Within the confines of sports, connections shared and learned help to highlight the joy of competition. Connections between people, places, and events help improve athletes and help spawn great passion.
Despite what might be happening on the gridiron at the moment, there are plenty of connections being made in the world of baseball, especially in the state of Iowa. Officially taking place on Saturday, Sept. 26, Iowa Baseball Camps LLC will be bringing the excitement back onto the diamond with their annual fall camps. Due to the current NCAA dead period, those in grades nine and above are unfortunately prohibited from the camps but anybody in grades first through eighth will be able to participate.
It’s a time that’s special in it’s own right where connections and the love of the game of baseball are fostered, but in 2020 things will be taken to another level. In an extreme instance of viewing the silver lining, due to COVID-19 concerns, Duane Banks Field will not be the site of the camps. Instead, the venue will be held within the confines of a field even more historic. A field that bears one of the strongest connections in all of baseball history, the legendary Field of Dreams field as one of two locations for the camps. Athletes will soon be able to connect with such an iconic location that brought on one of the most iconic baseball films of all time.
There are many coaches and other individuals who have put in work to make these camps possible. That includes one individual who holds a history that bridges the world of Iowa Baseball Camps LLC to the world of the Field of Dreams. That individual would be none other than University of Iowa Director of Baseball Operations Nic Ungs. A native of Dyersville Iowa, Ungs knows all about the iconic location and all that came with it, practically right in his own backyard.
“It was very cool to pretty much have the Field of Dreams right there as a kid,” began Ungs. “Growing up in Dyersville, it didn’t matter where I was in the world whether I was playing or working, that always kept me connected to where I was from. To be able to help provide something like this for the kids is amazing and maybe they’ll tune in and watch that movie. It’s a special story and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to love the movie and the site even more.”
From such a storied location, the story of Nic Ungs blossomed into a career that would find it’s way to the highest level. From a little kid dreaming of success in the sport he loved, Ungs found success at nearly every level he went, never forgetting where it all started.
“It’s like a storybook tale of growing up in a small town where baseball was apart of everybody’s lives,” said Ungs. “They say there’s basketball hoops everywhere but when it gets nice enough outside, everyone’s playing baseball. Whether it was a rec league, travel team, or just a bunch of friends playing, baseball was just something you did.”
From such humble beginnings, Ungs went on to be successful in multiple levels of baseball, beginning at the high school level. While attending Beckman Catholic High School, Ungs was a three year starter and went 21-1 on the mound over the course of his final two seasons as a Trailblazer. His junior year finished with All-Conference, All-District, and All-State (INA) selections. Meanwhile his senior season included similar accolades along with a Super Elite All-State Squad membership.
Ungs’ time in baseball continued on as he played for the University of Northern Iowa where even more connections would be made as he continued to make a name for himself. The big highlight season for Ungs came in 2001 where he was named Missouri Valley Conference pitcher of the year and earned All-American status. During such time, Ungs set UNI single-season records in wins (11), decisions (13), strikeouts (110) and innings pitched (109). It was also the first interaction Ungs had with Rick Heller who now resides as the head coach for the University of Iowa baseball team. It was like the perfect puzzle piece as Ungs donned the purple and gold.
“I felt like Northern Iowa was the right fit for me,” said Ungs. “Coach Schrage was the one who recruited me but after he left coach Heller came in and did a great job bringing us to a regional and winning a Missouri Valley Conference championship. To do what he did and to be apart of that, I think about those days all the time.”
That connection alone is something that has meant so much to Ungs as he made his way through the baseball ranks. That very connection helped him find his way into the coaching and administrative side of the game where he resides now. A connection that also felt as natural as anything else.
“Just to be alongside him has meant a lot to me,” said Ungs. “Coach Heller is a guy that if you meet him for the first time or the 100th time, you feel like he’s your best friend. It was amazing to be coached by him and now, to be apart of what he’s doing here at Iowa is a great thing for me to work under a guy like him.”
Ungs mentioned how still to this day he looks back fondly on the connections made throughout his time in baseball. Through taking full advantage of said connections and his skills with the baseball, Ungs added two more prestigious honors onto his resume including the Distinguished Hall of Fame membership at Beckman Catholic High School (2018) and a spot in the Northern Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame (2015).
The journey of Nic Ungs continued on like that of a movie and in 2001, the dream many baseball players have became his reality, drafted in the 12th round of the MLB draft by the then Florida Marlins.
“Draft day is always bitter sweet, it was kind of a roller coaster with the phone ringing off the hook asking if you’ll sign in this round or that round,” said Ungs. “Finally the Marlins came calling in the 12th round and it was one of those dreams come true.”
Once he was a member of a select few individuals to label themselves a professional baseball player, the roller coaster journey continued on for the former Panther. There were plenty of obstacles thrown his way, including during his first full season in the professional ranks. In 2002, the Marlins organization, in it’s ninth season of existence, then owned by John Henry, was sold to then Montreal Expos owner Jeffery Loria. It was quite the transaction that equaled out to $158.5 million as Loria took over in Miami while Henry took the money and used it to help purchase the Boston Red Sox. It was quite a tumultuous time with questions over who would make up the Marlins franchise, something that was tough on the current Marlins’ players including Ungs.
“We were walking into a place that didn’t draft us,” began Ungs. “We had the Expos ownership taking over and they had no money in anyone so it was like you were both an outcast and not an outcast. We also got to view the business side of it all. It was definitely tough shooting up the ranks as we were not really considered their draft class at the time.”
Just like most things for Ungs, he successfully rode the waves and spent six more seasons in South Florida accumulating many memories. From being roommates with Dontrelle Willis (in Class A ball) to tossing a no-hitter in 2005, there were many great experiences for the Iowa native in Miami. From there, Ungs was moved to the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 2008 and also competed internationally throughout the remainder of his 11 year professional career. During his professional tenure, Ungs produced a record of 82-68 with a 3.79 career ERA and over 900 career strikeouts.
No matter where Ungs was or what he was doing, he never forgot his roots and his connections with the Field of Dreams. Such connections that met up with him along the way.
“During the filming I didn’t catch much but fast forward 15 years or so, when I was in Triple-A in New Mexico, Kevin Costner was out there filming the movie Swing Vote,” began Ungs. “He came out and hit batting practice while I was pitching that day. When we were by ourself we got to talk it up a bit and meet him.”
The rest of Ungs’ baseball journey included playing for the USA Olympic team (2005 and 2006) and a nine-year stint as a pitching coordinator for the Georgia Bombers Baseball Club. There’s no doubt it’s been an exciting journey for Ungs who has taken from his experiences and is now using them to help baseball athletes at all levels.
“One thing you learn in pro ball is that nobody is going to tell you to go throw, no one is going to tell you to work out, you pretty much have to do it all,” said Ungs. “You have to want to improve and keep getting better.”
That’s the same type of philosophy Ungs has brought with him his whole life and helps to instill into baseball athletes of all ages, from the collegiate ranks to the middle school level and beyond. Among a talented group of coaches and staff, Ungs will help lead what will undoubtedly be another successful year of fall camps.
As for the camps themselves, there is still time to register by going to the Fall Camps website. The camps will span Sept. 26 and 27 with groups broken down into grade levels 1-4 and 5-8. The groups will also follow social distancing measures. The camps will span one day each and include several different groups for pitching and catching along with offense and defense.