When John Rizzo (junior) of Claremont-Mudd-Scripts (CMS) visited Occidental’s Anderson Field over the weekend, he discovered that the tension and rivalry normally found during Sunday afternoon Tiger baseball games was strangely toned down for a gathering of SCIAC competitors.
The event was the inaugural SCIAC Home Run Derby, designed to raise funds for cancer research via local cancer research and treatment facility City of Hope. Separate from the ongoing varsity baseball season, the derby united the players for a cause beyond the realm of the playing field.
The ties to a charitable cause created a bittersweet moment when Rizzo was later crowned the first winner of the derby.
“My mom passed away of cancer a couple years ago, so it’s really nice to come out here,” Rizzo said. “She always used to watch me play baseball, and winning this; it’s kind of for her.
Seven of the nine SCIAC members — Occidental, Whittier, Redlands, La Verne, Cal Lutheran, Pomona-Pitzer and CMS — entered one participant in the event. In typical derby fashion, each batter had 10 outs to hit as many home runs as possible, eliminating the hitter with the lowest total after each round.
Sophomore Atherton Kniseley of Cal Lutheran, the son of Occidental baseball hall of famer Mike Kniseley ‘90, dominated the first round by hitting six home runs. Rizzo, in contrast, had to break a three-way tie with Max Hardman (senior) of Redlands and Jake Bruml (junior) of Pomona-Pitzer to advance out of the first round.
Rizzo found his swing in the second round with a round-high five home runs, even hitting a ball that reached the roof of the baseball club house over 400 feet away.
The win did not come easily, as he faced off with Julian Barzilli (senior) of Whittier who currently leads the nation and the SCIAC with 14 home runs on the season in the final round.
Despite Barzilli’s track record, he was only able to muster a single long ball in the finals, as Rizzo easily took the victory at two in walk-off fashion after recording only three outs.
In addition to Rizzo’s win, the event’s personal connections with its charitable cause also extended to Jaylon Fong, 13, who threw out the first pitch. Fong is a leukemia survivor who attended the baseball camp held over the summer at Occidental.
“It was a lot of fun watching how much power these guys have,” Fong said.
The So Cal Youth Baseball outfielder and pitcher got to know Tiger baseball head coach Luke Wetmore through the camp, which eventually inspired the derby.
“Primarily it was about City of Hope and promoting their organization and the good research that they’re doing for cancer,” Wetmore said. “And then secondly, the ability to bring a bunch of guys together that have a common interest in having such an exciting event was something to see.”
Occidental slugger Chris Caldwell (senior), who is known for putting his power on display in batting practice, was knocked out of the first round after failing to leave the yard.
“I was pretty nervous before this,” Caldwell said. “I wish I could have done a little bit better, but life goes on. It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
The Tigers return to SCIAC play on Friday, hosting La Verne at 3 p.m. before going on the road to face the Leopards on Saturday for a doubleheader at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.