During the 2016 College World Series opener, Chris Valaika stands comfortably in front of the UC Santa Barbara dugout, a place he knows well.
It's where he spent three seasons in a Gaucho uniform. It's the place that prepared him for nearly 10 years as a professional baseball player with three organizations.
And, now, it's where the former infielder can coach the next group of Gaucho players while finishing what he started 13 years ago: a degree from UC Santa Barbara.
It was an opportunity too great for Valaika to pass up when coach Andrew Checketts offered him the chance to return home.
“Myself and Coach Checketts have been in contact over the past few years as an alum talking about the team," Valaika said. "Toward the end of last year, I got hurt. I tore my ACL and finished the year playing on it. I was kind of moving toward that direction that I was going to hang it up. I wanted to stay in baseball and Coach Checketts offered me an opportunity to come on board here while finishing my degree. It just happened to work out perfectly.”
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Valaika first arrived on the Santa Barbara campus in 2003 and spent three years with the Gauchos program, although an injury kept him out one season. During his two healthy seasons, the infielder batted .371 and recorded 95 RBIs.
The Cincinnati Reds drafted Valaika in the third round with the 84th overall pick of the 2006 MLB Draft, making Valaika the second-highest position player drafted in program history. The first baseman spent four seasons in the Reds’ farm system before he made his major-league debut with the Reds on August 24, 2010, in a game against the San Francisco Giants.
After his career with Reds closed and a brief stint with the Miami Marlins organization, Valaika spent a few seasons with the Chicago Cubs and their affiliates. But with the ACL injury he suffered, Valaika consider his options before eventually deciding to retire from professional baseball. Valaika finished his professional career with 99 MLB games and 1,001 minor league games played.
“Obviously, we hoped he would play in the big leagues forever and have a long career," Checketts said. "But, he finally decided that he was done playing and knew he wanted to come back to school. He thought he might want to coach. We had a conversation with him to get him to come back. He’s been a great addition to our program.”
Valaika’s duties with the Gauchos program include coaching first base and instructing the infielders with assistant coach Eddie Cornejo.Austin Bush works closely with Valaika as the UCSB first baseman and he has been rolling through the postseason for the Gauchos. Coincidentally, Bush became the first Gaucho to record seven RBI in a single game since Valaika did in May 2006. Bush appreciates the real-life experiences Valaika brings to the program and admires how the assistant manages his classes and coaching duties.
“He’s been on top of it and making sure we’re on top of our academics," Bush said. "He was, I think, enrolled in 20 units this past quarter. He was trying to get done and graduate. So he’s managing that, coaching and managing all of our academics, which is huge.
"It’s been great to learn from him and been awesome to hear what he has to say about it and have the perspective of a guy who’s been in the show.”Checketts recognizes the impact of Valaika relating to the players like Bush from the student-athlete perspective and the mentor role Valaika has adopted.
"He’s a great example of somebody coming back," Checketts said. "He played in the big leagues, played professional baseball for 10 years and still needs to come back and get his degree. I think that’s a pretty good role model for our guys.”
As it can be expected when one returns to school after nearly a 10-year break, Valaika experienced an adjustment period when he stepped back on the Santa Barbara campus. The first time around the player had to juggle just his schedule as a student-athlete with practices, games and class schedule.
But Valaika said he is a better student now during his second stint on campus thanks to fostering relationships with the UCSB faculty.
“I’ve got some life experience and been a little more proactive with my professors than I probably would have been as a student-athlete," he said. "But, hopefully, I can convey that information to these guys and let them know that professors are people too and are willing to help, especially baseball players doing great things like this.”
Valaika said he worked toward a degree in history this season because of his interest in the subject during his time away from school and his original credits as an anthropology major made the transfer seamless. The chance to obtain that degree and all the lessons he has learned with UC Santa Barbara has made for a once-in-lifetime experience for Valaika.
“I’m a Gaucho through and through," Valaika said. "What this program has done for me, spring boarding my career as a player was unbelievable. I will always be grateful for this program. Being able to be on the other side and helping these kids hopefully achieve their dreams—not only professional baseball but having an opportunity like this that doesn’t come around every day. Being able to experience that with them is very rewarding.”