January 25th, 2007 was an ideal day to begin the college baseball season, if you lived on the island of Hawaii. The average temperature there was seventy-five degrees, without a cloud in the sky. With palm trees and orchids lining the outfield wall, thousands looked on as the defending National Champion Oregon State handed Hawaii-Hilo a 5-0 loss. Over five thousand miles away in Binghamton, New York however it was a different story, where instead of packed crowds the stadiums still echoed of an eerie silence. The thermometer there read ten degrees, but stepping out onto the frozen tundra it felt even colder due to a strong breeze that day which swirled the snow up into mini tornadoes.[i]
We were still five weeks out from Opening Day, and buried under a foot of white powder, baseball could not have seemed farther away. In fact Hawaii was about as far away as you could get in every conceivable way. Only the bravest, most foolhardy, or overly intoxicated would dare go outside without a winter jacket, gloves and winter hat. Trudging through the snow to practice in the West Gym, I had to strain my brain to believe that Binghamton and Hawaii were both Division I clubs.
The five weeks of preseason dragged on, and although the staff tried to keep things new and fresh, “there are only so many ways to make Brussel sprouts taste good,” Coach Hurba would say. Inevitably over the thirty-plus days of practice we ran into a routine that made the time crawl by. Trapped in our small world, we could only imagine the day when we would be let off our leash and free to roam. Until then, it would be fly balls for the outfielders either in a gym with a twenty-five foot ceiling, or out in the parking lot where a small patch of concrete fifteen feet wide lay exposed to the sun enough for the blacktop to bleed through the whitened world. Facing a whipping wind of arctic air coming off the hillside, Coach had to place the fungo within a few feet of where we were standing or the ball would crash into a snow bank and disappear from site. It was not exactly Spring Training in Dodgertown.
By the time March 3rd came around, many teams had already played a good portion of their schedules. In fact most southern and west coast teams had played well over fifteen games. Being behind would be a current theme we struggled with all year. Free to start games at any point after winter recess, the system was equivalent to the New York Yankees playing roughly forty-two of their games before the Minnesota Twins ever played one. While the Twins would need to play six games a week to catch up, the Yankees could continue to play only three per week, relying almost solely on their strongest arms. This, combined with the resource benefit, created a very lopsided competitive advantage in college baseball.
The bus ride down to 7-5 Norfolk State (Virginia) for Opening Day felt so habitual that the bridge separating this season from the last felt much shorter than the actual nine months it was. The only differences I now saw were some new faces and new uniforms. We had replaced our seniors with freshmen and replaced our fading white jerseys for black ones, while also adding new green ones into the mix as well. Also included in the package were much needed new game pants. In high school we wore shorts out to practice so the idea that there would be separate pants for practice and for games didn’t even occur to me. The good news with the new pants was that they were replacing the old pair despised by all due to how they tapered at the bottom to the point of cutting off blood circulation to the ankles. The bad news though was that these old pants were now our “new” practice pants and would be worn at least four times per week.
When we arrived to Norfolk State’s campus Saturday morning, it was a typical early spring day in the mid-Atlantic, truly a great day to start a season. Unfortunately the night before was a typical early spring evening and dumped a consistent barrage of rain showers over the field. When the storm finally passed, over a half inch of rain had fallen. “The field is pretty soaked this morning. We’re drying it out now but it’s a bit too wet for any type of pregame,” the Norfolk coach said to Coach Sinicki.
Some argue that baseball isn’t meant to be played on field turf and that grass offers the only genuine experience. No one however can make the case for playing on concrete. With limited space outside the field, we found ourselves doing team stretches on the basketball court and loosening our arms up on the pavement nearby. It was a world away from center stage of a power conference. Our hitting was done in one cage and a tiny tee area the size of a small shed. Fly balls were caught behind right field in a parking lot, something the outfielders were well groomed for. When my dad and sister drove up to the field, they had to avoid hitting any of the Binghamton Bearcat outfielders running down fly balls.
It made little sense for my dad and sister to make the trip. They had to first get to the airport, then take a short plane ride, and then finally rent a car to make it to the field in time for the game. With the financial costs and opportunity costs apparent, empirically it made sense to sit this one out. However, my dad knew that if he hadn’t gone he would have stared at the computer screen all day anyways, unable to take his eyes or mind off the game playing out with little stick figures on his screen. Not to mention, he was convinced that Opening Day was the real Christmas and would need a much better excuse than a plane ride and a small inconvenience to miss it. Having arrived with twenty minutes to spare before first pitch, they looked extremely excited for the baseball season to begin. So was I.
My chronicle of the weekend would turn out to be a huge letdown, but with this it would become a lesson that others in a similar situation could read and study for both their betterment and the improvement of a team. I would be the guinea pig, sacrificed into the baseball black hole so that those after me could read my story and change their path, if even just marginally. And it all began with the smallest of signs, a “miscommunication” that I was sitting in game one because a lefty was throwing. He wasn’t.
You can’t read into patterns based off just one or two games, for even the bottom dwellers in the Major Leagues win sixty games per year, so a pattern can only emerge after consecutive trials keep turning up heads. When I sat game one for example, there was nothing to read into. Was it bad intel or a bad omen that I was warming the bench? Regardless, I had assumed all year that I would be splitting time, and although I wanted to be able to play in front of my dad and sister who had traveled so far just to see me, I could wait a few more hours to do so.
At this point there was still no story to talk about, just an uneventful game that I did not participate in. And this as it turned out, would be my undoing. Without a major event to help clear the haze, I was left to figure out where my place on the team was from trial and error. When enough trials would occur to form a concrete conclusion was anyone’s guess.
“Thanks for making the haul,” I told my dad and sister in-between games. Some programs frowned upon any interaction with family on road trips, and specifically while at the field, but with Coach Sinicki giving us a few precious minutes to greet our friends and family, I had at least enough time to say thank you for coming before hurriedly getting back to the dugout to get ready for game two.
I looked up at the lineup card to see where I was hitting but found my name missing from any one of the nine slots it was supposed to be in. Instead, the name had been written under “reserve” like it had accidently slipped off the line above and landed in a lost world. I wanted to yell at the top of my lungs, “What have I done wrong? I haven’t done anything wrong, have I?!” but I said nothing. How could I say something after only two games? Watching from the bench, the sensation of melancholy nestled deep down in the pit of my stomach. In-between innings I caught glimpses of my family sitting on the cold metal bleachers, most likely as confused as I was. “Please let me get in. I don’t think I can bare the guilt of them traveling eight hours without seeing me get at least one at bat,” I muttered to myself as I ran in from the foul line after each inning’s stretch break.
Talent gets filtered in the form of a pyramid so being on a Division I team meant that there were always going to be very talented players competing with me for playing time. My best friends were also sometimes going to be my competition. This is something that with time to digest was an acceptable fact. Without a solid period to adjust my expectations for the weekend though, the removal from the lineup felt like I had been blindsided with a left jab to the cheek. Where had the miscommunication occurred between myself and the coaching staff? I had thought I was being groomed for a starting role, but it suddenly occurred to me that my coaches might have had other ideas. But again, it was two games, hardly enough to get too worked up over.
Watching all seven innings of the second game, I was left to wildly speculate as to what was going on behind the scenes. Had I shown signs of laziness or a poor attitude throughout the winter, or was I making much ado about nothing? After all, there were more than fifty games left to play. Would I still feel this way after five games, ten games, thirty games?
Most good athletes assume they are the best at what they do, at least relatively speaking. This attitude is necessary in sports because confidence plays such a large role in success. Thus, instead of taking two games, it took more than two complete seasons to recognize, and to somewhat accept, that the coaches had shaped my position on the team into that of a role player. I had become their backup plan.
Being a role player didn’t have to equate to an inferior role, and despite the fact that I thought I could do more, in many ways I was an ideal fit for the task. I could add a spark off the bench, play anywhere in the outfield, and was durable. I could also fill in for someone on a moment’s notice and be an effective late game replacement. It was a function that I am sure I would have contested at first, but it was also a job that in time I could have incorporated into my approach and excelled at.
My intro level psychology professor had once referenced a term called “cognitive reappraisal,” and I’m not sure there was a better example of it than my own situation. An “emotion regulation strategy,” this theory involved altering the meaning of my situation so that my actual emotional response (and attitude) to the circumstances would also change. “If you fail an exam,” my professor explained “you might start to think very negative about the situation, and yourself, and give up. Or, you could reevaluate the circumstances, think of the next exam as a welcomed challenge, and study even harder.” It made sense. My role didn’t have to cause me to shrivel up. My situation was being exacerbated by how I interpreted it and how I let events control my emotions. Without some guidance though I failed to realize this reappraisal method was even an option.[ii] [iii] [iv]
Being the go-to sub, sandwiched in-between two generations of recruits, would have been an important role that I like to believe I could have accepted and embraced if only someone had articulated their plan for me. The prolonged period it took for me to figure out what amounted to a very simple fact on the surface was the definition of wasted time and squandered effort. I saw other players, who I felt I was as good as, get treated to privileges such as a secure starting role, and ignored the fact that talent was just one of many factors at play. Thus, like being stuck in quicksand, the more I struggled, the deeper down I slipped and the more my confidence and enjoyment of the sport waned.
The most likely conclusion I contrived was that I had done something iniquitous and was being punished. “Why else would this be happening?” I rationalized to myself, not understanding that the answer was a complex matter of politics, reputation, and personality, along with the obvious factor of ability. To me, if the question was “How do I fix what I’ve done wrong, whatever that is?” then the obvious answer was to simply work harder, make sure I did everything asked of me, and soon enough the tides would shift back in my favor.
And therein contained the problem. I had begun a personal crusade to right a scenario that didn’t exist. Of course I could work harder and be a great citizen, but even with that, “success” as I was defining it would be far from guaranteed. I knew that a freshman being put in to start over me was not a good sign, but without any good explanation to support the decision, I was left to endlessly deliberate the underlying meaning of the situation. That I could be making incorrect assumptions, such as mistakenly assuming I had violated some unwritten team rule, did not occur to me. The effort I would expend figuring this out would long strip away my faith in the sport and in myself, and become a fruitless and painful experience.
After the doubleheader I remained neutral with my emotions, blocking out my indignation over my dad and sister having gone back to Connecticut earlier in the evening without seeing a single pitch I was involved in, even during pregame. Meanwhile, my reality was falling apart all around me, and although it took two years to fully collapse, the torture of fighting an unwinnable war slowly began to undermine me.
Putting on my uniform the next morning, I gobbled down an apple and box of Cheerios and ran to the bus. Exiting the hotel I was caught off guard by how bad the weather had turned overnight. “So much for a nice weekend,” I jokingly said to my seatmate and roommate Mike Quinn. The game time temperature was in the low forties, but with the low cloud cover and a strong wind it felt closer to mid-thirties. Seeing my name in the reserves slot brought the temperature well below freezing.
The sample size was still small, three games now, but the underlying theme was enough cause for alarm. Losing out on early season at bats worried me as well because I was already behind the majority of the country and was now falling behind my teammates as well. The freshmen outfielders were terrific players and knew that with a leg up over me, I might not have enough time or strength to ever pass them.
Worse, I feared that by now being labeled as a second-stringer my margin for error, which I had expected to be quite high, was actually much lower than was healthy. For a player, the chance to get into a groove and find “the zone” is the ultimate objective. This process requires a lot of trial and error though and constantly recalibrating of one’s approach. Being able to have days where you go 0-for-8 is vital to this process, while playing sporadically acts as a knife, cutting one off at the stem any time a seed begins to sprout. I never blamed guys like Joe Charron or Henry Dunn, the freshmen outfielders, because it was not their decision. They were just playing baseball. Instead, over time I began to resent a system that was not suited to my strengths, and which seemed to constantly start me from the outside lane.
The circumstances that would begin to unfold however were a complicated matter. The coaching staff had two options, though they may not have consciously realized it at the time. One, they could have been blunt about my new “diminished” role and hoped that I would embrace it in due time by learning to have pride in a more limited, albeit still important function on the team. The risk here though was me saying “No” and transferring. The other strategy was to simply let me figure all this out on my own and hope that the carrot they dangled in front of me of spot starts and big pinch-hit appearances was enough to keep me running. The risk here though was me saying “No” and breaking down to the point where I was ready to quit. Nonetheless, it must have seemed easier at the time to clandestinely mark me as a role player and to silently see how it would play out. And so option number two was selected.
As the final innings of game three ticked by, I was finally called upon to pinch-hit. This was my new role and a perfect example of a time when I should have been excited to make my impact, but instead I was simply agitated that after sitting for all three games, my season debut would come in such a challenging set of circumstances. It was windy and bitterly cold, and with the sun setting on the field, the lighting was far from optimal. My body was stiff as I battled mightily to get loose behind the small dirt patch behind the dugout. I had not moved in what felt like days, but nonetheless standing at home plate with a thirty-three inch piece of metal in my hands I attempted to “clear the mechanism.”
After fouling off a pitch, I got a fat 0-1 fastball. The ball clashed with the bat in perfect harmony and made a beeline for deep right center. As I headed for first base, I began to contemplate when the exact perfect moment would be to transition from sprint to home run trot. After picking up the first base bag I gazed up, expecting to see the ball clearing the fence. Instead, I saw the ball spinning down towards the base of the wall. When the ball finally landed, it was in the center fielder’s glove. The swirling winds had pushed a sure home run ball back into play.
It was an impressive feat in the team’s eyes, but when looking at the weekend summary, 0-for-1 was all that appeared next to my name. Following the game, we had to make the eight hour bus ride home and by the time we arrived at the Events Center in Binghamton late Sunday night, snow was on the ground. I craved my dorm room bed.
Every sport has its taboos that must be avoided, lest the possibility of taking a public thrashing. Baseball, mired in tradition however seems to have more unwritten rules than most other sports combined. Learned in the early years, I took these baseball norms as fact. “Don’t run across the pitcher’s mound after making out,” my Little League coach told me after one time rubbing shoulders with the pitcher. “You can’t ever say the dangerous words “no-hitter” until it is complete,” I was commanded after a slip of the tongue an inning before the bid was broken up. “That’s what you get,” my teammate told me after I had been beaned for staring at a home run for too long while in the box.
For the most part I had bought into the baseball culture and enjoyed the customs and subtleties that have made the game so unique over the years. One taboo though that I always feared coming back to haunt me was one so simple that I cringed at the very thought of breaking it; forgetting my jersey. “Do I have my tops?” I’d ask to myself out of both habit and fright before every road trip. We carried a bag around with a spare uniform, but I refused to be that guy wearing the numberless jersey at a game. It was the scarlet letter of baseball.
To help avoid such an embarrassing situation I made sure to pack my bag and collect my belongings the night before leaving on any trip. Come travel day our locker room resembled the opening scene of “Home Alone,” where everyone is running chaotically around the house to get ready for the upcoming family vacation. Trying to mentally account for everything I needed during the confusion was nearly impossible. Plus, by packing the night before I didn’t have to worry about the many delays that “get away” travel days usually brought with it.
The first roadblock that typically impeded my routine on travel days was simply getting down to the Events Center and locker room. Faced with lugging my heavy bag across campus and dealing with whatever the weather had in store for me at that moment, (assuming I couldn’t find a ride from one of the upperclassmen) the usual ten to fifteen minute walk from my dorm or class had the potential to take much longer than that.
In addition to the walk, simply running behind on tasks could put me behind the eight ball as well. For example, trying to submit a paper before its late morning deadline, such as the one I had before heading out to Virginia for our next weekend of baseball, significantly postponed me. By the time I hit the “send” button, my other carless friends had already gotten picked up. In a panic, I threw my bag over my shoulder and began the long descent down to the Events Center in the pouring rain.
Over the years I had strategically mapped out a route that kept me sheltered for the majority of the walk down to the locker room. Once I got to the main Lecture Hall in the center of campus the worst of the journey was over. From there I could snake my way over to the Student Wing building that was attached to the Lecture Hall. Walking down a set of stairs, I would then enter Academic A in the basement, stroll through the underground pass into Academic B, and go outside for a moment before finishing the indoor journey in the basement of Science IV, leaving me exposed for only the last two hundred yards. Binghamton was not short on uncreative, perfunctory names for their buildings that did little to impress, but when mapping out a route, the stationary labels became quite helpful. Being a few minutes behind schedule however did not provide me the luxury of taking the more circuitous, sheltered route, and thus I had to take the most direct path and suffer the fate of being exposed to flashes of torrential rain. By the time I reached the Events Center, I was drenched.
Soaked through and upset, I entered the locker room to a throng of half-dressed players whose clothes and gear were thrown about like a teenager’s messy room. I tried to sneak through the crowd but a quarter way in was exposed for what I was; a vulnerable person in a weakened position. Immediately I was pounced on, being shoved from one guy to the next as I took my knocks moving through the gauntlet. I was only steps away from the safety of my locker, the point where it was no longer fair game to be hazed, when an unknown creative soul took handfuls of our school newspaper and stuck them onto my wet skin. “Round one to you guys,” I joked as I plopped my waterlogged backpack down in my locker.
I typically wanted to get a light hitting session and shower in before getting food but under the circumstances I had to jump in the last car heading to Subway and skip BP. Returning to the locker room I only had five minutes to check over my bags and make sure everything was where I had left it, including both my black jersey and green jersey. “Bus is leaving,” said Captain Pat Haughie. Out of time I made a quick check and hoped that I had successfully accounted for everything the night before. “Good to go,” I said as I found a seat next to a not very happy Mike Quinn. “Dude, you’re still dripping wet!” he complained.
Nonetheless, after a chaotic morning the cushion of the seat never felt so good. Over hungry and overtired I sat back and unwrapped my Subway sandwich, basking in my winnings. “Sir Subway,” the Sandwich Artist® who was working the current shift had a propensity to overuse the word “sir.” “Hello Sir, would you like some lettuce on that sandwich Sir. Fantastic Sir. Sir, that will be $5.25 Sir.” Inevitably this became the basis of laughs, which then eventually became the basis of a wager. I had taken the over at ten uses of the word sir while placing my order. As I chomped down on my sandwich, which was my prize from those who took the under, I could finally relax. Once more, the routine of leaving for a road trip was complete.
My sandwich only lasted me so long, but luckily Virginia was far enough away that it warranted a pit stop for an early dinner. When trying to find a place to eat for twenty-five guys, quantity and price became much more important factors than quality. Scanning the various stops on the highway, our coach ordered our bus to pull off when he saw a Cracker Barrel on the horizon. “Perfect,” he said.
I had managed to find a seat next to the cozy fire and ate my roast beef dinner while happily drying out. Mike Quinn on the other hand was not as pleased with the situation. Having been dripped on for three straight hours, he was eager for a nice, warm dinner as well. When the waitress brought out half his dinner, two lonely chicken fingers, he was not thrilled. “Not to worry,” the waitress assured Mike. “I dropped part of your dinner on the floor but the cook is working up the rest of your order as we speak. You can eat these for the time being.” With the team rolling on the ground with nonstop laughter, the waitress, feeling pressured to get something out of the kitchen for him quickly, soon came back with the rest of his dinner. On his plate, at least the size of a Frisbee, were two additional chicken fingers no bigger than large walnuts. The table once again erupted at what was just one of many insignificant, yet comical stories that comprised life on the road.
We finished the rest of the drive in peace and come Friday it was time for baseball. I badly wanted to impress the coaches with a solid showing as I was beginning to get the idea that at bats for me were an ever increasing rare commodity, and was thus content when I earned my first hit of the season, a double to left field. Leaving the field I felt good about getting my feet wet.
When traveling, it was common to have a hitter’s meeting with Coach Hurba the night before a game. With Radford University slated for the next day, the fifteen or so hitters piled into the small hotel meeting room before bed for Coach’s breakdown on the projected opposing pitchers we’d see. Reports were only as good as the information they were sourced from, and although the reliability and effectiveness of the notes fluctuated, I appreciated the effort that was expended trying to generate them. I locked in on Coach’s words, hoping to pick up any little edge I could. “We need guys to step up offensively,” Coach Hurba opened with in an attempt to motivate the troops. “We need guys to make a difference when given their opportunities. Going 1-for-4 at the plate is not going to impress anyone,” he continued. The words acted like a pin, instantly taking the air out of my balloon. When Coach got around to the actual scouting report, my mind had long tuned out.
To Coach, his words were presumably meant to be encouraging. And for most of those in the room I imagine they were. As much as I wanted to jump on board though, I did not hear the words this way. It was not because there was a personal dislike between the two of us. The problem instead was that we had grown up playing and thinking two entirely different styles of baseball. To me, the words pierced my armor and struck me in the heart, discarding my average day into the waste bin. I left the meeting feeling like I had failed, the exact opposite goal of what Coach’s noble intentions were.
Going through the first few games of the season as they unfolded live, I didn’t immediately notice the downward shift in my confidence levels. A series of small events don’t add up to a giant leap for some time. Even when senior right fielder Jeff Monaco went down with an injury in the middle of the Radford game and was replaced by a series of three complicated moves which kept me off the field, I still couldn’t fully understand what was happening.
Once again caught off guard I called my parents during our pit stop on the way home with a voice of mild concern. The “Radford experience” had left me with a sour taste in my mouth that I wasn’t used to after a baseball game. Speaking with my dad outside Burger King, the word “transfer” entered the conversation for the first time. “You just need to make sure that continuing to head down this path at Bing is the right one for you,” he said. “You might need to look somewhere else if it’s not.”
His words made total sense to me but like a corrupt line of code didn’t completely compute. It was just two five minute conversations with both my parents, but within them I had expressed frustration, fear, homesickness, and for the first time, a doubt in my abilities. “Just think about it,” my dad suggested. “How can I leave my new home and my new friends so soon after arriving?” I asked before hanging up. “I just need more time,” I said once the tone went dead, trying to convince myself that I still needed additional information to make an informed decision. That my confidence was leaking out each day in which I failed to make a decision went undetected until nearly 600 days later when I suddenly noticed half of the hold was empty.
Our record stood at a subpar 2-4 as we headed back to Binghamton. The poor record was not the issue though as much as the lack of a record in general. Radford was the last sunlight we would see for the next two weeks. a rife of snow, rain and downtime slowly ate away at the days. We were programmed and trained to be at top performance for three short months each spring. A thirteen day break at this stage was agony. First the “Villanova Baseball Bash” was snowed out, making the only college baseball going on in our lives that weekend the games we played on the PS2. Then the rain came and erased our next two game series at Bucknell.
After every call from our captains about the latest cancellation, I would throw my hands up in disgust. Well caught up on schoolwork and sick of watching Family Guy reruns, I begged to be able start a season that for some was already two months old. When March 24th finally came around, many other teams across the nation had played over twenty-five games. Baseball America was already in the midst of preparing their mid-season review. I was 1-for-5 over six games! When I turned on The Weather Channel, by now a favorite stored on the remote, I became concerned with another large green splatter moving up the coast. “AnotherNor’easter a few hundred miles south in the Carolinas heading our way folks,” the meteorologist pronounced. “Please no,” I pleaded as the next weekend at Lafayette was now on the cutting block as well.
Our staff saw the same dire report and in an act of urgency worked throughout the night to find a solution to the rain epidemic spreading throughout the northeast. The answer finally came in the letters “LIU.” Long Island University was equally desperate to get games in and invited Lafayette and us to play at their field in a round robin format. “Thank God for turf,” I said to Jeff Dennis when the good news broke.
LIU had over six campuses, but its baseball field was located in the heart of Brooklyn, thereby making it one of the more unique places to play baseball. From Google Earth the rectangular field looked as if a piece of New York City was cut out and replaced with a solid green block. A large seventies style dormitory in the shape of a perfectly uncreative rectangle nestled itself feet away from the boundary of the right field line, towering over the field. Two of the other sides were lined by busy city streets, with the final segment enclosed by the athletic center. Yards away a different world carried on, one filled with the hustle and bustle of New York City taxis and pedestrians. Within the chain link fence though was good old-fashioned college baseball. My father had grown up playing ball in the Bronx, and I imagined that the setting was quite similar to this, except for the $300 metal bats we were swinging and the brand new Wilson jerseys we were wearing.
Unlike the expansive rolling pastures of upstate New York, space in New York City for a baseball field was extremely limited. With LIU playing Lafayette before us, the only place to warm-up was in front of the athletic center out in deep right center field. During a break in-between innings, our entire team set off for the warm-up area at a hurried pace, trying to avoid interfering with the Lafayette outfielders.
As the game was about the resume, it looked like the entire team would make it across the “battlefield” in time. Then, disaster struck. Junior college transfer Jeff Wertepny was keeping pace when the strap from his equipment bag came apart, sending it crashing to the ground as the components of it spilled out of a small opening. “Leave no man behind!” hollered sophomore Matt Simone, coming to the rescue by helping Jeff drag his overstuffed bag across the rest of outfield as the laughs resonated all around.
All stretched out, the Baseball Gods decided to torture us just a bit more, as we had to wait an extra hour for a thirteen inning battle between LIU and Lafayette to end. “What’s next, a meteorite?” I asked, desperate for the season to enter some form of cruise control. Ten minutes later the final out was secured, and without anything falling from the sky, it was finally our turn. We quickly filed into the dugout as Lafayette was exiting, tossed our bags down, and jogged to the outfield to find our throwing partner. Picking your throwing partner was a sacrosanct affair. One had to match personality, arm strength and routine in a perfect fit. There was no official “mating day,” but early on in the fall bonds formed that stuck for the entire season. The shortstop usually wed to the second basemen, while the outfielders naturally paired up with themselves. By day three, everyone had their partner.
I had played toss with roommate Mike Quinn the first day of Fall Ball and although he was a catcher and I an outfielder, the arrangement clicked. In fact, like so many other things we did as roommates together, it worked out perfectly. Sharing a room with someone for nine months out of the year automatically brings two people together. It also forces two individuals to open up their private lives to each other. Beyond playing catch together, Mike Quinn and I got to know each other well and soon began to share more and more of who we were as people. Girlfriends, botched assignments, and issues at home were all on the table. So too were our situations on the baseball team.
Mike had entered the program with me and soon became the second of two catchers on the team. Most teams needed two competent catchers though so Mike had rationalized that he was in an excellent position. Doubleheaders were long days and from a catcher’s standpoint marathons. Crouching in place for fourteen innings, plus warm-ups, one’s knees would have to tire. Lifting and training helped, but over the course of such a tightly compacted season two catchers were vital. Nonetheless, the staff considered Quinn not quite ready for action, or perhaps not quite talented enough for action, and put 90% of the weight on Pat Haughie.
Pat, a terrific captain high on the coach’s depth chart, unfortunately was in the midst of fighting his way through a challenging junior year campaign. The result was the most obvious example of conflicting forces. Comparing apples to apples in terms of production, Mike would have seen a third of the games. The fact that he wasn’t, and that he was like me in a transition year between two generations of recruits, became apparent. Dismissing Mike down to the bullpen to warm-up the starting pitcher before every game, I would lose my throwing partner. Mike however would lose his faith.
Having your “go to guys” is important to a team, especially if they are also your leaders. The anchors in a lineup are extremely valuable over a long season for the stability and confidence of any squad. The issue that many teams run into though, including ours at times, was figuring out at what point you decide to try someone or something different. When a coach pegs a certain player as irreplaceable, it leaves very little room for flexibility. Thus, the line between giving a proven player the proper amount of chances to succeed and going with another option gets blurry. Do you stay with an injured veteran because he has been such an important and proven player in the past or do you take a chance and go with a younger and more versatile player who may be the spark you are looking for?
By sticking to a very rigid structure the team lives and dies by a few select players. At times this strategy pays off and there are magical playoff runs as a result, but there are other times when the would be catalysts watch from the bench as the established players stumble in a remarkable and simultaneous slump. No matter that Quinn had found a groove in the few at bats he did have, he was earmarked as a minority contributor and so was pushed to the back. Even after quickly proving himself by going 2-for-2 in the second game of the doubleheader at LIU for instance, by game three he was back in his role on the bench.
As a freshman, one could argue Mike should have been grateful for any playing time, but Mike wanted more than that. He saw a team with only two catchers, one that was slumping and one that was playing well. The lineup was not reflecting this trend though, and so by chance Mike and I found ourselves in the same inescapable world of purgatory, where forces above the simple question of “Who deserves to be playing today?” existed.
I had started the first game with high hopes too but after two quiet at bats was lifted for a pinch-hitter, leaving me to stew over a border line strike three call that I had gotten punched out on with the bases loaded. Both of us, for slightly different reasons, felt heartbroken leaving LIU.
Relationships move fast when you are with someone 24/7, so I took it hard when for the first time following the LIU games I saw the sparkle in Mike’s eyes dim when the team was brought up in casual conversation. Quinn cared deeply about the program and about baseball, but being knocked down so many times, and so quickly, made it almost impossible for him to stay upbeat. We were both down and discouraged. How we reacted from here though would result in drastically different paths moving forward.