The number of Los Angeles Dodgers jerseys, jackets and hats seemed to vastly outnumber the Cal State Bakersfield gear. And if it wasn’t already apparent who the star of the show would be at the fifth annual CSUB Baseball Hot Stove Dinner on Saturday, it was clear the moment he was announced.
“Here we go,” said one of the three special guests, New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks.
The crowd of approximately 750 people erupted into cheers before emcee Vance Palm could even finish Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger’s name. Bellinger, the National League Rookie of the Year, was the featured guest at the hot stove dinner held in Building 2 at the Kern County Fairgrounds. Joining Bellinger was Hicks and New York Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud. The about four-hour long event raised money for CSUB’s baseball program.
“These are three of the hottest young baseball guys coming up through the ranks,” CSUB head coach Jeremy Beard said. “To have them right here, right now is pretty special.”
As part of the evening, the three MLB players participated in a question and answer session with questions submitted by the audience. Naturally, most of the questions were aimed at Bellinger.
The 22-year-old spoke about the hardest pitcher he faced (Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals), his most embarrassing moment (walking through downtown Chicago in tight shorts and a tank top) and the number of home runs he’ll hit next season (hopefully more than 39).
One question — how many girls are hitting on you — left Bellinger speechless. He noted later that he’s not a great public speaker.
Bellinger broke the National League rookie record with 39 home runs last season as the Dodgers lost the World Series in seven games to the Houston Astros. The first baseman hit .267 in his first major league season with 97 runs batted in in 132 games.
Before the dinner began, Bellinger, d’Arnaud and Hicks met with the CSUB team privately for a few minutes. The college players asked the professionals about playing in the World Series and what the playoff experience is like.
“All three of those guys, they're great dudes,” CSUB senior outfielder Christian Deaton said. “A lot of times we kind of look up to the players, but being able to talk to them in person and know them on a personal level, it makes us appreciate them that much more. Just knowing that they’re basically just how we are. Same people just playing baseball.”
Hearing about the professional playoff experience is extra motivation to put in the work to get to the next level, Deaton added.
Bellinger didn’t get a chance to give the Roadrunners any advice but said it would have been that “it only takes one person to like you. If there’s 30 teams that hate you, there’s one other team that could love you and that’s what happened in my case. The Dodgers were the only team that thought I was worth it out of high school.”
For the first time in the history of the hot stove dinners, the guest speakers participated in the auctions. Originally initiated by Hicks, the trio of MLB players each pledged $1,000 to the CSUB program.
One person in the audience pledged a $10,000 gift and three — including Beard — promised $5,000.
“They have a good thing going here,” Bellinger said.
Beard spent several minutes going through a slideshow of pristine college baseball facilities, including at Grand Canyon, Long Beach State and Cal State Northridge. He ended it with photos of ripped netting at the CSUB field and outdoor, sub-par batting cage.
The professional players offered their takes on the situation they were in Bakersfield to help resolve.
“To be here and support these guys and give them the best facilities possible, that’s what we’re all here for,” d’Arnaud said.
“These guys came to college to become better baseball players, to become educated men and to make the world a better place,” Hicks said. “... To become a better baseball player you need to have access to stuff to make you better and get you to your dream.”
“Having nice facilities, semi-decent facilities helps a lot,” Bellinger said. “It helps you stay focused. It keeps you motivated to get better and to keep moving up to get to nicer facilities and nicer stadiums.”