By Tyler Melvin, Staff Writer
For 20 years, the baseball diamond laying in the Southeast corner of East Central College had been decommissioned. The last team to man the field included the likes of Omir Santos, one of ECC’s most notable alumni.
The same year as budget cuts forced the school to shut down baseball operations, Santos led the Falcons to their first and only Missouri Community College Athletic Conference Championship. He also led his team in batting average and total RBIs, garnering Honorable Mention All-American honors in his conference. Shortly after completing his sophomore season, Santos was drafted in the 21st round of the 2001 MLB Draft by the New York Yankees.
Just a year before Omir Santos’ arrival at East Central, a future legend was suiting up for the Maple Woods Metropolitan Community College, a conference rival from Kansas City. Albert Pujols, believe it or not, was a relatively unknown commodity as a young college student. It wouldn’t stay that way for long as Pujols demolished the ball in his ‘99 collegiate season. In fifty-six games, Albert hit 22 home runs, 76 RBIs, and batted .466, good for All-American Honors and leading his squad to a Region 16 Championship. Pujols’ stellar single season in the NJCAA places him atop the prestigious list of great athletes to ever attend a Region 16 school. Fate would have it that the St. Louis Cardinals, just a hop, skip, and jump East on Interstate seventy, were gifted with the chance to select him in the thirteenth round. The rest is history. One of the all-time draft steals, Albert is still playing in 2021 with no apparent intent to retire.
A baseball lifer himself, Omir grinded through seven seasons of minor league ball before making his debut with the Baltimore Orioles late in the 2008 season. He collected his first hit, a single, before the season’s end and found himself playing for the New York Mets the following year.
An injury resulted in Santos’ call up at the end of April 2009. On the twenty-seventh of that month, he launched his first career home run and RBI out of Citi Field. It just so happened to be a grand slam, and the first four-run-home run ever hit at the newly opened venue. About a month later, Santos had another magical major league moment, hitting the go-ahead two-run home run off dominant Red Sox closer, Jonathon Papelbon. The blast came with two outs in the top of the ninth and allowed the Mets to scrape by with a victory. Just six days later, he did it again; this time the Florida Marlins fell victim to Santos’ game-tying solo homer in the fifth and a walk-off single to win the game in the eleventh. Omir’s hot streak ensured him the backup catcher role for the rest of the 2009 season. After putting together a solid rookie season and appearing in ninety-six games, Omir was honored as a member of the 51st annual Topps All-Star Rookie Team.
2009 would be Santos’ most productive year in the bigs and the one in which he was afforded the most opportunity. He’d spend another season in the Mets’ Farm system before opting to become a free agent after 2010. He made some spot starts for the Detroit Tigers over the course of two years and made his final major league appearance for the Cleveland Indians in 2013.
Santos never left baseball despite his playing career ending. He remains in the Indians Organization, now coaching their Dominican Summer League Ball club. Mr. Santos, along with Pitcher, Tom Henke, make up our school’s portion of the NJCAA Region 16 Baseball Hall of Fame.
Henke, a Missouri native and World Series Champion of the ‘92 Blue Jays, pitched 14 seasons in the majors coming out of the bullpen. Twice an All-Star selection, he’s the owner of a ridiculous 2.67 lifetime ERA, making Tom one of the most dominant relief pitchers of the 1980s. “The Terminator” would retire as a St. Louis Cardinal after accumulating 311 saves. Henke is arguably Cooperstown worthy and already has a place in the Missouri and Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s undoubtedly the most decorated East Central Baseball alumnus.
Now after a two decade hiatus, baseball is back at ECC. Athletic director, Jay Mehrhoff, described the amount of interest in the program as, “Unbelievable”. In a region where baseball rules supreme, it seems fortuitous that East Central should field a team again. The inaugural roster will be constructed entirely of first year students, and this group has some serious talent.
One standout is Dominican pitcher, Alfred Ulloa. Coincidentally, Alfred was born in 2000, the season before ECC baseball was shut down. Listed at six feet tall, he can spot up fastballs at 92 miles per hour and has a couple of nasty breaking pitches. The average Major League pitch velocity is sitting at 91.7 mph according to FanGraphs, making it conceivable that Ulloa could very well play professional ball at some point. In the meantime, he’s set to be the ace of the 2022 Falcon’s pitching staff. The team held their first scrimmage at Central Methodist University in mid-September, and it was Ulloa who picked up the first Falcons win, albeit unofficial, in 20 years.
At the helm of the team is first year coach, Johnathan Mills. Promoted from his position as volunteer assistant, the University of Alabama graduate has already established relationships with his players. Mills has spent nearly his entire career in baseball, from Legion clubs to Southeastern DII programs. He has impressed with his ability to recruit top end ballplayers and now has his sights set on expanding the local reach. Eastern Missouri is too much of a baseball hotbed to ignore the potential homegrown talent. A quick glance at Coach’s social media will tell you how dedicated he is to the craft and his role as a leader. #CometoUnion caps off his bio, evidence of the pride he takes in the community and a message to talented players everywhere; join us while you have the chance.
When asked to describe the philosophy he hopes to instill, Coach Mills had an interesting response, “[We want to] compete each pitch in the game like it has a history and a life of its own.” This approach to the game reminded me of a similar, all-time quote from St. Louis Browns owner, Bill Veeck: “This is a game to be savored, not gulped. There’s time to discuss everything between pitches”. Baseball is indeed a game of carefully calculated strategy. There’s no rush to end the game, just the will to win it. It’s a game played best when taken pitch by pitch with equal intensity. This philosophy, or baseballism, if you will, combined with a lockdown pitching staff has the young Falcons on a fast track to success.
Before the team can kick off their 2022 campaign, the home field is taking on some major improvements. Throughout the Fall semester the ballpark has undergone laser grating to ensure it is perfectly level. The biggest alteration will be on the infield, as the college has opted to install turf up to the edge of the outfield grass. There will be no dirt on the infield and therefore no need for the giant tarp that is typically used to protect the diamond from becoming a mud pit. The artificial surface is equipped with an impressive drainage system, and the school hopes the state-of-the-art material will save money on maintenance over time. The outfield will remain grass and must be cut with a precision mower to create optimal playing conditions.
Once the playing area has been renovated, the outfield fence will be addressed. A new scoreboard will be in place by the end of 2021. Plans are also in place to honor the Falcon’s Baseball Hall of Famers with their own spots on the outfield windscreen. Santos’ and Henke’s jersey numbers will be proudly displayed in Left Field, sort of reminiscent of the wall of fame at Busch Stadium. These various developments are fitting for the return of men’s baseball, and they’ll create a sense of home field advantage for our athletes. The finished product will be as must-see as the team themselves.
Like the newly renovated ballpark, fans will be essential in reestablishing ECC’s baseball program. Students have the chance to witness some special talents and show their school spirit this upcoming season. An important theme of ECC baseball’s return will be honoring teams from the past. One exciting promo in the works is T-Shirt giveaways featuring the name and numbers of our Hall of Fame alumni.
There’s a ton of excitement surrounding this revival, so be sure to make it to a couple games this year. East Central’s baseball team will represent the Union Community by competing at the highest level. Our job is to show up and show out with school spirit, proving we’ve always been deserving of a team. The rest of the conference has been put on notice: The Falcons are back and they’re going to make some noise in 2022. For future coverage of the team, stay locked in on the Cornerstone Newspaper.