It's a picturesque afternoon in Malibu Canyon with clear skies and plenty of sunshine. Sitting in the baseball field bleachers at Pepperdine University, Dan Melendez is all smiles as he reflects on his first season at the school and watches the ocean waves crash along the cliffs below him.
Melendez, a 1989 graduate of St. Bernard High, said life at Pepperdine definitely agrees with him.
"I couldn't imagine being anywhere else right now," Melendez said. "Is this the way to live or what? This place is almost too good to be true."
Although Pepperdine finished second in the West Coast Conference and failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1984, Melendez still seems to be sitting on top of the world. A freshman on the baseball team, he started at first base in all of the Waves' 60 games. He batted .319, scored 36 runs and was second on the team in runs batted in (50) and home runs (10).
Although Melendez suffered from a sore left thigh the last two weeks of the season, he played with pain because his team needed him.
His play so impressed opposing coaches that he was a WCC first-team selection.
Melendez hoped to improve his reputation further with an outstanding performance last weekend in a critical three-game series against 11th-rated Loyola Marymount. Pepperdine (37-23 and 24-11 in the WCC) needed to sweep the series to claim its seventh consecutive WCC title and receive an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament.
For Melendez, there was even more at stake than a playoff berth. The fact that he wasn't actively recruited by nearby Loyola and is good friends with the Lions' starting left fielder, Tim Williams, an '87 St. Bernard graduate, made a good performance even more important.
The Waves won two of three games, but it wasn't enough to convince the NCAA baseball committee to give them an at-large berth.
"I'm certainly disappointed at not making the tournament," Melendez said. "It's a surprise we didn't make it because I felt we were better than several of the teams that did.
"But looking back, I'm happy with the season that I had. I made some good progress in a number of areas and really improved my game. While I'm disappointed at not making the playoffs, I'm optimistic for next season. We've got a lot of players coming back."
Melendez is one of seven Pepperdine freshmen who either started or saw considerable playing time this season.
The prevalence of youth may explain the up-and-down season the Waves experienced. The team started off slow but finished strong, making a gallant chase at the WCC title after trailing by five or more games at mid-season. Melendez, however, proved to be a mainstay. His ability to adjust quickly from high school to college baseball drew praise from his coaches and teammates.
"I recruited Dan with the intention that he would be able to come in and start," Pepperdine Coach Andy Lopez said. "But he has even exceeded some of my expectations. He stepped into some critical situations and really performed well. We asked a lot of him, but he was able to adjust."
One of the first things Lopez asked Melendez to do was bat fourth behind senior Chris Martin. Opposing pitchers weren't able to look past Martin since Melendez posted some impressive numbers.
"Dan swings the bat very well," Martin said. "I scored a lot or runs off his hits.
"Every one on the team knows he's a good player, but he's not cocky at all. He handled the pressure well, especially for a freshman."
Lopez also asked Melendez to give up his pitching and concentrate full time on playing first base. The result was a new respect for defense and a better eye at the plate. Melendez had a fielding percentage of .997 and led the team in walks.
Melendez was a top pitcher at St. Bernard his junior and senior seasons. He also played in the infield and led the Vikings to the Southern Section 2-A Division playoffs both seasons. He was selected to the all-Southern Section first team both seasons and was player of the year as senior when he was 12-3 pitching and hit .530.
"I was very relieved at not having to pitch any more," said Melendez, who is 6-foot-4, 185 pounds. "I never really liked pitching. It always made my arm so sore that I often was too tired to swing the bat. But my (high school) team needed me on the mound, so I did what I had to do. This season, however, I've been able to concentrate more fully on my swing and my defense. I'm definitely doing better at both things."
St. Bernard Coach Bob Yarnall said Melendez definitely is commanding more respect at the plate.
"I think he's showing all the (professional) scouts that he should have been drafted higher," Yarnall said. "He's the best pure hitter I've ever coached. And I've had some big players come through here."
Melendez was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the seventh round of June's amateur draft, but elected to go to college because he said he felt he wasn't ready for professional baseball mentally or physically.
He won't be eligible for the draft again until the end of his junior year, but if he continues to perform at his current level, he will be drafted again.
Melendez, who hasn't declared a major, said he anticipates a career in the major leagues.
"Dan is definitely a position player who will do very well in professional baseball," Loyola Coach Chris Smith said. "I watched him play all through high school and was always impressed with what he could do and with his attitude.
"I was well stocked with first baseman, so I really couldn't recruit him. But the fact that he is doing so well doesn't really surprise me."
Melendez is not surprised by his success, either.
"My goal was to come here and start," said Melendez, who chose Pepperdine over USC. "The ability to battle for a starting job was a significant factor in why I came here. I had a hunch I could perform well on the college level. I'm staying quiet and working hard, but I'm pleased with my progress.
"What a great place to play baseball. Definitely no regrets here."
Even in a season without playoffs.