If you have a son playing college baseball for the first time it’s important to keep this in mind…it’s different, plain and simple, than the culture and expectations you’ve previously experienced. Be prepared.
Just days now from the opening of the 2024 NCAA baseball season, and a wonderful experience for both college athlete, and family, alike, I’m going to share with you something that you will rarely see written.
In fact, I’m pretty sure you won’t see this written, anywhere else, pertaining to college sports.
Plain and simple, it’s different – the mindset, the expectations, and the reality of what happens day-to-day has ramifications far beyond short-term excitement, and emotion. Yeah, it’s different from how it was in high school.
It has a different importance – the responsibilities – how everyone ascends to the next level of reality and duty. The stakes are higher for program and athletes, alike, and that’s a good thing for the sake of baseball and the matriculation of student-athletes becoming young adults.
Several years ago, while covering another baseball beat, I witnessed the situation of a young freshman called in to pitch his team out of a base-loaded jam. The game was on the line, his team up a run in the bottom of the ninth, but momentum was squarely on the side of home team. He needed two outs, and this was his first collegiate experience.
He got the first out on a popup in foul territory…on his second pitch.
Then he got the final out…on a 3-2 count, a pitch that the hitter chased. Game over, the win secured, the young pitcher threw a total of just nine pitches.
Celebration, of course, with his teammates, and later with his family, who had traveled to share his debut as a college baseball player – a dreamed-about experience for hundreds of young men each year.
This was on a Friday, the first of a three-game series in the sunny South, but in a new and different baseball culture where success can never be taken for granted. It can overtake your edge, dull your mental preparedness, and that’s exactly what happened.
Because on Sunday, just 48 hours later, this same young pitcher was called into the game again. This time it didn’t go well – a line drive to the outfield that drove in a pair of runs. Down a run at this point, the next hitter delivered the hammer, a two-run homer on a mistake pitch that ensured a series-clinching win.
The euphoria of Friday was suddenly gone, replaced by the reality that no one in Division I college baseball is invincible, or lucky all the time. Mistakes in the strike zone do get popped up in the infield, but not nearly as often as in high school.
The player’s family, who celebrated with him on Friday, was now moved to console.
“You didn’t deserve to be in that situation,” his dad told him, while he waited to board the bus for the six-hour trip home. “You did your job Friday. Today someone else needed to step up, not you.”
Take a breath. And consider what I just wrote. Because it happened, I witnessed it, and it still happens. It’s college baseball, and something different from what you just left.
It’s a culture of daily, not weekly, expectation. There’s no such thing of you doing your job on Friday, and then getting six days off before you’re asked to do it again. It may happen, but no guarantees.
It’s a culture where careers are on the line in some cases, for both players and coaches, governed by consistency.
Coaches futures are at stake. In some cases…legacies. They’re known, they’re hired, and they’re fired for their ability to pick and develop talent that can deliver a winning outcome. And rarely do they make the excuse, publicly, of a player not doing his job, because failure is a part of baseball. But they do remember.
It’s an emotion, and a reality, that everyone who’s played the game has experienced. First impressions are good; but second chances, and what you do with them, are more realistic, and often more important.
Baseball at this level is about executing, delivering on the training you get on a daily basis. Practice is not a routine, like in high school. When it’s time to bunt you’re expected to be dependable. With two strikes and a man in scoring position you have to make contact, despite the fact that 50% of the time you may not. Striking out is not an option, just like walking the leadoff hitter.
The margin for error is less, and the sooner you understand, and make the mental adjustment the better the experience is for everyone.
Baseball at the professional level is often referred to as a job. As a parent, this is just the next step in that pursuit, should your child be so fortunate; and no different than your own career experience.
Baseball is no longer just a Friday responsibility. It is your ‘job’ when you’re handed the ball. Now, you have to be ready for Saturday, and sometimes…Sunday!
Baseball is supposed to be fun, that’s true. But this is a different culture of fun, the best you’ll ever know. It can set you apart.
And it only gets better from here.