They call college baseball the purest form of good baseball. But I had forgotten… life on a bus, dinner at Golden Corral, and the fun that comes with a baseball team on the road.
Greenville, SC – Let me open by saying…that you’ve never lived until you take a baseball bus trip with a college baseball team.
And let me also say that hope springs eternal, and it’s true.
The last time I was with the UD baseball team on the road was exactly one year ago this weekend. It was after a three game series in South Carolina in which the shell-shocked Flyers had played against southern teams with a month outdoors to their credit already. They lost badly in all three.
The trip home was not pleasant. Players huddled in their seats on the 9-hour ride back.
Head coach Tony Vittorio sat by himself in the front seat of the bus, contemplating the week of work ahead, and another series in South Carolina – the same trip, just different teams – the following weekend.
Assistant coaches talked quietly among themselves, searching for clues, and quick clues, for improvement. It never came. Ultimately, the Flyers finished the 2016 season with a 19-36 record and a lot more long, long bus trips.
But hope in baseball does spring eternal, I swear. Traveling with the Flyers this weekend for their opening series with Furman University, you would have never known this team had ever had as much as a bloody nose. With an almost complete turnover of personnel, including twelve true freshmen on a travel roster of thirty, the mood is high, refreshed, and optimistic. Like the old Ray Miland movie, It Happens Every Spring, baseball is fun again.
They say that college baseball is the purest, and most fun, form of good baseball. And I think that’s true. I remember my own experience, playing for the Ohio State Buckeyes, forty years ago, and the pride and excitement of representing your school and the camaraderie among teammates – one for all, and all for one.
You could hear it from the back of the bus Thursday night, cruising down I-75. There were card games. video games, conversations about classes, family, and girl friends. There was anticipation among the freshmen who asked the veterans – what it’s like to play someone from another school? Are we as good as them? Are they as good as us? In my day we called it…seeing the elephant.
Baseball on the road always reminds me of those road trips between cities in the minor leagues during my eight years as an umpire in the Florida State League, the Southern League, and the Triple A leagues. Endless miles and signs, exits and fast food restaurants. It’s comforting that Krystal is still open and apparently strong in the South.
As a player I remember my first road trip with the Buckeyes, to Miami, Florida, and having Ohio State pick up the tab for the greatest adventure of my life. It was like the ultimate vacation…and you got to play baseball as a bonus!
The caveat was, however….you had to play good baseball. You have to at this level. It’s either that or you don’t make the next road trip. No more high school anymore.
My most memorable experience on a bus trip came during my junior year at OSU. Instead of flying to Florida for the spring trip (there was just one trip back then), we bused down and stopped on the first day to play a doubleheader somewhere in North Carolina. It didn’t go well; and it ended with a young second baseman who failed to cover a base, or something, and that play ultimately cost us the game.
We boarded the bus in silence and headed on down the interstate towards Atlanta. After an hour the players began to talk and loosen up. Normalcy returned after a hundred miles…we thought. But when we got to Atlanta the bus turned toward the airport and lo and behold, the coaches took that second baseman off the bus, bought a ticket to Columbus, and put him on a plane for home. The lesson learned? Do your job. It might be spring break, but games mattered, as did jobs, futures, and reputations.
The bus stopped halfway to Greenville Thursday night for dinner, and I had forgotten how much college kids can eat – like a she wolf with pups! The Golden Corral in London, Kentucky took notice. I’m not sure, but there appeared to be a re-negotiation of the bill after some made their third trip back to the steak grill.
The beauty of this trip boils down to those dozen freshman, all eager to get there and play their first college baseball game. There was a buzz in the back of the bus – anticipation, a bit of unsuredness.
I remember it well, hoping that I wouldn’t embarrass myself. I also remember the high I felt afterwards when I discovered that baseball is baseball wherever you go. Everyone struggles to hit the curveball.
Freshmen Jordan Cox and R.J. Wagner, high school teammates from Zionsville, Indiana, confessed to having the same apprehension.
“We’ve talked about that,” admitted Wagner. “It’s pretty exciting to be here, and you wonder what it’s going to be like.”
“But it’s just another game when we do play,” says Cox. “We wouldn’t be here if they (the coaches) didn’t think we could do it.”
I smiled as I rested back in my seat for the final four hours of the drive. Those twelve freshmen – those 19 new faces on the Dayton roster – are gonna’ be fine. If not tomorrow, then another day. With baseball you don’t have long to wait, and there’s not an airport in sight on this trip.
It happens every spring, just like in the movie. Hope does spring eternal.