Monday, May 29, 2006

My Week of Walkon Tryouts

No opportunity wasted. That was the motto I went with when I decided to try out for the Notre Dame baseball team at the beginning of sophomore year. Sure I was a longshot, but I'd rather try and fail than always wonder what if. I found out that a kid who lived down the hall from me in Fisher - Matt - was also trying out for the team. Matt and I had had freshman comp together the previous year. He was a Cleveland Browns fan from Arizona. The large number of "Browns Backers" in the Phoenix area have roots in the days when Cleveland had its own national TV presence similar to Notre Dame football's NBC contract; their are similar followings in Los Angeles and as far away as Africa.

Matt told me that a third Fisher resident was trying out, a freshman named Greg. I've always contended that baseball players are either the nicest people in the world or the meanest people in the world. Greg convincingly falls into the former category. We met Greg at the ticket window of the football stadium (it was football ticket lottery time) and walked over to the baseball field, Frank Eck Stadium.

The trio of Fisher residents joined the other potential walkons in the bleachers down the third base line. Day one, Sunday, was easy enough: fill out an information sheet and set the practice times for the rest of the week. The form had space for a primary and secondary position. For primary, I scribbled in 2B. It was a fair choice, by that point I had been playing second base for a few years. I had as good a chance there as anywhere else. But what to put in the secondary spot? I had been an outfielder my entire life prior to becoming a second baseman. I started to write OF on the line, then stopped. Generically listing myself as an outfielder implied that I could play centerfield. Implying that I could play center also implied that I had range and was a competent outfielder. So I hastily crammed RF/LF into what little space I had.

The last section of the form was uniform information. It mostly asked sizes, but also included a spot for "Preferred Uniform Number." I took care to write in a perfect numeral 4, my lucky number from high school. Filling out the uniform section, I was reminded of the time Hannigan told me he was given a full set of issue gear, number twenty seven, for touring a baseball recruit around campus. I had delusions of receiving some issue gear of my own for tryouts, but that dream soon faded.

On Monday, I suited up in a uniform from my days in the city league: Henley-style jersey t-shirt, generic white baseball pants, and socks with a vertical stripe running down each side. I dug up the old metal Nikes that someone found for me and my two gloves - a beat up old Nokona for infield play, and a brand new black leather beauty for the outfield. I then set out for the extreme southeast corner of campus, location of Eck stadium.

I had gone to a few Irish games freshman year and knew some names on the team. Other than that, I knew virtually nothing of Notre Dame's rich baseball history. Still, I felt a great sense of priviledge stepping onto a college field. Heck, at that time I would have felt priviledged to step onto any baseball field. I descended the concrete steps into the first base dugout (Descended! It wasn't at ground level!), quickly laced up my spikes, and tried my best to mill around and meet the others. Soon an assistant coach walked up with a clipboard and began taking roll. As he neared the K's, I began to wonder how badly my last name would be butchered.



"Did I say that right?"

"Perfect," I replied, with a little more surprise than reassurance. That coach's name, by the way? Wally Widelski.

Our first assignment was to stretch, and our second was to line up for the 40-yard dash. "We're not going to do any conditioning, because you should all be in shape already," a coach yelled. I immediately thought of all the training Rudy, and then of the complete lack of training I had done. Whoops. Well, I was once clocked at 7.2 seconds in the 60-yard dash in high school, second fastest on the team, and equivalent to a 4.8 40 or better. So I wasn't too worried. On the other hand, I was actually in shape back then. It came to my turn and I toed the line in a classic baserunner's stance, as I had been instructed. The whistle sounded and I took off. Yet I felt like I was holding something back. Why? I knew what I needed to do, how I needed to run, to go my fastest, and yet somehow I didn't do it. As I crossed the finish line, I thought I heard the coach with the stopwatch mutter "five flat." At least I hope it was five flat, and not worse. Still, that's terrible for a small guy with no power.

After loosening up to a game a catch, the outfielders were instructed to meet in right field. Being an unnecessarily picky ballplayer, I raced to the dugout to swap the infield glove I used to play catch for my outfielder glove. Somehow, I managed to be first in line among the outfielders for our first fielding test. There's a reason why thje outfielder with the stongest arm plays in right: the throw from right field to third base is one of the longest in baseball, if not the longest. Here was our chance to show off our throwing arms. A fielder was stationed at third, with a cutoff man positioned 40 feet in front of him. The coach rolled a grounder to similate a batted ball. My form was near-perfect: one-handed scoop, crow hop, and throw all in one motion. The throw was a perfect strike to the cutoff man... who then moved out of the way to allow the baseball to continue on to third base. The ball hit the ground and weakly rolled on the infield grass, stopping two feet in front of the fielder on third. Assuming that I had misunderstood the assignment - that the ball was actually supposed to get all the way to third - the coach gave me a second chance. This time I threw a solid one-hopper to third. Any embarrassment from the first throw was erased by this toss. I had never had a great throwing arm, and I was pleasantly surprised that I could even throw it that far. Who cares what the coaches thought, I was happy with myself. Maybe I wasn't such a longshot after all.

Next we were told to line up at our respective positions for fielding practice, to be followed by the start of batting practice. I ran to second, after retrieving my infield glove of course, and got in line behind four or five other prospective keystone sackers. They began to discuss their high school accolades - first team all-county, third team all-state - you get the picture. I avoided mentioning that I wasn't even first team all-high school (that is, I was a bench player). I fielded a few grounders without incident, and soon it was time for the first few potential walkons to take batting practice.

When BP started, I was again at the start of the line at second. The first batter hit a blooper over my head. I never was able to get the hang of fielding a fly ball hit over me, so I simply looked up and followed the flight of the ball as it landed twenty feet behind me. From the bench a coach yelled, "Infielders are allowed to go after fly balls!" Right. Whoops.

The rest of Monday passed uneventfully. At the end of the day, I had to tell Coach Widelski that I may be late for Tuesday's practice because of marching band. I went up feeling like a complete nerd for having to say it, but Coach was totally cool about it. On Tuesday I wore my baseball attire to band practice. I'm sure I got a few odd looks, but I enjoyed the heck out of it. As it turns out, I was on time for baseball anyways. But Tuesday wasn't nearly as memorable as Wednesday's practice.

On Wednesday, I agreed to show up early with a few others for extra batting practice in the cages. The coaches agreed to leave some old bats, helmets, and balls out for us. I looked at the decrepit navy blue helmets, some cracked, all well-worn, and still somehow felt a great deal of pride and honor when I looked at the faded interlocking ND painted on each. I was mediocre at best hitting in the cages; the ND helmet obviously didn't have any magical powers for me. When it came my turn to throw, I was all over the place. I must have apologized thirty times for my wildness.

As it came close to the announced start time of our practice, we walked to the edge of the field to watch the "real team" finish up their practice. On the team was a short sparkplug of a character with the last name Pope. Every time he made a play, he was met with cheers of "Poop!" from his teammates. One of the other guys trying out pointed to Steve Stanley. "That's the guy who led the Cape Cod League in hitting last year. Do you know what that is?" It was obvious that I didn't, so he continued. "The Cape Cod League is where the best college players play in the summer. They even use wooden bats." Needless to say, I was impressed. Here was a roommate of Jason Garza, himself a walkon who stuck with the team for a full month, and he was one of the best hitters in college baseball. (You may be familiar with the Cape Cod League from the movie Summer Catch. If you are, I feel sorry for you. Stanley, by the way, finished second in the country in batting average to Khalil Greene his senior year.)

It finally came to be my turn for batting practice on Wednesday. Coach Widleski stood in front of the mound at about 45 feet to pitch. I've never been blessed with great batspeed, and I was using a heavier bat than I was used to, so suffice it to say things weren't pretty. Greg later came up and insisted on using a wooden bat. I was impressed as he displayed WTP - Warning Track Power. I thought he had a good chance to make the team.

After a day off, we came back for a scrimmage that would be our final test. We would each have one or two at bats and play three innings in the field. I checked the lineup and was scheduled to bat around 27th and spend the 4th through 6th innings in center field. OK, I can handle that, I guess. So much for making a big deal out of not listing myself as a generic outfielder on the information sheet. When it came my turn to step up to the plate, there were runners on first and second and one out. This was the first time we were facing live pitching from one of our peers all week, and I did the one thing I knew I could do competently. I laid down a nice bunt to the right of the pitcher and raced to first. I was out by a mile, but everyone praised me for my "smart" play. Right, smart in the fact that I didn't embarrass myself by trying to swing away.

When it came to be my turn in the field, I grabbed my outfield glove and raced out to center. I was nervous, but I had learned in my high school days how to convert nervous energy into positive energy. I'm sure a few people may have given me odd looks for hopping around (shaking myself up and down, not jumping on one leg like a schoolgirl playing hopscotch) between pitches, but that's what works for me. There were three balls hit to me over the course of three innings. Two were routine base hits that I fielded on the ground. One was a fly ball hit over my head to my right. To this day I couldn't tell you if a "regular" center fielder could have caught that ball.

After the scrimmage we were told to meet in the third base dugout and wait for Coach Paul Manieri to come around and announce his final decisions. Some of the walkon candidates had been grumbling all week that Manieri had been completely ignoring these tryouts. I didn't seem to notice. Then again, I wasn't taking things as seriously as some of the others. Coach Manieri walked over and started to read the list of those who had made the team - at least for now. I recognized some of the names - Johnny Heinz, Zach Sisko - they were good people and solid ballplayers, and I was happy for them. I held out hope for Matt and Greg, and also for myself to some extent. The list ended with none of our names called. I knew I had given a terrible performance, but still I had my fingers crossed.

When all was said and done, the "winners" were told to move over to the first base dugout while the rest of us were left to pack up and head home. A few of those who didn't make it stopped to thank Coach Manieri for the opportunity. I wanted to as well, but didn't. At that point, I was in a great mood. I have a great love for baseball, and that four day experience was one of the best of my life. Somehow, though, I didn't think my exuberance was right for the situation. Still, on the way back to Fisher, I managed to individually talk with both Matt and Greg. Their mood wasn't nearly as chipper as mine. Here were too guys who were used to success and accolades, and for the first time in years, perhaps the first time ever, they were being told they weren't good enough. Both conversations followed a similar pattern. I reassured them that they had another chance the following year, and the year after that. I then went on to tell them how I was the worst guy out there, but still I enjoyed even having a shot. Both Matt and Greg gave a generic white lie that I wasn't the worst guy out there. (I was, by quite a considerable margin.) Then they politely explained that they'd rather be alone to contemplate things on the long walk back, rather than suffer an attempt to be comforted by Mr. Happy to be There. So I split away and headed home, knowing at the very least that I would have a great story to tell from that one week in September. And, as sad as this may sound, that week was the highlight of my baseball career.

By the way, the Notre Dame baseball team went on to be ranked #1 in the nation later that season. So now I can say that yes I was cut, but only from the best baseball team in the country.