Valentine plays last game
A.J. Valentine doffed his Gold Sox cap and signed autographs for fans at All Seasons RV Stadium for the final time on Sunday night, ending four outstanding and memorable seasons with the collegiate summer team.
In his four summers, Valentine became the face of the Gold Sox team, and the 6-foot-6 fan-favorite first baseman will surely be missed by the team and the thousands who visited All Seasons each night.
Gold Sox manager Brad Peek, who was a friend of Valentine's four years ago and gave him a shot as a fill-in player, said he was trying not to think about what it would be like saying good-bye to a person he helped mold into a quality baseball player.
“It's going to be emotional, I don't think there's
going to be any doubt,” Peek said. “Not only has he been an excellent player for us, he's been an ever greater ambassador for us with the fans and community. Obviously, he's a big face of the team and the organization, so he's definitely going to be missed.”
Valentine improved greatly in each of his four seasons, peaking last summer after being named the team's MVP, hitting .348 and breaking the team record for hits with 71. He carried that momentum into his junior year at Cal State Stanislaus, earning first team all-California Collegiate Athletic Association honors.
He wanted to prove wrong critics who said last summer was a fluke by following it up with an equally outstanding 2006. He didn't have an MVP-type summer, but he was just as productive, driving in a team-leading 41 runs, collecting 14 doubles, belting four home runs and batting .316.
“I came through when they needed me to,” he said. “When the RBIs were out there and needed to be driven in, I felt like I was able to do that. But a lot of times you're compared to your batting average ... what I like to have is low strikeouts and a high batting average.”
Valentine continued to display his outstanding defensive abilities, committing just one error, while helping the Gold Sox clinch their first Horizon Air Summer Series McCullough Division championship and eclipse the 40-win mark.
“Every team has gotten better every single year,” he said. “The first year I was here I was like, ‘wow, these guys are amazing,' and the next year it was better and we had better guys. And then last year, our pitching staff was amazing, a great group of guys. And then this year, we were looking to hit 40 wins and that's amazing for everything I've seen the last four years.”
Valentine became a veteran, a rare commodity in the world of summer collegiate baseball. He seemed to always have a smile on his face and would talk to anybody that would listen at first base, including opposing players, base coaches and umpires.
He stayed long after games were completed to sign autographs and talk with fans.
Peek said his dedication and abilities will certainly be impossible to replace.
“A veteran presence is something you don't get a lot in summer collegiate baseball,” Peek said. “He's a very good leader, plays the game hard, plays it smart and still makes mistakes just like every baseball player does, but he has got a good way going about things. He's friendly and approachable by anybody from a 2-year-old kid to a 102-year-old. He's not a replaceable product immediately.”
Valentine said he knows it's time to move on in his baseball career.
“I've postponed the ending of my baseball career as long as I possibly could by going to 19 different colleges and playing for every team imaginable, so I haven't had much time to think about (not playing with the Gold Sox),” he said. “I always see the other seniors running out of time and I've always said, well, I've managed to find myself another year. It will be tough, it will be rough, but I'll just do what I can to get through it.”
Valentine will finish out his college baseball career with Stanislaus next spring, a season he's eagerly anticipating.
“I'm excited for next year, and I know my team back home is excited for next season,” he said. “I had a good season, and I hope to top what I did last season there, obviously, and put together a winning season with playoffs in mind for Stanislaus for the first time in a long time.”
And though Valentine is leaving the Gold Sox, Peek said the friendship they share will not end.
“I know I'm going to see A.J. again. It's not like he lives across the country,” Peek said. “I'd like to think that I'm a friend of A.J.'s and A.J. is a friend of mine, so yeah, he'll be the most difficult guy (to say goodbye to). I'll see him play next spring and I'll be on the phone with him and hopefully he has a good year down there. ... Just because he doesn't play for us anymore, the relationship is not going to end between us.”
Valentine did say he would be back in Marysville at some point next summer, but as a spectator watching his former club.
“If I'm available, I'll be back up here to watch a game, but to not be able to step on the field and do it again, it will be weird,” he said.