On a warm Sunday afternoon last week, the SDSU Aztec baseball program hosted its 12th annual Halloween Game at Tony Gwynn Stadium.
The program partnered with the Down Syndrome Association of San Diego (DSA) and Noah Homes to bring the day’s activities. Head coach Martinez and the program have been associated with DSA for the past seven years.
The kids that showed up to the Challenger Games held before the Halloween contest were full of joy and excitement to be on the same field as the Aztecs. Receiving help from the players and the coaching staff was a heartwarming introduction to the day.
“It’s kind of a part of our culture here, it’s a great way to come together as a group,” SDSU head coach Mark Martinez said when asked what events like this mean for the program. “Get a little bit of community involvement and not take ourselves too seriously […] our guys work their tails off in the classroom, weight room, and practice; this is an opportunity for us to take a day and have some fun.”
Kids were smiling and laughing through all the adrenaline from hitting and running around the bases. Some of these kids activated their inner Ha-Seong Kim and Manny Machado here with a few bases stolen during the Challenger Games.
“It was awesome,” said junior infielder Caden Miller (who dressed as Top Gun Maverick). “Getting these kids out here and seeing smiles on their faces, it really means a lot to us and this program. I hope these kids had fun, and hopefully, we can do this again next year!”
The 5-inning game that followed was just as fun. Pitchers played the field, and position players pitched. With the pitchers at the start of the lineup, the game got off to a slow start, although a few got on base. The RBIs started coming in the second inning as hitters like Irvin Weems (Michael Jackson), Tino Bethancourt (Yellow Power Ranger), and Poncho Ruiz (Red Power Ranger) started bringing runners home. Brady Lavoie (Prisoner) and TJ Fondtain (also Top Gun’s Maverick) hit back-to-back home runs off of Tino Bethancourt (the Blue Teletubbies).
Through four and a half innings, the Black team maintained an 8-7 lead. “They can walk it off here,” Coach Martinez said in the Red Team’s dugout.
Eldridge Armstrong III (dressed as a cop) hit an infield double to bring up Junior RHP Jonny Guzman (who was dressed as Sonic). Guzman, fulfilling his coach’s prediction, hit a two-run, walk-off bomb to left field. Final score: 9-8.
Guzman shared his thoughts after his game-winning homer, “It felt fantastic, just to go out there knowing we were down, and I got to put on a show tonight for the boys.”
During his time as an assistant and now head coach, Martinez shared some of his favorite memories from the annual event that has become a tradition. The Jamaican Bobsled team is the one memory that will forever be remembered from getting numerous shares and views on social media and was even showcased on SportsCenter. Martinez said the publicity cemented the event’s place in the program. Another memory that stands out to the Aztecs’ skipper is when the Aztec Dance Team taught the guys during the fall the infamous Thriller choreography by Michael Jackson.
“That was a really cool experience; our guys had to stay after practice probably around four or five times to learn the steps. The dance team did a phenomenal job teaching our guys kind of how to do the steps,” Martinez explained.
Winter is quickly approaching, and with it, the start of Aztec Baseball. Martinez has worked to put the disappointing 18-38 2022 season behind them all off-season by recapturing the “blue-colored approach” the team had in previous years. Among the players expected to lead the Aztecs is infielder Caden Miller.
As an underclassman, Miller started every game except two in his three seasons on the Mesa. Now an upperclassman, Miller is expected to take a leading role in rebounding from last year.
“We have a lot of guys that want to win, and I think that’s what we were missing in the past couple years […]”, Miller said. “(We have) a lot of guys that are motivated. Got a good young pitching staff, got some young freshmen this year that are ready to win. I’m looking forward to this year!”
“I think we’re going to have an awesome year,” Guzman said, echoing Miller’s optimism. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be a big change from last year, anyone who was following us knows last year wasn’t the prettiest, so this year we’re looking to turn things around and have a great year!”
The Aztecs’ 39-man roster contains 17 first-year students and 22 returners. Martinez said that even if the results were not great a season ago, his players gained a lot of experience and will be better this season as a result. He is counting on a core group to lead a freshman class that has impressed early. It is too early to tell how the Aztecs will come together, but with Ruiz, Miller, Weems, and Cole Carrigg, SDSU should be strong up the middle.
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With an opening series on the road against Arizona State just around the corner on February 17-19, a non-negotiable Coach Martinez believes this team has to follow in order to be successful is to embrace the process of improvement without taking any shortcuts.
The task before the Aztecs now is remembering the sting of a season ago and using it as motivation to compete every day. On the eve of Halloween, SDSU took a day off from this pursuit to give back to the community and bond with each other in an annual tradition that San Diego looks forward to every year.
San Diego Christian College Alum
Bachelors of Arts in Communications with emphasis in Broadcasting and Journalism.
22 years old