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PORTAGE, MI – During his senior year at Portage Central, Kirt Ojala was sure his big-league baseball dream was going to be over before it even got started.
With a handful of professional scouts in attendance at the Mustangs baseball diamond, the lefty walked the first six batters he faced, then moved from the mound to centerfield and watched the scouts file out of the bleachers one by one.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I blew it. My career is over,’” Ojala said, “but I remember everyone saying, ‘It’s OK don’t worry about it. It’s just one game.’”
That one wild outing proved to be a blip on the radar for Ojala, who went on to pitch at the University of Michigan and spend three seasons with the Florida Marlins, including their 1997 World Series championship campaign.
On Oct. 17, Ojala will be honored as one of five inductees in Portage Central’s 2019 Athletic Hall of Fame class.
Joining the former Mustang baseball and football star are 1972 grad Tom Hamilton, 1996 grad Sarah Paccione, 2000 grad Jennifer Gerteisen and longtime Portage Central football announcer Paul Schonveld.
Kalamazoo’s Fetzer Center will host the ceremony, which opens its doors at 5:15 p.m. and serves dinner at 6 p.m. Tickets for the event are $23 for adults and $12 for children, and they can be ordered until Oct. 11 by contacting Julie Morrissey, of the Portage Central athletic department, at 269-323-5361.
The inductees will also be honored before Portage Central’s Oct. 18 football game against Mattawan.
Hamilton played football, basketball and baseball for the Mustangs and later returned to coach softball at Portage Central in 2010 and 2014-17. He also led rival Portage Northern to four softball state championships, including three in a row from 2000-2002.
Gerteisen was a two-time all-state finisher in cross country and led the Mustangs to a seventh-place team finish in 1999.
Paccione starred on Central’s softball and basketball teams, before going on to earn all-conference honors playing third base at Hope College.
But Ojala is the lone member of 2019 Hall of Fame class that continued his athletic endeavors to the professional ranks, and said it’s an honor to be recognized by his alma mater.
“I think it’s a very special honor, and I am honored to be able to represent Portage Central,” said Ojala, who now works as the vice president of business development and director of client services at CD Barnes Construction in Grand Rapids. “It was one of the best places I could’ve ever asked for to grow up. I had some great teachers, great coaches, and it’s a nice gesture on behalf of Portage Central, and I hope to represent them well as part of this.”
During his playing days, Ojala became the 31st pitcher in Major League Baseball history to strike out four batters in one inning, and he also received notoriety for giving up Barry Bonds’ 400th career home run in 1998.
While one feat is certainly more memorable than the other, neither would have happened if not for the support from the people in Portage that helped Ojala reach his Major League dream.
“I want to give a special thanks to my coaches and my family and my friends for support,” he said. “I think the community at large is a very special community. My father and brother still live there and his kids go to school there, so I just feel really fortunate I was able to grow up in an environment like that.”