April 3, 2009
Credit Mike Ojala, a junior pitcher on the Rice Owls' nationally-ranked baseball team, for combining a respect for tradition with a respect for doing what's right.
The Owls' right-handed starter certainly has respect for the winning tradition of his school's baseball program. Who wouldn't?
The Owls have been winning for a long time since before he got there as a freshman in 2007. In this, his third year with the program, the 6-foot-3 native of Kingwood has certainly done his part to keep Rice on the winning path. Ojala is undefeated on the mound in his collegiate career and has helped the team make back-to-back appearances in the College World Series in Omaha.
There's every reason to expect more of the same winning tradition from Rice baseball in the years to come. Ojala is also carrying-on, and in fact bolstering, another growing tradition within the University's athletic department. Ojala, or simply "O" as his teammates like to call him, is doing his part to extend the Athletic Department's community service initiative. For a second-consecutive year, "O" organized for a group of his teammates to visit the young patients at nearby Texas Children's Hospital during one of the baseball team's off days.
"Last year, Mr. Vinny Sinisi (the father of Owl letterman Vincent Sinisi of the 2003 national championship team) told me about the community service work the team had done in the past and put the bug in my ear," Ojala said. "He knew some of the staff at Texas Children?s and with his help we got the team visit organized." "We had some players volunteer to go and (the director of Rice baseball operations) Lee Ann Lassiter came along with us as well," Ojala said. "We were only there for a little more than an hour, but we interacted with the kids and talked to the parents and family members the whole time. We were trying to raise some of their spirits by visiting and passing out a few t-shirts and autographed baseballs.
"The thing that goes through your mind is how brave these children are," Ojala added. "Those kids and their families deal with this on a daily basis. We get to play baseball and don't have to deal with the pain or sickness that they and their families have to endure. There's no comparison. Everyone should count their blessings. We were suppose to lift their spirits, but their courage was what is truly inspiring."
Ojala took the lead on initiating the team's community outreach for each of the last two visits to Texas Children?s Hospital and he is keen on making that another on-going tradition for the baseball program. The one tiny wrinkle to Ojala?s plan is his own exceptional ability on the baseball diamond.
College baseball players are eligible for the Major League Draft after their junior year and O is indeed draft-eligible. After averaging a dependable 6.0 innings per start with a microscopic 1.38 ERA this season, not to mention some sensational games like when he struck out 11 in the win over west coast power UCLA, its seems fairly obvious the pros will come calling sooner rather than later.
At that time Ojala will begin a new quest to pitch in the major leagues, but his respect for maintaining traditions is a goal as well. The team's on-field success is on a rock-solid foundation. Ojala would like the team's good work in the community to follow suit.
"Everyone who's taken the time to make visits like this has been moved by the experience," Ojala said. "We've got some really good guys here and I am positive we could build it into a tradition and pass it down to future teams so that it keeps on going."
He is Rice University student-athlete Mike Ojala, and he is one of Tomorrow's Leaders.