comes over and steps in between me and coach Sakala, and he looks at Sakala and he says, ‘When you got ’em down …’ and he spits this big wad of chew near Sakala’s foot, ‘you stomp on ’em.’ ”

“In my mind,” Peters says, “that set the tone for the attitude of the team.”

Sakala’s 1976 Columbia team began the year with nowhere to go but up. The Lions had finished the 1975 Ivy League/Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League season — the EIBL consisted of the eight Ivies plus Army and Navy — with a league-worst record of 3–10–1 and an overall mark of 7–16–1. Although most players expected better, a championship was not a realistic goal.

“Going into my senior year,” says outfielder Charlie Manzione ’76E, “I think we were all hoping for an improvement, maybe .500 level or better.”

“I think we knew that we should be better,” echoes Harry Bauld ’77, who had started every game at shortstop for Columbia in 1975. “We seemed to have some talent there in ’75, but it was young and unseasoned. We didn’t know what to expect."

The team boasted a diverse roster in terms of experience. Kimutis and catcher Jim Bruno ’76 provided the senior leadership. Bauld, second baseman Eddie Backus ’77 and designated hitter Rob Murphy ’77 had come up together from the freshman team to the varsity. Peters and centerfielder Mike Wilhite ’78, ’07 Arch., were sophomores, joining the varsity team for the first time. But arguably the biggest addition to the team was a player who had never stepped foot on a collegiate baseball diamond before his first practice in fall 1975.

By the time Rolando Acosta ’79, ’82L came to Columbia, he already was more accomplished than most 18-year-olds could ever hope to be. A standout at DeWitt Clinton H.S. in the Bronx, Acosta had not lost a game as a starting pitcher in almost two years. While in high school, he was twice named All-City while leading his team to a city championship in 1975, pitching the deciding game at Shea Stadium.

“I was a cocky kid with very little experience losing on the baseball field,” Acosta recalls. “I don’t know whether I could be humbled in those days.”

After his phenomenal 1975 season, Acosta was recruited by several prominent baseball schools. But he wasn’t interested in being just a pitcher. The teenager from the Dominican Republic, who had come to the United States just four years earlier, wanted an education as well. It became a choice between Ivy League schools, and given Columbia’s reputation and location and the presence of a highly regarded coach in Sakala, it was an easy choice.

When Acosta arrived at Columbia, it didn’t take long for the brash young hurler to make himself known on the team.

“He had … today they call it swagger, back then we called it cockiness,” Kimutis says.

For the continuing and complete story, head to the online version of the Columbia College Today.