Chapter 68: “East Carolina Regional”

Chapter 68

When getting home from a long day of work or a set of three consecutive classes, the first thing many people do is flip on the TV and see what games are playing. It is as natural as lemonade in the summer to sit back, relax, and watch a ballgame while eating dinner. Through all of the commotion of a typical day however, one can easily discount what the players are doing before they magically show up on that new 55” flat screen TV. Did the athletes wake up late? What did they eat for breakfast? Did they get a lift in? What time did they get to the field?

The athlete’s “off-screen” lifestyle seemed to be a secret, hidden behind a cloak of mystery. With our game slated for the evening however, I was forced to get a glimpse into the routine of a professional gearing up for a big night game. I woke up late and got a nice meal at the hotel restaurant. The rest of the vapid day consisted of ESPN, rehab on my aching leg, and a team meeting to discuss the pitchers who we would see later that night. When the large crowds amassed at the stadium a few hours later, they didn’t give a second’s thought to the preparation that we went through. When they “turned on the TV” all they wanted to see was a baseball game. Fittingly, we were there to play one. Unfittingly, there wouldn’t be one to play.

Anxious to get to the stadium, we had arrived at the field early so we could watch the end of the George Mason – South Carolina game which preceded ours. Seeing the Regional up close started to get the nervous juices flowing in our bodies. “There are going to be another 2,000 fans on top of this,” said one of the officials under the tent near us. I gazed up at the almost already full stadium expecting to feel a sense of awe, but instead of taking in the sea of green and maroon shirts, gray and black clouds flashed into my line of site. “Oh no,” I bellowed. “Are those more rain clouds?” Less than five minutes later my question was answered with a lightning bolt that streaked across the dusk sky. As happened at the conference tournament, the game before ours was delayed. Again, it was raining on our parade.

With no gymnasium in which to sit out the storm this time, we were forced to wait it out on our bus. This was a much more somber and frustrating experience than the previous delay. As the rain continued to fall we became seriously concerned that our “hammer” crowd was not going to stick around for the game. “Not again,” complained pitcher Walker McKinven.

Baseball lingo travels through a team like a contagious virus. It moves quickly and infects everybody. The origin of most terms cannot be reliably traced, but within days the entire team is sputtering out words or phrases that would be unrecognizable to an outside observer. “Hammer” became one such word and before long guys who had a great respect for the English language were using “hammer” to describe anything large and/or powerful. This ranged from a hammer curveball (a tight, late breaking ball), to a hammer test (a very difficult exam), to a hammer crowd (a large and boisterous throng of people). With the rain continuing to pour down though, we literally saw our hammer crowd drive away one car at a time.

After a lengthy delay, the South Carolina game finally drew to its conclusion. Immediately after, our team hurried onto the field like pigs lets out of the pen. What was left of the home crowd began filling back into the open seats with surges of purple and yellow. As game time approached, I felt like a gladiator staring up into the roaring crowd of the Coliseum. This metaphor was quickly expunged however with a flash of lightning snapping me out of my imaginary world.

This time the lightning, soon to be followed by rain, was here to stay. At 10:30 p.m. the NCAA official entered the field and with a weak wrist sliced his hand through the air, “Game’s postponed,” he signaled. Out of the thirty-two Regional games scheduled, only one was delayed. “Guys we have to be back at the field at 8 a.m.,” Coach told us as we were packing up. I immediately looked at John Miele and laughed. We had sarcastically hugged and congratulated each other the week prior when we thought we were finally done enduring two nine inning games on the same day. Now, we had one more long, long day of baseball to go.

Making our way to the parking lot, our team was stopped by a short, stocky man who appeared to be apprehending the team like he was part of a secret police force. “Jeff, Murphy, and Joe,” we overheard, “go with this man, he will administer your drug test.” While the rest of us snuck back to the hotel and sleep, a few unlucky “lottery winners” had to go to an undisclosed location and pee in a cup in front of a grown man. The NCAA was strict with their drug policy and made sure it was followed accordingly, especially come tournament time. Unfortunately for the select few who did not come back with us to the hotel, they had to endure almost three hours of misery before being cleared.

When we got to the field at 8 a.m. the next morning I was downright tired. So too appeared the crowd. The energy level of the night before looked as if it had been washed away with the rain. “The stadium seems to be on sleep mode,” I told a weary eyed John Miele as we were warming up. “The crowd seems hung over from a night of drinking,” laughed John. The crowd started to emerge from its slumber though when our starting pitcher Murphy Smith’s first pitch of the game was launched over the fence for a home run.

As the game progressed, I prayed that things would not quickly spiral out of control. Just getting to a Regional was a dream, but now that we were here, we wanted to compete. Things were close to unraveling entering the fifth inning, down 11-2, and in danger of entering the “embarrassing zone.” Then finally, like a switch that was flipped to “on,” we began to turn things around. Playing a nationally ranked team, in a threatening environment was intimidating. Like anything new, it was scary and took time for us to get going.

From the fifth inning onward however, we outscored the Pirates 5-0 and just slightly, flexed our muscles to the crowd. James Giulietti came out of the pen and threw a brilliant 4 2/3 innings of shutout baseball. All of a sudden these Gods came to the plate looking very mortal — more like college hitters with flaws rather than the Major Leaguers we had been comparing them to.

As the game crept into the later innings and remained close, I felt a level of intensity that was not easily matched in my career. For most, like me, this game would be held high on a pedestal when comparing it to all others. Even for those who did continue on into professional baseball, this game would become the benchmark of what a baseball game could be. Crowds of a few hundred in a rinky-dink stadium was a future in baseball, one that could even possibly lead to the Promised Land, but in terms of atmosphere, could never be compared to this. For 99% of our careers, the games at East Carolina were the apex. We lost 11-7, but when the game ended, the ECU fans sighed a breath of relief. It was a game when looking back that could have easily tilted our way.

Without time to reflect on “what could have been,” we took our gear and walked across to the designated home team dugout. We sat patiently as George Mason (GMU) prepared under the hot, blazing sun of early summer.

Perhaps it was the name “George Mason” that was not as intimidating as East Carolina. Perhaps it was the subdued feel of the stadium after playing in front of such a large and animated home crowd moments before. Perhaps we were just a better team than anyone gave us credit for. Whatever the reason, GMU looked flat warming up across from us. “Don’t they look tired?” I asked. “We can knock these guys down. Are you kidding me?” said Matt Simone in his usual excited tone. “They are beatable,” agreed Coach Hurba.

The game was a battle of two top mid-major programs living out dream seasons, but for whatever reason we seemed to care much more than they did about not ending ours. Why we felt that a nationally ranked team that had compiled a record-breaking 42-14 season with six soon-to-be draft picks was beatable made no rational sense. But that was baseball. They were damn good. But mysteriously on this random day in this random game, we were a lot better.[i]

Whether it was out of respect or strategy, Coach decided I would get one more game, just one more moment. “All I want is one more hit,” I told myself as I moseyed up to plate. “Just one hit at a Regional. Just one more hit in front of my family. Just one more,” I begged of myself. “Just one more time.” I wasn’t supposed to be rusty out there. Hitting at this point was supposed to be like riding a bike; just hop back on after a few weeks off. But hitting wasn’t like that. And real life wasn’t a fairy tale either. So after walking back to the dugout upon striking out in my first at bat, I knew that there was a chance this day would not get any better.

Watching the game progress felt like being part of a game of speed chess. Each player moved a piece in split second time before banging on the clock to tell his opponent, “Your turn.” The innings piled onto each other like it was a video game where a simple tap of the X could fast forward you through the many undertones of a baseball game; the time in-between pitches, the changing of sides, the foul balls. The game’s pace moved too fast to register these instances into a game log.

I knew time was against me and that I was a “dead man walking.” Jeff Dennis on the other hand couldn’t have possibly known at that moment that he would never pitch competitively again. I watched Jeff perform on the mound inning after inning against George Mason like he was a gymnast gracefully moving through the air with no visible signs of effort or struggle. “This must be what it’s like to know you are better,” I remarked to freshman pitcher Mike Augliera who was sitting next to me as Jeff mowed down George Mason 1-2-3, again. Going into the top of the sixth we were winning 4-2 with Jeff keeping us in control of the game at all times. When Jeff Dennis came out of the game after five strong innings he walked over to the cooler and pulled out a bag of ice. He had recorded a lot of innings over the course of the season and wanted to get it ready for whoever would choose to draft him in a week.

Looking back, Jeff should have transferred. Not because Binghamton wasn’t a great experience for him or a tremendous success. His diploma and lifelong friends were the definition of accomplishment. He loved the school, the people, and being close to home. He should have left only in hindsight because a few days later when the draft occurred his name was left off the list. Dejected, he chose thereafter to give up baseball, though not without valid reasons. He had been blown a lot of smoke over the previous two years from many different sources regarding his draft status and felt burned when nothing came of it. Jeff never got that one break he needed. He never had the coach who fine-tuned his mechanics and helped develop his inner game. He never had the necessary connections with scouts. He never had that one perfect start that would have made national headlines.

The coaches at Binghamton knew of the potential that lay in Jeff from the get-go and immediately began to groom him into being a future key weekend (conference) starter. He saw more innings than most and had the lucky opportunity to not only play, but to also earn a degree in engineering and enjoy a terrific off the field experience as well. Still, the end result was a “failure,” as described in the most complementary of ways. For a 6’6” lefty with brains who could hit 90 mph on the gun (not to mention a hook that constantly gave me immense trouble in practice), he had to get drafted. He was too talented and had too much potential not to.

It made me think, something I did a lot on our long trips. I wondered how important a good (or bad) coach was to a player’s development. Could someone “make or break” a player, or just refine him? How much impact could one person truly have on a guy, mentally and/or physically? Was it the strength and conditioning program that hadn’t molded Jeff’s body into the physical specimen he needed to be or was it genetics? Was it the coaching staff that hadn’t worked hard enough to get him the exposure and contacts that he needed? Or perhaps it was on Jeff himself for not making sure he’d be a top draft pick, though I felt in this instance that this wasn’t the case. No matter where the blame lay however, the end result was not what it should have been. Thus, when looking back with 20/20 hindsight, I had to wonder if it would have been better for Jeff to have gone somewhere else, if for no other reason than knowing that this outcome didn’t end in professional baseball.

Jeff, although talented, was not one of the select few All-Americans who succeeded effortlessly and naturally at the college level, at least initially. Every year I read stories of brilliant college athletes and their historic seasons. The blogs were filled with “top 100” lists and first-hand accounts of seeing these Superstars in action. But the fact was that very few athletes ever made any national stories. Most had to simply fight and battle each day just to be their own success story. There were just too many good players out there. It took very little effort to do the math; not everyone could get the lucky breaks, the unwavering support of his coach, or the spoils that one truly deserved.

Jeff Dennis came into college lanky and skinny, and with a fastball floating around 82 mph. By his junior year however, he was a well-built, athletic pitcher — the perfect example of how much difference three years of maturing could make. As his body changed, Jeff slowly left the 99% and crept into an elite class of pitchers. After a highly hyped junior season, Jeff was disappointed to only be drafted in the 40th round by the Oakland Athletics. He thought he deserved better and considering his 3.97 ERA and 62 strikeouts in just 81 2/3 innings, he had a case. Coming back to school for his senior year was a risk, but a calculated and well thought out one. It was not one however that ultimately panned out.[ii]

But all of this was still in the future when he came out after five quality innings against George Mason. “Great game, Great Bearcat career,” I said, giving him a handshake as I made my way out to the on-deck circle. I had great admiration for him as a friend, person, and baseball player and besides his family in attendance, was the happiest person in the stadium to have witnessed Jeff’s last great collegiate start. Within moments of leaving his world though and reentering mine, I had managed to walk to the plate and chase a borderline 0-1 pitch, popping it up softly to third in another unsuccessful bid for my “final hit.” “Hello again Jeff,” I said, acknowledging the comedic element of managing to make out in record time despite my frustration of doing so. “That was the quickest at bat of all-time Ken,” Jeff said laughing.

I looked up into the bright North Carolina sky and sighed. In my heart I believed that with one or two more at bats I would be locked in again, but staring at the scoreboard and my stat line from the dugout, I wasn’t convinced that there would be another at bat. I was all but out of time.

Professors could try for years and still fail to get the focus out of us like that which we had in the dugout as the game crept into the later innings. Each time we ran out on defense the bench took a deep breathe, only exhaling when the 3rd out was recorded. Each time the offense did its part and contributed additional runs we breathed an extra sigh of relief. For the team the runs meant some margin for error. For me, it meant one more chance.

I stared down at the green BU jersey I had on and the white #14 etched into my batting gloves. For this one more moment I was a baseball player. I waved the metal bat in the air like I was trying to shake off the invisible rust. I wanted to feel the weight of it in my hands, to remember how real it all felt. Dropkick Murphy’s “I’m Shipping up to Boston” blared on the loudspeakers in the background as I walked up to the plate.

I took a deep breath before entering the box like I had done so many times before. I dug my cleats into my normal spot, my left foot scraping the white paint off the back side of the batter’s box, my front foot lined up with the point where the plate turns in to form a pentagon. Snap, I took one final picture for my mind; the purple seats, the feel of a live at bat, the pitcher with his light brown Rawlings glove out in front of his body as he began his warm-up… and then the pitch.

The pitch was a fastball over the outside corner that had caught far too much plate. For a split second, the leather of the ball connected perfectly with the metal alloy of the bat as I flawlessly went with the pitch. The symbolism was not lost on me. A loud ping erupted from the Voodoo bat as the ball reversed direction like a wide receiver making a downfield cut. By the time the pitcher had time to react, the ball was ten feet passed him, touching down softly in the gentle grass of shallow left center field. I hit the corner of first base and took a hard turn toward second, just as I had been trained to do since the days of Little League. The feeling of satisfaction that I sensed when my cleat smacked into the first base bag engrained itself in my mind for all of time.

It was the last hit of my career.

Two innings later we solidified the win, marking the 30th victory of the season, a record for the program. It also marked the sixth straight season we had increased our total in wins. No other team in the nation had completed such a feat. (The next year’s team would make it seven straight seasons with a thirty-one-win campaign.)[iii] [iv]

Still, I thought about all of the games that were rained out and wondered how many wins this team really could have gotten. We missed three games vs. Norfolk State, whose final record was 22-23. We lost one rainout with University of Maryland-Eastern Shore (14-42), a game vs. Sacred Heart (29-27), two games vs. Hartford (15-32) and two vs. University of Maryland-Baltimore County (9-36) — nine games against teams with a combined record of 89-160. “Even if we would have just won six of those games…” I thought, “now that would have been something special.”

Regardless, it was a true dream season. We won our third consecutive America East Regular Season Championship. We won the America East Conference Tournament. We got to the program’s first Regional. We earned the program’s first victory at a Regional. We won a school record thirty games. We had the America East Coach of the Year. We were ranked twelve out of the sixty-nine Northeastern teams. We had a player drafted in the 13th round. Not a bad season, and just the beginning of a proud tradition of program accomplishments that would quickly add up in the years to follow.[v]

As we watched GMU cast their heads down, partly in despair and partly in shock, it occurred to me that I had lived to fight another day. It was a magical feeling walking out of the stadium into the throng of family, friends, and fans. The cheers and celebrations rang out like we were in the streets of Egypt after their successful revolution. The parents were throwing out congratulations like it was a wedding celebration. It was genuine joy in its most wholesome form.

The game had been so emotional that parents and players alike were moved to tears. For the seniors and their parents, this game was the crescendo of a long career. It represented fifteen years’ worth of practices, games, and memories. All of the pain and sweat climaxed in this one victory. It embodied the best parts of college, the best parts of competition, the best parts of hard work, and the best parts of sport. It made worthwhile everything that the players and parents had invested into this program and into this game. This was our payoff, a decade-plus in the making.

We had bought one more day. Our pitching was depleted, we were worn down and would need a small miracle to dethrone both East Carolina and South Carolina in the same day. As I shut my eyes for bed at night, I knew that in twenty-four hours my personal journey would be complete, and my baseball career as a player would be over. “I am ready,” I declared into the darkness of the night. “One more day, then I move on.” I barely got the words out before falling briskly to sleep.
SOURCES

[i]http://gomason.cstv.com/sports/m-basebl/sched/gema-m-basebl-sched.html

[ii]http://www.bubearcats.com/sports/base/dennisdraft.html

[iii]http://www.bubearcats.com/sports/base/ncaa09-mason.html

[iv]http://www.bubearcats.com/sports/base/schedule10.html

[v]Murphy Smith, Oakland A’s

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