Nearly 10 years after the undersized country boy baseball player from Marion stepped onto Western Carolina’s campus, he made an extra special return. Former Catamount right-handed pitcher Greg Holland – who became a household name in Major League Baseball with the Kansas City Royals last season – delivered the keynote address at the fourth Celebration of Catamount Baseball Banquet earlier this year.
Coming off a historic season on the mound as the Royals’ closer, Holland was the centerpiece of a night that focused on the success and future of Catamount baseball. The event included special recognitions for all the baseball parents in attendance, as well as for all former players in attendance spanning the last 75 years of WCU baseball.
With returning players sporting shiny conference championship rings issued in November, those attending the banquet were treated to a highlight video outlining the success of last year’s squad. WCU led the nation in home runs per game as a part of the 39-20 season that included a school-record 23 wins in Southern Conference play, as well as a consecutive run of 16 straight victories against league foes.
Before Holland addressed the crowd, Steve White ’67, former sports information director, and Head Baseball Coach Bobby Moranda announced this year’s “Leggett No. 7 Legacy” recipient, senior utility player Luke Gragg. The fourth-annual recipient, Gragg, who sees time as the designated hitter and plays in the outfield, will wear the No. 7 jersey made famous at WCU by coaching great Jack Leggett.
Last season, Holland was named Kansas City’s “2013 Bruce Rice Pitcher of the Year” for a second consecutive season as he set a Royals franchise record with 47 saves. Only two other MLB relievers had more saves than Holland in 2013 – Baltimore’s Jim Johnson and Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel, both with 50. Holland also matched the Royals’ single-season record for strikeouts by a reliever, fanning an American League reliever-best 103.
During his time at WCU, Holland recorded 19 saves from 2005-07, currently ranking fifth in program history, and recorded 154 career strikeouts against 70 walks. In 2007, Holland logged a career-best 10 saves while earning first team All-Southern Conference accolades as the Catamounts claimed a share of the regular season title. He also was named to the SoCon’s Spring Academic All-Conference team in both 2006 and ’07.
Holland was drafted by Kansas City in the 10th round of the 2007 MLB First-Year Player Draft on the heels of WCU’s runner-up finish in the NCAA Baseball Chapel Hill Regional. He went on to make his Major League debut Aug. 2, 2010, against the Oakland Athletics.
During his remarks, Holland reminisced about his time at Western Carolina, beginning with his freshman year. “I really didn’t know what to expect coming here to go to school. I was undersized. I was a pretty good baseball player, but I broke my jaw my senior year in high school and lost a lot of weight, didn’t get to pitch very much. Luckily, I gained some weight back during the summer and I told my parents that I wanted to come here to Western Carolina,” he said. Ironically, the opposing player who broke his jaw – Jonathan Greene – ended up being one of his Catamount teammates in Cullowhee, and was on hand during Holland’s address.
“I always wanted to be the best player on the field. And there were many times in my career that I wasn’t, and there still are. But I always wanted to be. And I think that’s something (you can find in) the group of people I played with and the group before me, the group now and the group that will come in here next,” Holland said. “That’s the mentality of Western Carolina baseball – you just want to win, be as good as you can be and don’t back down. I think that had a lot to do with my success and our success as a team.”
Holland went on to thank many of his former teammates and coaches for their support both during his time in Cullowhee and beyond. “Everyone that had something to do with this campus helped mold me into the person I am today – and that’s a person I’m proud of. It’s not because of my success on the baseball field; it’s because I know I’m ready for what’s around the corner,” he said. “I might be done tomorrow playing baseball. It might be 10 years from now. But I’m not worried about it because I know that a lot of the things I learned on this campus are going to help me with whatever’s next.”
With audience members hanging on every word like they were awaiting a ninth-inning, full-count pitch, Holland closed his poignant address: ”I was fortunate enough to go to the All-Star game this year. And I’m telling you, winning here is by far the most special thing to me. And being able to come back and be here in front of you guys has been really special. Just know that these things are going to help you become a better person, a better man, a better father, a better husband. Just enjoy the moment you are in and enjoy each other – and Go Cats!”