March 20th marked the beginning of Spring Break. To the working world Spring Break had become a distant memory, just one more foreign and illusory concept they were no longer privileged to. For college students Spring Break meant a great migration. The campus emptied out as classmates made for warmer weather, exotic destinations, or simply home cooking. The week off from class meant adventure. It meant youth. It meant parties. For the baseball players though, it simply meant Kansas.
With a string of days off, we made our way by plane to Kansas State to start our “west coast” swing. It was my first trip to the breadbasket portion of the country, and quickly discovered that Kansas was exactly what I had imagined it to be; miles and miles of flat farmland. Kansas State’s campus was a few hours drive from the airport so myself and the seven other guys in the van had plenty of time to watch corn grow and listen to Toby Keith.
After a long day of travel, we finally pulled up to the hotel, conveniently located across the street from the Kansas State campus. Although exhausted, I decided to put my bag in the room and venture out in the hope of seeing as much of the school and surrounding area as possible. It was driven by a curiosity of how other schools went about their business.
College campuses are like living organisms, each one reacts differently to various stimuli. Binghamton was a concrete world that focused on functionality. The school eschewed glamour and little sparked excitement. The campus was modernizing and bustling with activity, but it always fought to distance itself from its hardcoded-DNA. Some of this was the weather’s fault, some of this the design of the campus, and some of this the budget. Nevertheless, the look, feel, and student demographics all helped mold the university’s culture. New York City and Los Angeles are both large American cities, but each maintains its own unique feel. College campuses are the same.
Getting to observe another campus while in full swing was a culturally thrilling experience. Seeing the flower lined pathways of Kansas State filled with students and administrators walking toward Fairchild hall – the landmark building with its tan and gray stone facade and angled roof – gave me a rare insight into what another college looked like when the machine was turned “on” to full blast.
What I came to discover over time was that such features as bright sunny days, water fountains spewing up in elegant columns, and a large, modern student union were all buzz words that when considered in the aggregate could potentially alter one’s perception of college life and its culture. If prominent enough they could even alter one’s ultimate opinion of his or her college experience. But aside from mammoth additions like a top ten football program, once most of these extremities were chiseled away, the majority of colleges marched to the same drum at their core, meaning experiences were better defined by such features as friends, classes, and interests. Maybe the buildings were a bit nicer or a bit bigger elsewhere (and they usually were), but aside from “game days,” a four-year college was a four-year college no matter what building you took a class in or what quad you studied in.
The college towns, however, were far from similar and made an indisputable difference. The decaying downtown Binghamton, which was holding on to the school’s 16,000 students for dear life, was a relic of older times, and although it still provided a lot to the student body, the city survived just above the flat line. This was in stark contrast to Aggieville.
Aggieville was a true college town submerged within Manhattan, Kansas. Established in 1889, the town has served as the community center for KSU for over a century. With its standard local bars, University school store, Buffalo Wild Wings®, and local spirit shops, one could not overlook the positive vibes emanating from the surroundings. Purple and gray Wildcat banners hung from the windows and flapped in the cool spring air. I didn’t know if the town stole its image from the movies or if the movies stole the image from this town, but Aggievillewas Collegetown, USA.[i]
As with many of the big-sport programs in the country however, Kansas State’s athletic facilities were not adjacent to their main campus or located within their downtown area, so we needed to take a five minute drive down the road in order to enter the stunning “K State Sports Complex,” complete with a football stadium, track, and baseball stadium.
We poured into the dugout like little kids trying to get Derek Jeter’s autograph. To no one’s surprise, the Wildcats’ baseball stadium was remarkable, with row upon row of purple box seats behind home plate and perfectly trimmed evergreens lining the outfield fence. The school had just installed a new turf, and the stadium, renovated in 2002, still looked as if it was just taken out of the box. Below the seats was the team’s expansive 3,150 square foot locker room, which included flat screen TVs, leather couches, a ping-pong table, and thirty-three custom-built wood lockers. In the middle of the gray carpet rested an impressive “Wildcat” emblem. Next door to this was the weight room facility, specially designed to complement a baseball player’s workout. Even for a Big 12 team, it was hard to not shake your head in approval of what KSU had done with Tointon Family Stadium.[ii]
Kansas State never overpowered us in our three-game series but instead steadily beat us down. We were never out of a game or embarrassed; rather we were slowly dissected piece by piece by a slightly better ball club. My own weekend marched to the same tune. Besides a nice two strike opposite field base hit, my unremarkable series was far from making the “game summary” that was posted on our website after each contest. Although it was a far cry from watching yourself make a diving catch on SportsCenter, it was nonetheless rewarding after a well-played game to see your name appear in the game wrap-up online. Without postgame analysis on ESPN, this was our version of publicity for our individual and team accomplishments.
Before heading back east, we finished our Kansas trip with two games versus nearby Wichita State. If I had thought that Kansas State had lavish facilities, Wichita State’s were pure royalty, having one of the best college stadiums in the nation. “Eck Stadium is nicer than most Minor League stadiums,” Coach Hurba said as the palace came into site from the highway. “Wow,” were my only words.
Most of the credit of what existed before my eyes was due to Head Coach Gene Stevens. In 1977, Coach Stevens took the program over when baseball ceased to exist at Wichita State. The program had been shut down for seven years and there was little to no history of success. In the next thirty-plus years, Stevens changed that. Under his leadership, the Shockers went to seven College World Series and countless NCAA tournaments. His most impressive feat, however, may be overseeing the program when Eck Stadium was built.[iii]
Eck stadium is the holy grail of college baseball facilities. In 2008, the Shockers averaged 4,168 fans per game, 12th best in the country. Behind home plate box seats wrapped half-way around the base paths. However, above those blue seats was another large section of green seats, followed by another section of yellow seats. Acting as the roof to the top deck of seats was the floor of at least ten luxury suites.[iv]
There was also an entire extra section of seating down the right field line for the crucial conference games when the crowd spilled over and above normal capacity. Behind the outfield fence the hard-core hecklers were positioned. Wichita didn’t have everything, but it did have college baseball.
What really topped off the stadium however were the two extra levels above the scores of seats and suites behind home plate, which included the press boxes and the All-American Club, exclusively set aside for invited guests. An estimated 27% of athletic revenues are generated through donations and boosters. For these charitable contributions, which are typically tax deductible, one normally expects perks above those available to the common fan. To the generous supporters of Shocker baseball who gave substantial donations to the Wichita State program for example, one of their major bonuses was to watch the game from the inner confines of the All-American Club. It could easily have gone head to head with the Yankees’ elite Audi club in Yankee Stadium.[v] [vi]
Even for a non-conference game against a “no-name northeast school,” the stadium was packed with more fans than we would see for all of our home games combined. It was challenging to not be extremely intimidated by the stage we found ourselves on. To complement their stadium was an arsenal of talented young ballplayers lead by their third basemen, Conor Gillaspie, the 2007 Cape Cod MVP and eventual supplemental first round pick of the San Francisco Giants, who signed for $970,000. Sixteen players from their team would end up being drafted or signed.[vii]
Upsets are one of the best aspects of sports. It is one reason March Madness© has captivated the country as it has. On any given day two #15 seeds in basketball can take down two #2 seeds within hours of each other. In baseball a #4 seed, equivalent to a #13 seed in basketball, could win a National Championship. There is always the slim chance that a lesser team can slay a Goliath. The strategy for taking down the King is usually to quickly convince your opponent that you are a threat and make him feel the pressure bearing down. If you can stick around long enough and start to put doubt into the giant’s heart, there is a chance for a miracle. Make it close going into the fourth quarter, into the third period, into the final set, or into the 7th inning and maybe, just maybe, you have a chance.[viii] [ix]
Conversely, the worst thing that can happen to a team looking for an upset is to get down by a wide margin early. Indeed, our dream of a big upset was instantly shot down when before blinking, we were behind 9-0 in the second inning to the number eleven-ranked team in the country. Though we held onto hope that an alternative strategy of lulling the great beast into over-confidence could work, nine runs were simply too much to give. Instantly taken out of the game, Wichita State walked over us for an easy victory.
Watching the game unfold from the dugout I was perplexed as to why exactly this team was so effortlessly able to defeat us. What separated the eleventh best team in the nation from say the two hundredth best team in the nation, and how big of a separation was this? The RPI rankings (Rating Percentage Index) tried to use an algorithm consisting of a team’s wins and losses and its strength of schedule to answer that question but it was far from a tell-all number.[x]
Though two teams could be separated in the rankings by a large gap, the fact remained that even at a baseball factory like Wichita State, nine out ten players would fizzle out before making it anywhere close to “The Show.” The difference between a Wichita State and a Binghamton team then was narrow when looking at individual components, but grew in size when comparing the overall quality of the teams.
The disparity lay in-between the cracks. It was the distinction between running a 6.7 60-yard dash as opposed to a 7.0. Throwing 92 mph instead of 88 mph. Hitting the ball 400 feet instead of 380. Barreling the ball up once every three times instead of once every four. Cleanly fielding nine out of ten grounders versus eight out of ten. One player being able to do this better than anyone on the other team amounted to very little. However, when seven or eight guys were superior, even if just by the narrowest of margins, you got one team ranked #11 and one listed on page four of the rankings.
As one progresses up the ladder, this gap in talent between different teams and different players continue to widen, each time eliminating the bottom rungs. Thus, the disparity between any two connected levels, such as a mid-major program and a top twenty-five Division I program are apparent, but still slim enough to offer up the occasional upset. That is why America East teams could beat ACC teams on any given day, but why it was still so rare. The slight difference in ability, stature, and talent are magnified when there are nine guys on one side of the field who are all just a little bit better. It adds up, and suddenly you find yourself down 9-0 in the second inning.
The next night we played Wichita State much closer however, proving that though the divide was evident, it was not insurmountable. Half-way through the game, I was entered in as a pinch-hitter, my lone appearance in the series. “Now batting, number fourteen, from Milford, Connecticut, the designated hitter, Ken Jacobi,” the PA boomed over the loudspeakers. I had told myself in the on-deck circle to not peek at the live video feed on the scoreboard during my at bat, but couldn’t help myself as I approached the plate. I immediately picked up the green in my jersey on the screen and had to look down quickly before anyone noticed. “Cool as a cat,” I said as I roped a hard hit sacrifice fly to center field.
As the short series ended, I fought away the guilt of playing so few innings with my parents in attendance and tried to understand what they got out of simply being around the team, the game, and me. “We have the time of our lives traveling,” my parents told me on a consistent basis. My dad for one had lived the game and then lost it with age and time. He understood better than I did how the run wouldn’t last forever. “Of course I want to see you play Ken. But just being there is enough.”
Although it seemed like a disastrous trip dropping all five contests, it was considered a constructive learning experience, as even going 5-0 wouldn’t have earned us an at-large bid into the NCAA Regionals. It was also the hope that these types of matchups would better prepare us for future games against northeast programs, like our upcoming games against Fairleigh Dickinson (FDU).
On reputation alone, Wichita State and the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights were exact opposites. Labeled by our team as “Fairly Ridiculous,” the Knights baseball team was in shambles. In 2007 they finished 9-45. The year before that they were 10-43. Stepping off the bus into the chilly New Jersey morning and looking at their field we began to understand the root of the program’s problem; funding. “We just played at one of the top ten facilities in the country, and I think it’s safe to say that Farleigh Dickinson’s field may be one of the worst five facilities in all college baseball,” Jeff Dennis said. “Yeah, and that includes Division II and III too,” I added.
The surface and surroundings eerily resembled a Babe Ruth field that hadn’t been watered or raked in weeks. Goose droppings were spread across the hay spotted field like confetti the morning after New Year’s Eve. Within thirty-six hours we had gone from two state of the art stadiums holding thousands, to wooden bleachers that sat about fifty lonely and cold souls. The geese mulling about in the outfield were not part of my official tally.[xi]
A team never intentionally dogs it during a game or goes into a match not wanting to win, but there are undoubtedly different levels of intensity and urgency that a team exhibits. This particular weekend was a textbook example of that. Unlike the Wichitas of the world, we didn’t have the majestic stadiums and magical crowds roaring and inspiring us to victory, or even to compete. Without those sparks provided for us, we had to create it ourselves. When things were going badly or when we were playing in a scenario such as that against FDU, it wasn’t always so easy to self-motivate. In fact, it was all too easy to overlook FDU in anticipation of the next week’s conference opener vs. Stony Brook. The end result was a subpar 2-2 weekend. I had seen and heard an angrier Coach Sinicki before, but I never saw a more disgusted one. After everything he had put into the program, to lose to a team like Farleigh Dickinson must have burned his insides. I know it burned mine.
On the bus ride home I had wished I could have done more to help the team. Sliding ever deeper into a mid-season funk, I was willing to try just about anything to get out of it. There were the usual remedies that I tried over the weekend such as extra batting practice in-between games, but I also explored more unique solutions such as drinking a full Gatorade® before each game to get my electrolytes up, as well as hitting with my batting gloves unvelcroed to “loosen up my body.”
Other ideas as well made sense in my mind, but lacked evidence or support that they were any more effective than the other two illogical ones. “What are you doing?!” asked my hotel roommate Tom Baileys. “Uh, just taking some dry swings in the mirror,” I replied sheepishly. “In your sliders?” he bellowed out in his typical roar-like laughter. “I had some time to kill waiting for the shower. Just trying to get my hands to feel comfortable in my stance. I guess it is pretty silly.” I realized then how ludicrous my actions must have looked to an outsider. “Let’s just pretend this didn’t happen,” I suggested. It was easier to do that than to explain to him how I was trying to make sense of such a broken world.
There were real and better ways to become a better hitter than the ways I was trying; I just hadn’t learned them yet. Granted, if I thought there was a chance it would help I could rationalize trying it, but unfortunately acts like “boxer brief dry swings” seemed to only pull me further away from the fundamental problems that lay buried deep in my mental approach and game plan. “The things the “walking dead” will do to find their “slump buster,” Baileys said. “Just stay away from Matt’s sister,” he roared. That was enough to get laughter from all parties in the room and to end the conversation.
Our Sunday games had been even colder than those on Saturday and presented even more goose droppings on the field as well. Unfortunately the theme followed suit and we had even more trouble beating the FDU Knights than a day before. We were losing game three going into the 7th inning, but managed to squeak a late run across to tie the game and force extra innings. We were down to our final out when Pete Bregartner singled in the tying run. Our bench, which was just that (as opposed to an actual dugout) breathed a sigh of relief.
In the 8th inning I pinch-hit with one on and two out. This role was starting to feel all too common now. I got an outside fastball and punished it to deep left field for a game-winning RBI double, my lone hit on the weekend. It was that quick and simple. One second I was on the bench freezing my butt off, in a slump, and the next second I was standing on second base, having just struck the game-winning hit.
We carried none of the momentum to the next game though and got beat 3-2. It was time to get out of New Jersey as quickly as possible. For the first time in a long time, we all looked forward to Monday morning classes. We needed to put our 2-7 road trip behind us. Even though we were only 7-15, we were 0-0 in conference and that’s the only number that mattered. It would have been calming to have confidence going into our opening weekend at Stony Brook, but we weren’t living in a perfect world. We were living in the northeast.