Keith Pelatowski has a special interest in the current Yale baseball team and its journey to the NCAA tournament. He achieved success as a member of the Yale teams that won the first two Ivy League Baseball Championships, and was elected captain of the second. That was in 1993 and 1994, during present coach John Stuper’s first two years at Yale.
Before then he was well known in Connecticut to Valley sports fans. He was a star pitcher and football quarterback at Ansonia High School. In his senior year (1990) Ansonia was the Class “S” champion. He pitched the entire title game, a 1-0 win over East Granby, and scored the only run. It remains Coach Mike Vacca’s last state title.
Earlier in his senior year Ansonia, coached by Jack Hunt, won the Class “S” football title. Pelatowski threw four touchdown passes, routing Weston 44-0.“We dominated the entire year, and the team was ranked number one in the state.”
On to Yale
From Ansonia he entered nearby Yale University. He concentrated his college athletics on baseball, and at the end of his sophomore year at Yale (1992), was also on a championship team. In 1992 it was in the Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League (EIBL), which included the eight Ivies along with Army and Navy. Both the 1992 and 1993 teams played in the NCAA regionals.
Prior to the 1994 season, Keith was featured on the cover of that year’s Yale baseball media guide, after receiving the ultimate compliment as a Yale athlete when his teammates elected him captain. He thus became one in a long list, including former U.S. President George H. W. Bush, New Haven’s own Albie Booth, Fay Vincent, Sr., Dick Tettlebach, Ken MacKenzie, Ruly Carpenter, and Dick Jauron, to become the sole captain of a Yale baseball team and be honored by being photographed wearing a traditional “Y” white sweater and posing against a replica of the historic Old Campus fence.
In 1994 Stuper told Len Zonder of the Connecticut Post that “Keith is the consummate Yale captain. All the time he struggled this year, he never forgot he was the captain, the leader.”
Captains at Yale are unique, since there is only one person for each team who is chosen. There are never co-captains as are found in most programs. I recently caught up with Keith by phone and email, and asked him what being captain of a Yale team has meant to him.
“Being a captain at Yale was humbling. It still stays with me today. I first learned that leading the team was not a given, it was a privilege and that carried with it a responsibility to see beyond my own performance, and to be able to stay poised in the face of uncertainty. I needed to be the positive voice of reason, at all times.”
“What I carry with me today is just that. My assignments in business are turn-around situations, typically leading teams that are in need of direction, strategy, and focus. I really enjoy building a team and helping to create a winning culture. My lessons as captain at Yale shaped me.”
Parallels between the 1994 and 2017 championship series
Just as Yale took Ivy honors recently by beating Pennsylvania in the championship series, its opponent in 1994 was also Penn, and Pelatowski was the winning pitcher in that earlier title game.
But it did not result in an automatic entry into the NCAA’s regional’s in 1994. Yale had to play a 2-out-of 3 play-in series against Rider College, the champion of the Northeast Conference. After winning the first game the Elis lost the next two. Their season and Keith’s college career was over.
He explained, “In ’93, we were the top team in the Ivy League,” he recalls. “We dominated the entire season. My captain year of ’94 was different – we had lost half of our players to graduation and early draft picks to professional ball, so we were left with a team that really was a younger one trying to find our way back to the top.”
Yale is part of NCAA tournament origins
Yale baseball teams were in the first two NCAA tournaments ever played and went to the finals each time. That was in 1947 and 1948, when George H. W. Bush was the first baseman and captain of the ’48 squad.
In 1947 the Bulldogs were runner-up in the initial College World Series, losing in two games to the California Golden Bears of Berkley, a team that included future Major League outfielder Jackie Jensen, then a pitcher.
Yale reached the championship round again the following season and also fell to a team, from California, U.S.C., two games to one.
Those Yale teams were among the best in the country. Today, with the diminished number of minor leagues in organized baseball, colleges are supplying a greater amount of talent to the pros. Therefore, the level of play in many college programs is almost akin to the levels of minor leagues that no longer exist. This is especially so in colleges located in warm weather states. As a result, the Northern college teams, including the Ivies, have become less competitive on the national stage.
When the Bulldogs of 1992 and 1993 played in the NCAA tournament in two consecutive years, and barely missed out in 1994, those were significant accomplishments for an Ivy League team.
In 1992 Yale had an interim coach, Don Brown, a football assistant, who was hired on a temporary basis after former coach, Joe Benanto, went back to teaching and coaching at Shelton High School. The very talented players recruited by Benanto for the team that Brown had been persuaded to take over, included Keith Pelatowski,
The two have remained close, and after graduation, from 1995 through 1999, Keith was a hitting and pitching instructor under Benanto at B&B Sports in Shelton.
Yale went to the NCAA Mideast Regionals in ‘92, losing first to Clemson 8-4 before defeating Nichols State (of Louisiana) 13-4. The Bulldogs were then eliminated after an 8-0 loss to UCLA (California again!). Keith got his first taste of what it was like to pitch against this caliber of competition when he came in to relieve against UCLA.
The same year, Pelatowski, who majored in environmental engineering and had a 3.3 grade point average, was named a District I Academic All-American.
In 1993, Yale swept Columbia, 17-7 and 11-1 in the first Ivy League Championship Series. Army and Navy had left the old EIBL and this was the initial year of true Ivy League baseball ending with its divisional series. It took place at Palmer Field in Middletown, Conn, as it did the following year, before switching to college sites.
Yale blew out Columbia, smashing six home runs in each game of the doubleheader. Keith pitched the second game and hurled six shutout innings, to help secure the sweep and bid to the NCAAs.
Afterward, Stuper described the performance of the Bulldogs at the plate as “the most awesome display of power hitting I’ve seen in my career at any level. When did you see 12 home runs in a doubleheader?”
Return trip to the NCAAs in 1993
Unlike the year before when Yale was 1-2 in the regionals, it was rougher going in 1993. The NCAA was again a 32 team field (today there are 64 teams involved) and Yale was sent to a regional at Texas A & M. It was tough enough having to play the Aggies on their home field, but due to a rain delay of six hours, the game did not end until close to 2 am, with the Aggies winning 13-1. Pelatowski remembers that their fans were loud and wild, taunting the Yale pitchers with comments like “I bet your ERA is higher than your SAT scores.”
“Right then and there we knew we were just where we wanted to be,” stated Keith.
After only a few hours of sleep, it was back on the field the next morning in a loser’s bracket contest against North Carolina, which Yale lost 11-6, despite having a lead going into the sixth. Pelatowski started and lasted into the sixth, but Yale eventually fell to the Tar Heels.
However, for that 1993 season, Pelatowski, then a junior, was named to the all-Ivy League team as its left-handed pitcher and was accorded the designation of its Pitcher of the Year.
In 1994 Yale won its third consecutive Ivy League championship two games to one over Penn, again at Palmer Field in Middletown. Pelatowski started the clinching game against and, without trying to overpower anybody, kept the Quakers off-stride with a two-seam fastball, curveball, and a changeup, Carrying a 6-2 season record into the game, he went six innings and was the winning pitcher while allowing just one unearned run and only two hits. He did not face more than four batters after the opening inning.
Theo Epstein covered the team
Before the championship series, the Yale Daily News noted that “(Dan) Lock and Keith Pelatowski ’94, will start each game for Yale.” The article was penned by Theo Epstein, who the following year would be the sports editor of the student paper and later rose to direct the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs to “curse-breaking” World Series titles. He was the featured speaker at the 2017 Yale Class Day on May 21st.
Keith gave pro ball a try
Before pursuing a career in the business world, Pelatowski, as do most good baseball players, wanted to test the waters and see how far he could get on the professional level. “It was my dream to put on a professional uniform every day, and many of my college teammates shared that same goal,” he recalled.
He was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 27th round of the 1994 free agent draft. His first stop was with the Williamsport Cubs in the New York-Penn League where, as a starting pitcher and reliever he led the team in appearances.
In 1995 he played for the Lubbock Crickets. He was a Texas League All-Star and led the team with nine wins.
Keith was released in 1995 but continued to chase his dream. In 1996 he was a New York Mets spring training invitee, but decided to put his baseball dreams to rest after he failed to make a minor league team.
He turned to education and was a biology and science teacher at Shelton High School from 1996 to 1998 and lived in Shelton, New Haven, and then North Branford. But he could not get completely away from his love of baseball and never has. He worked as a hitting and pitching instructor at B&B Sports in Shelton under Joe Benanto through 1999.
Keith spent the next four and a half years in finance, and in 2002 he transitioned to his present career in the health care field with Johnson and Johnson. That was the year he married Heather Bray of Branford, and this August they will celebrate their 15th anniversary.
They have four children. Mandy (11) is a softball pitcher and was one of the top age 10-and under pitchers last year in Minneapolis. Ryan (9) is a starting pitcher and shortstop for Wayzata, an age-10 and under 10U travel team, Aiden (5) is a lefty and tee ball player, and Kellen (2) is still exploring his options.
“My three kids who play in leagues are all better than me, and they can run fast!” Keith claims.
Roots in Ansonia
Before he went on to college stardom at Yale, Keith Pelatowski excelled at Ansonia High School, where he was the valedictorian of his 1990 class.
His high school coach 24 years ago, as noted above, was the same Mike Vacca who recently was honored for achieving 500 coaching victories at Ansonia.
Keith’s brother, Chris, and his wife, Jennifer, live in Seymour, and parents Ed and Jaynee still occupy the house in which Keith grew up on Belleview Terrace in Ansonia.
Heather, Keith and the kids will be back in Connecticut during the Memorial Day week.
He said “I love going back home to see friends and family – and it reminds me to never forget where I come from. We visit about two times a year, and never enough really. We will drive by Yale Field in West Haven and Nolan Field in Ansonia on our way to see my parents or in-laws (Bill and Betsey Bray) in Branford. No doubt I will be thinking of Yale and the team, and remember those late-May days and practices, with an empty campus, no classes, and just playing baseball with my team.”
His ultimate career in the business world
He and the family spent four years in London when he was General Manager and Managing Director of the Europe division of American Medical Systems. “The kids
first learned to play baseball and softball in the London Baseball League – a league created by Americans living abroad for those wanting to learn the game. I was the head baseball coach and also hitting instructor for Mandy’s softball team.”
They returned to the United States and to the company’s corporate headquarters in Minneapolis in 2014 and have lived in nearby Plymouth, MN since then. Keith is currently running The International Division as Vice President and General Manager for RTI Surgical a (medical device company with focus on spine and sports medicine).
My goal,” he says, “is to become CEO for a growing company that is innovative and has a unique and needed technology to help change people’s lives.”
Baseball still in his blood
When away from the office and travel assignments (he recently returned from Europe) Keith is involved in coaching in Minnesota. He is a hitting coach for son Ryan’s age 10 and under travel team, and he serves as an officer and league director for the local youth softball association.
“I am passionate about helping young players learn the game. It is my way of giving back everything it has given me,” he explained.
Final thoughts about the Yale experience
“One of my best friends and our shortstop at Yale, Tom Hutchison lives in Orange, and we are still close friends today. Manny Patel, a native of India who played a great second base, Gary Butterworth (Colorado), our star at third base, and Blair Hodson, first baseman (Utah) still keep in touch today, and we have all remained linked by our baseball years at Yale” he revealed. “Bill Asermely, the 1993 captain, lives in Orange too and runs the Northeast Baseball School.
“There are many others from the ’’92, ’93 and ’94 that remain connected as well,” he continued. “There is a certain bond that was created, and when everyone told us we were too smart to make Yale Baseball a national contender, it motivated us more. We often email and remind each other of the ’92 and ’93 seasons, when we first proved to everyone that Yale Baseball existed!”
Final thought about Yale’s new Ivy League champions
As Yale sets out into unchartered waters for the NCAA regionals, Keith Pelatowski, who has been there and done that, offers these words to the current players.
“Enjoy the ride, from the announcement of your Regional destination on ESPN, to the final out (hopefully in Omaha). Play like you have nothing to lose – and remember, you can compete with any program in the country. And thank you. By accomplishing what you did this year, you have the Yale classes of ’92 ’93 and ’94 remembering our own journey to the top as many as 24 years ago, – just like you’ll be doing in future years. Go Bulldogs!”