Chapter 3: “Freshman Fall”

Chapter 3

 

The Golden Age of baseball was a time of simplicity and purity when TV deals, arbitration, and corporate luxury boxes didn’t exist, and where mystique and folklore were allowed to grow rampant. Having finished high school baseball just a few months earlier I had very much lived in my “Golden Ages,” experiencing the greatest moment in my baseball career up to that point by defeating high school rival Hamden Hall in the Divisional Championship. The victory had rejuvenated many of the positive feelings that a four-year-old feels playing catch for the first time. Striking out the last batter from atop the mound in a relief appearance was permanently glued into my mind as what baseball should make me feel and experience inside.

After the game I sat with my friends on the field and watched the warm sun melt away the last of the day. We refused to take off our grimy jerseys because we all feared the same thought; the next level will be different. We were not sure how, but we all worried that the innocence of the game would disintegrate with the new pressures of college baseball.

As I walked back to our locker room a champion, I felt satisfied that I had found such a content mental state. There had been days not so long before when I despised waking up and going to the field. Perhaps I put too much stress on myself or perhaps as a teenager I simply became more interested in hanging out and going to the movies than of going to the field to “play two.” I had wanted to quit, but with some persistence decided to see how I felt once I got to high school.

It had taken a lot of work, time, and effort to rekindle the flame that had almost been smothered. Even as a young teen I knew that once the light burnt out, it almost never relit. Being so close to hitting that low, I broke down and cried once at home after the championship game. I was obviously happy about being part of one of the most remarkable comebacks of my career, erasing a major late inning deficit, but more importantly I recognized that there was nowhere else in the world that I would have rather been than on that field.

Baseball was fun. Like a little child looking forward to Christmas morning I genuinely enjoyed what I did every day. The teenager from days past who would pray for a rainout was dead. Entering college, I was fresh off a new baseball high, feeling like I was walking into work the day after a huge promotion. I was apprehensive, but it was a positive nervousness that was most welcoming.

I was challenged sporadically in high school baseball, but not to the degree that I was during my first semester at BU. Soon this uneasiness and pressure flowed into spells of doubt, which turned into times of struggle, which once again sent me down a slippery slope and closer to the point of relapse.

I did not have to worry about playing time in high school, I almost always played. I did not have to worry about renewing my scholarship in high school, it didn’t exist. I did not have to worry about learning to hit breaking balls in high school, I saw enough fastballs that made them a nonfactor. In college however, these were all very real elements that began to slowly eat away at my sturdy foundation which I entered school with. Some ball players vault onto the college stage looking primed for the Major Leagues. I was not one of those players. There was a considerable learning curve, and with first impressions being as important as they are to a new coach, I dug myself an early hole to climb out of.

I added extra pressure and undue stress wherever I could find it. I was told that my competition would be another Coach Collins’ outfielder, freshman Tom Carberry, who was in the same exact spot as me, and was surprised when a junior college transfer joined the outfielders during tryouts. I certainly wouldn’t have declined my acceptance had I known there was an additional guy competing for an outfield slot, but seeing him at “tryouts” caught me off guard. “Has he been brought in because the coaches don’t think a freshman can handle this?” I asked myself. It was a senseless worry, as were most that I had as a freshman for I would come to learn that 90% of the positions had some sort of competition regardless of the situation. This was college baseball, even the weak spots were not very weak.

Then there was the added anxiety I absorbed from the field situation, further exacerbating the “Freshman Fall.” Varsity Field was the home of the Binghamton Bearcats. The field was fully functional but I noticed right away during my first visit that it lacked much character. There was very little color or flair anywhere and seemed like a perfect fit for a state school. The fence was solid mesh black with no advertising signs, no team banners, and no distance markers. The press box and club house did not exist. The green paint on the wooden bleachers was chipping and outdated. The cinder block dugouts, which were actually at field level, were spacious but had two poles supporting the roof that were about a foot thick and obstructed the view from the bench. We were in need of a “Division I upgrade” which, due to the economy would be harder to obtain than initially promised.

During my recruiting trip the coaches found the silver lining however. “We are going to be redoing the entire outfield surface until all of the funds and details for the new complex are worked out,” they had told me. “Perfect,” I said. Due to a “construction mishap” over the summer however the new outfield which was supposed to be ready for the fall, would now not be ready until the spring. This meant that the first time I would ever be on my home field would be sometime in April, for an actual game.

Like a puppy in a new home, getting into a comfortable routine as a freshman is key. Not having a field on campus to lock in a consistent schedule was yet another variable that added to the discomfort. Without a field, and with a new coach, “luxuries” like lockers or fall uniforms got pushed to the bottom. Each day it seemed we were practicing at a different field, at a different time, and in different gear. Our “tryout,” for example, was held off-campus at NYSEG stadium, home of the Minor League Binghamton Mets, Class AA affiliate of the New York Mets.

Jumpy and tense, I stepped out of the van upon arriving at the stadium and abruptly tripped over my own bag strap and took a painful fall, much to amusement of my fellow teammates and few passersby. Getting up to see who had witnessed my accident, I saw at least six faces staring back at me. “I am Ok!” I yelled, trying to pretend that the cut on my knee wasn’t throbbing. Walking to the field I couldn’t help but laugh to myself, “Did I make the team coach?”

With my embarrassing moment in the past, our “tryouts” began by running the 60-yard dash, my nemesis. In a world where every 60-yard dash had meant the world, for the first time in memory I could now run it without nervousness or tightness. The staff already knew what my “baseball vitals” were from a piece of paper compiled the year prior, and couldn’t possibly be surprised if I came in over the 7.0 threshold. A bit more relaxed as a result, I surprised myself with a decent run, but failed at the time to connect the dots of why.

Still, the quicker than usual run helped in turn give me the confidence to know that I belonged. I didn’t blatantly ask any of the other recruits if they were fighting the urge to prove that they belonged but for the entire first day, and for that matter the entire first fall, it was fairly obvious that we all felt a constant need to establish to the coaches and older players that recruiting us was a wise move. I assumed the coaches too felt this same urge the other way around.

The showcase format was already so ingrained in our blood that Coach didn’t have to tell any of the outfielders to warm-up their arms for the throwing portion of the day once running was complete. We just did it. I was to go second, and so I had the best seat in the house for co-outfielder Tom Carberry’s first toss. The instant the ball left his hand everyone knew that it wasn’t going to be within fifty feet of third base, its intended destination. As the trajectory carried the ball up into the stratosphere, all of our necks stretched into the sky. The ball finally came down with a ricochet half-way up the stadium seating, bounced around, and came to rest inches away from the third base line, ironically only a few feet from the 3rd base bag! Feeling like a young actor about to walk on stage for his first live performance, the “worst-best throw” was the perfect remedy for my nerves. Both Tom and I had to laugh.

The hitting came next, or at least my best attempt at it. Facing Coach Sinicki’s batting practice for the first time, the pellets out of his arm caught me on my heels. An ex-pitcher at Western Carolina, he had left a few bullets in the chamber for later use. All eight pitches came hard and in. During our first session I barreled up just one lonely ball, and only because I cheated. Determined to get the barrel on the last pitch, I started my swing extremely early, connecting for a home run. It looked good and felt good as I walked out of the batter’s box beaming with pride. I failed to see how the session was a perfect example of how good batting practice does not automatically equate to good hitting in a game. Yes, I smoked a home run, but I had compromised my entire swing to do so. If this was a game, and I only had two or three pitches (as opposed to eight) to time him, or if he had thrown me a curve ball, I would have looked like a fool walking back to the dugout.

I breathed a deep sigh of relief at the end of the long day knowing that day two would be just a bit easier. “No one got cut yet,” I joked as I vacuumed down an omelet at the dining hall after getting back to campus. As the fall season pushed on and day two become day five, which then became a month, I started to get more comfortable. The stress eased ever so slightly and even the chaotic routine of taking a van to our off-campus field became an acceptable inconvenience. All of the “carless” players (aka the freshmen) knew the drill; run from class with baseball bags in hand, meet in the parking lot, load the equipment in the back of the van and then pile in. The trick was to help, but then avoid the front seat or else be penalized by having to come up with ten minutes of constructive conversation with Coach en route to the field.

September in Binghamton is a mix of cool breezes, warm afternoons, and mostly sunny skies. The scale is held in equilibrium during the stretch, the humid summer long gone and the impending snow still in the distance. The perfect blend of Caribbean days and arctic nights created a baseball paradise which made the first steps out of the classroom and onto the field each day magical. And once there I went to work, trying to figure out what kind of baseball player, and for that matter, what kind of person I was. Early struggles make you rethink and reflect a lot.

I knew I wasn’t the freshman who could make a seamless transition to college and hit .400 right out of the gate. There were physical parts of my game that first would need tinkering. For one, my swing was a choppy version of a Beethoven piece. The composition was beautifully scripted, but the execution of it was novice and sloppy.

My stride was far too long, always slightly missing the timing of a key note and exposing me to even the most pedestrian of breaking balls. My strength was too low, always tailing off before the final chorus was complete. Glenn Katz, my mentor throughout high school preached the importance of being stronger than your opponent, but it wasn’t until I ended up on the losing side of such a battle that it clicked for me. There were no redshirts in our program for players who needed a year to grow, so the urgency to be physically ready to play was real.

Still, it was far easier to point out physical deficiencies and to start working on correcting them than even being able to tag an issue as mental. For example, even though my stance was workable, mentally I was a mess, just looking to hit any ball that was in the strike zone regardless of the location, speed, or situation. “You need to have a plan at the plate,” Brendan Hitchcock, our best hitter, tried to tell me after watching me swing for the fences during a scrimmage. “Work the count a little. Work the pitcher,” he said. “Look on one side of the plate if a pitcher keeps throwing you there, and take 2-0 breaking balls on the corner,” he preached, attempting to help where he could. We were speaking two entirely different languages. “Got it,” I responded as I trudged back to the outfield after striking out again. Clearly I had not “got it” at all.

I wasn’t rebelling on purpose, but in high school I did not need to care about any of that. The majority of high school pitchers were either not good enough or not smart enough to pick at my weaknesses. Eventually they would concede and throw me a fat fastball. In college however the pitchers were too good for a hitter to just go up there and hit. The same fact runs true at the next level as well. For those who master college baseball, the trend is seen again in the professional arena. There, every pitcher is even better and thus the hitter must evolve as an even more sophisticated and disciplined machine.

Student-athletes worked on a linear schedule, bouncing from one event or task to the next. The stretches on the timeline not filled in with something were rare, but became an important part of my day. I came to enjoy sitting by my computer during my breaks from homework, listening to music in the background while the late evening breeze that only an early fall night can generate swept in through the open windows. Good day at the field or bad, the precious moments were mine, something coveted as a student-athlete. Finally quiet, I had a few moments to think about these new baseball thoughts that Hitchcock had been discussing from an objective standpoint.

Some nights though the isolation was a burden and I instead used my free moments to chat it up with my suitemates. Gatorade® in hand, I’d make my way into one of the other rooms to see what was going on in their world. Sometimes the aim was to talk shop and bounce new ideas and thoughts about baseball off them, but on rare occasions it was to escape the conundrums of the college game and to instead rehash a particular memorable off field event we shared together.

“I don’t know if I’ll figure this out,” I said to suitemate Jeff Dennis one night, deciding I needed to talk baseball. “You’re fine man,” he assured me. “You’re athletic and not doing that bad.” It was all relative, and my anchor was still high school baseball and a .400 batting average.

Everybody has a different timetable, and it is one of the most difficult puzzles that a coaching staff tries to solve. For every player who develops into a superstar, there are countless players who never live up to their billing. There is a reason the MLB draft goes longer than three rounds. Player development is not an exact science. Instead, it takes time and effort to sort out which prospects and draftees will rise to the top and which ones will ultimately need to be released.

Sorting out the pile however means making assumptions. In this imperfect system the first round draft picks and top recruits are typically given the benefit of the doubt, and there are enough fairy tales of magical turnarounds that validate this strategy. What gets less discussion though is how many high round draft picks or late college signees get cut before ever getting their chance to transform into a prince. Most never pan out, but others are ousted from the castle before they can realize their true talent. I knew I was one of these players that initially hovered right around sea level. I had my days early on where I put two or three balls out in a batting practice and looked like the superstar within me, but there were also the “other days” that were a grind. And as a “mid-round” pick I could still go either way in the minds of my coaches; a possible late bloomer or a recruit who never could regain that graceful look of his high school days.

Nonetheless, I managed to survive the fall and as the snow arrived I moved into my first off-season. Over the next 180 days I hoped to inch closer to elite status and was excited to get going in an environment more conducive to experimentation and uninhibited growth. With the callous northern air overpowering the remnants of sweet summer, the spring seemed like an unreachable peak. In just six months though we would be there at last, Opening Day, and I wanted to be ready.

 

SOURCES:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binghamton_Bearcats (image)

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