Fall practice in college baseball is a love-hate thing that all players go through each season. There is the first day of practice when you get to see all your teammates and look at how much better they have gotten since last season or how much work they have to do before Opening Day. Morning workouts in the weight room can leave you feeling like a new man or wishing you hadn’t signed up for that 8 AM class that you will now make smell like sweat for all your class mates.
Some practices are intense and just like those in the spring time, with full speed drills and games going on. Jobs are won and lost in the fall as coaches evaluate newcomers and try to determine the lineup they will be competing with in a few short months. There are conditioning days where a good pair of running shoes is a wise investment. They may need to be some rain to wash away the vomit from players that are either out of shape or just running really hard for their sake.
There are also practices where it is a more laid back atmosphere and it can almost seem fun. Practice in shorts was also a nice change of pace since it was cooler. The Florida heat can take a toll especially in months other people around the country consider fall. Florida is 11 months summer and one month of winter/spring. Nobody needs to be wearing pants for batting practice anyways.
My third year in school, there was one practice on a Friday afternoon that was particularly eventful for me. Our head coach wasn’t at the field because he had other business to attend to, so our assistant coach was running things. It was a great change of pace because our head coach was an old school guy and our assistant was a young guru who related to us better since he was himself only a few years removed from playing college ball.
We still went through the same routine we would have any other practice – stretching, throwing, individual drills, team drills, and batting practice. The biggest difference was that we got to listen to music on the speakers in the stadium. That was a big deal because that would never have happened with our head coach there. I think it was the country radio station we were listening to, but we might have been playing our pre-game batting practice CD as well.
Towards the end of practice, our coach had us cleaning the field up as usual with every guy assigned a particular task to do. I raked the dirt at third base as a third baseman and pulled the bag off of the field. This was a routine task that I really didn’t like doing. It wasn’t hard, but I just would have liked to do something different for a change.
I got the chance to do something different, in addition to raking the infield. Most teams have a tractor to drag the dirt with. It also can be used to drag the warning track which needs to be dragged from time to time. Our coach asked if somebody wanted to drag the warning track to help speed things up. I jumped at the chance since I thought it would be fun.
Starting from the first base dugout, I hopped on and took off down the right field foul line. I was testing the gas pedal to see how fast it could go but trying to stay near the grass to keep the drag straight. One of my buddies, who happened to be a third baseman as well, came running up behind me and jumped on the back of the Gator (the brand of the tractor). We were both laughing like little girls and he covered my eyes for a split second. I let off the gas to make sure I didn’t lose control and luckily he took his hands off quickly.
As I approached the foul pole to turn towards the outfield, I was trying to gauge how much to turn the wheel. I didn’t want to turn too sharply and go on the outfield grass, but I also didn’t want to drive though the wall. It was a little stiff turning the wheel. I had to jerk it at the last minute to get the tractor to really make the turn, and I felt a big thump. I figured my buddy had jumped up and down on the back or jumped off. He was still there.
I continued around the warning track feeling like a champ, and we went down the third base line, around home plate back, and towards the gate at first base. As I pulled to a stop in front of the dugout, everybody was staring at me. Some were speechless. Some were laughing hysterically. I thought I did something wrong with the drag. Wrong was an understatement.
That bump I felt in the left field corner turned out to be the foul pole on the wall. It was cracked in half and turned completely sideways on the wall. The top foot of the pole was still straight at the top, but the bottom 9/10 looked like an arrow you could spin for a board game. I thought my playing days were over.
Warning track duties not as easy as you think
Luckily, the assistant coach wasn’t so much mad at me as he was at himself. It would be viewed as his fault for letting a player do a coach’s job as much as mine for driving like a blind man on the Gator. He got some tools and went out to the outfield to look at the wall. The pole was rotating on a nail that was still in place, and when he moved it back into its original position, there really wasn’t any noticeable difference – besides the giant crack right in the middle of the wood.
Our coach put some nails in the pole so that it stayed in place, and it didn’t move once we tried to turn it again. From afar, the pole was still straight and you couldn’t see the crack I had put in it. I was officially relieved of my tractor duties. We were told not to tell the head coach and to act like it never happened. That was easier said than done for me, since at practice next week I was looking to see if our coach would wander towards the right field foul pole. Luckily for me and our assistant, nobody else ever found out, and it was like it never happened.
I haven’t been on the field in a few years, but with renovations that were made to the stadium, the foul poles may have been replaced on the outfield walls. If they were, then my physical mark on the field is gone. The warning track is fine, but if the crack is still there, I can only wonder what players there now think when they see a huge crack in the middle of the foul pole and debate how it got there. It’s one of those things that was not funny then, but I have a hard time telling the story now from laughing so hard.