May 28: Baseball ... And Why it Still Matters

Another championship year full of memories renews one's faith in the game

Ten weeks ago, we launched “The Boys of Spring” series by trying to answer a simple question: Why baseball matters.

I wrote an essay on how my earliest childhood memories revolve around baseball and how the sport taught me values such as teamwork, discipline, doing the little things right and – perhaps most importantly – never giving up. Shared values on a team lead to trust among players, I said, and with trust comes a bond that perseveres through good times and bad, success and failure, wins and losses. Baseball more than any other sport reflects those values, that trust and that bond.

The romanticized images in my essay resonated with some readers, but others just shrugged and kidded me: “Nice stuff, but c’mon – baseball is s-o-o boring. … Wake me up when that 1-0 game is over and tell me who won. … Have fun getting wet and freezing out there.”

Improperly chastened but conceding that everyone doesn’t view our national pastime with my fervor, I vowed to remove my blinders and re-evaluate my fondness for the game. My yardstick would be the St. Thomas baseball team – the defending NCAA Division III champions ranked No. 1 in the country going into the 2010 season.

To build enthusiasm for a season, it sure helps to escape a Minnesota March for a few days and venture to Florida with the Tommies on their annual spring break trip. They lived up to the early-season hype, winning all eight games against college opponents by outscoring them 88-18 and giving a Minnesota Twins rookie team a spirited fight before falling 10-7.

New Coach Chris Olean called it a “good” trip and broke down his team’s performance: “outstanding” defense, especially in the outfield, “nice job” at the plate and “solid” pitching. “We’re a very solid team,” he said. “We’re better than we thought we were.”

The 13-1 Tommies stumbled after they returned home. After a sweep of Carleton to open the MIAC season, they split five of their next seven conference doubleheaders, leaving too many runners on base and dropping too many one-run games. They went into the final week of play knowing they needed to win their final four games to capture their eighth straight MIAC title and that a loss or two could knock them out of the conference playoffs.

“This will be the true test of the team,” I thought after another schizophrenic doubleheader split with MIAC co-leader Concordia, winning 12-0 and losing 5-1. “We sure are not playing like the No. 5 team in the country right now.”

We did the next day, defeating No. 9 St. Scholastica, 5-1, for the third time this season. We suffered through another miserable day at the plate the following Wednesday, edging Hamline 1-0 and 2-1 despite scratching out only three hits on one of the windiest days I have watched baseball. The wind was blowing in, of course, making the occasional rain – and sleet! – all the more distracting.

It was fitting that archrival St. Olaf would be the opponent in the regular-season finale in Northfield. The Tommies or the Oles had won the last 14 MIAC regular-season titles and all 10 playoff titles, and the previous year the teams had split eight games. St. Olaf needed to win at least once to make the playoffs, and there still was a mathematical possibility that St. Thomas could miss them if it lost both games.

Never fear. Behind pitching ace Matt Schuld, the Tommies raced to a 19-0 lead in the opener before giving up four runs in the last inning. What happened in the nightcap shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering the season’s up-and-down nature. St. Thomas won 2-1 on only four hits (after 19 hits in the first game), but won the title and knocked St. Olaf out of the MIAC playoffs.

Which St. Thomas team would show up for the playoffs? I wasn’t sure during the first game, when the Tommies lost 3-2 to Augsburg. Faced with elimination unless they won four consecutive games, Olean was blunt in the post-game huddle. He told his seniors – multi-year starters like first baseman Tom Wippler, shortstop Roy Larson (at right) and rightfielder Matt Olson – that it was time to show some leadership.

I wondered if the move would backfire. It was risky to call out the seniors and tell them they weren’t working hard enough and needed to deliver. These players had performed valiantly in winning the national title a year ago. How would they respond to such an in-the-face challenge?

Like veterans, that’s how. Schuld recorded a complete-game shutout in the 5-0 win over St. John’s. Wippler hit the game-winning homerun in the 11th inning as the Tommies defeated Concordia 7-6, then an hour later hit two more homeruns and a double in a 17-1 thrashing of Augsburg. In that game and the 19-9 title game win over the Auggies, Larson and Olson each hit a homerun and combined for 11 hits, eight RBI and seven runs.

“I knew they would come through,” Olean told me the following week as the team prepared for the NCAA regional tournament in Whitewater, Wis. “These guys not only are good players, but they are proud players. They didn’t want to let the guys down.”

That kind of leadership remained on display in Whitewater, where St. Thomas twice defeated Carthage (14-6 and 7-5) but lost painful one-run games to Stevens Point (2-1) and Whitewater (5-4) to get knocked out of the tournament and end their season at 35-9.

The Tommies went down fighting. Schuld won the Carthage opener and, on two days rest, came into the Whitewater game in relief and shut out the Warhawks over the final three innings. Wippler had seven hits, including two homeruns, and seven RBI over the four games. Larson and Olson also had homers and six and four hits, respectively.

The final inning of their final game was a difficult one for those four seniors, but they battled until the last pitch. Schuld set down Whitewater 1-2-3 in the top of ninth. Olson struck out swinging for the second out in the bottom half of the inning, but Wippler kept hopes alive with a single to center. Larson came to the plate hoping to replicate his feats earlier in the game, when he followed a Wippler double in the fourth and RBI single in the seventh with ones of his own.

Or maybe a homerun? This, unfortunately, wasn’t “The Natural,” with a lights-shattering blast from another Roy – the mythical Mr. Hobbs – to win the game. Larson grounded out, short to first, on the first pitch, and the season was over.

Olean had only a few words in the post-game huddle, but they were from his heart. “Thank you for a good season,” he said. “I had a blast in my first year, and I hope I lived up to your expectations.”

He paused to commend his eight seniors – John Bauer, Derek Jacobson, Matt Nelson and Brandon Stone, in addition to Larson, Olson, Schuld and Wippler. “You have been leaders all year,” he said, “and you set a great example for everyone.”

With that, Olean walked away. The players gathered closer together and raised their hands to form a peak. “On 3,” said Schuld. “1, 2, 3 …” and his teammates chanted “Tommies!”

The scene took me back to early in the season and the Florida trip. I had hung around the dugout for an hour before one game to observe the team for a story on its pre-game preparations. Just before the team took the field for the first pitch, it gathered in a huddle. One player began “Hail Mary” and then “The Our Father,” after which another said, “Mary, Queen of Victory, pray for us!” They fell silent for a moment before a third player said, “On 3 . . . 1, 2, 3 . . . Tommies!”

And that’s when it hit me why I love baseball – and especially St. Thomas baseball.

Sure, the 35-9 record is to be admired, as is the eighth straight conference crown and the 15th straight trip to the NCAA tournament. So are having the No. 1 team earned run average (2.41) and No. 3 team fielding average (.971) in Division III. So are individual awards such as Schuld, who set a MIAC career record with 30 wins while carrying a 3.69 GPA, being named National Pitcher of the Year and Academic All-America of the Year.

Those accomplishments and that kind of recognition are well-deserved, but years from now, the Matts, Toms and Roys won’t remember their batting averages or their ERAs or the final pitches of their last collegiate game.

They will remember values such as teamwork, discipline, doing the little things right and – perhaps most importantly – never giving up.

They will remember how shared values on a team lead to trust among players, and with trust comes a bond that perseveres through good times and bad, success and failure, wins and losses.

And they will remember – and they will know in their hearts – that baseball, more than any other sport, reflects those values, that trust and that bond.

That’s why baseball matters.


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