Feb. 18, 2011
Closing, Opening, and Heading South: A Colorful Journey.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
6:48 a.m. - Bradley International Airport, Terminal A, Gate 6: Freshman Infielder Tom Verdi is wearing his Nike fielder's glove in the airport. What a rookie! Most guys check their prized possessions in their equipment bags at the check-in counter. Some are afraid to part with them for even a few hours. So, they carry them in their backpacks and stow the leather beneath the seat in front of them - not Tom. It's not on his head, or looped through his backpack. He is wearing it on his left hand. I want to hit him a fungo right now - here in the middle of Bradley International. Put some eye black on him, and I'd swear he's ready to take grounders while standing in line waiting to board his first flight as a UConn Husky.
7:50 a.m. - Somewhere 34,000 feet over a black and white landscape on the Atlantic seaboard: Well, we left you hanging. For all those folks who've kindly asked, "When's your next blog?" -- here it is (thanks for asking, Mom and Uncle Bill). I know, I know, you said, "We have no closure. C'mon, Jim the last one was right before the Seton Hall weekend." What can I say? Now, you know how I feel. College baseball coaches don't do closure well. There's no time for closure. There's always something else to open. The day after Oregon eliminated us from a memorable NCAA regional in Norwich last June, we said a sad goodbye to our 2010 Huskies and quickly hit the recruiting trail by watching Xavier High and Amity High face off against each other in Waterbury's Municipal Stadium. We had three opportunities to win championships within three weeks of that last entry, and we didn't get it done. So while a record-breaking 2010 season ended, a new mission began that same day, June 7, 2010. Turning the page, on the season, thankfully didn't result in "The End" appearing on the next page. That kicked-in-the-gut feeling has fueled us every day since in preparation for what we hope will be a championship-filled 2011 campaign.
8:05 a.m. - Somewhere 34,000 feet above a partially obscured grayish-murky landscape (I'm guessing Jersey): Matt Burnett is not sitting behind me on our initial flight south for the first time in half a decade. After sending well wishes via email yesterday, he's instead sitting down there in an office in midtown Manhattan today. Trent DeLazzer is getting a teaching career started back home in California after a good summer pitching for the Traverse City Beach Bums. How about that for irony? A Cypress, California native has to go to Michigan to become a Beach Bum! And Doug Jennings just called to check in the other day. He is in retail sales in New Jersey and planning to get his arm back in shape this spring and give the game one more shot. We left Pierre LePage and Mike Olt back on campus to complete some final preparations before reporting to their respective spring training sites in Arizona soon. And just like that, we have final closure on 2010, and a new beginning with a new team on Southwest flight 597 into Tampa this morning.
8:30 a.m. - Somewhere 34,000 feet above a lot of tributaries coming from the first brown ground we've seen this year (I'm guessing somewhere near the Chesapeake Bay): The guys have worked very hard since June. Our fall was good (every college team has a good fall - we're all undefeated in September and October). We last wore spikes as a full squad in mid-October of last year. After a productive lifting and conditioning program, and lots of indoor practices to tune up pitchers and hitters, and to break-in newcomers, we've developed some solid team chemistry (that's always good too - until someone doesn't make a travel list, isn't in the lineup, or there is a three-game losing streak). There are many tests ahead of us. We'll begin an extremely tough pre-conference schedule Friday with Purdue, and continuing with Minnesota, and Michigan on Saturday and Sunday. It won't get any easier through March. Yet, how we respond to those tests will form this team's identity. We'll soon know if we really do have good chemistry, and the tests will determine exactly what the 2011 Huskies become.
9:03 a.m. - Somewhere 34,000 feet above some pines - and some GREEN golf courses (gotta be the Carolinas): So after we land and grab a quick lunch, we'll put those spikes on again today for the first time in four months for a real on-a-baseball-field practice at the New York Yankees Complex in Tampa. I have a feeling leaving Storrs at 5 a.m. will not matter to our sleep-deprived crew when that warm sun is on our backs, and the initial groundball is hit on real dirt later today. We began last year with the same workout at the same site. The first time on a field is always an adventure. Despite our returning talent, and our own expectations for a good year, we will probably see a few dropped fly balls, a couple b.p. swings and misses, and some overthrows of first base. Baseball is meant to be played on a diamond, and we need to shake off the rust quickly. On Friday, Purdue isn't going to care that we haven't been on a field for awhile. Maybe Indiana got clobbered with snow too. At any rate, we need to be ready to compete for real on Friday, and I believe we will be. That's all that matters now. Outside expectations, preseason polls, individual accolades, and all the hype won't mean much when Elliot throws his first pitch at 7:30 Friday night. Elvis had it right. A little less conversation and a little more action - that's music to my ears.
9:40 a.m. - Somewhere 34,000 feet above more green. There is nothing quite like the opening of the college baseball season. I've been heading on an airplane somewhere warmer as a Husky in February and March for 19 of the last 21 years. I still get excited. I never feel more like an eighteen year-old than on the season opening trip. I always try to grab a window seat. Today, I was worried that my Southwest boarding group C would result in a middle-seat shoehorning, but I lucked out. I've got a great view toward the west as we scoot south along the coast. I'm not wearing my IPod headphones, but I think I can hear Carly Simon singing, Anticipation when the red silt in the streams and lakes of Georgia appears as a harbinger of good things to come.
10:10 a.m. - Somewhere close enough to land that the flight attendant is announcing to turn off all electronic devices, but wait: There it is! That's terrible-tasting water down there. Ah, Florida. We're almost there. The greens of the Sunshine State look brighter than any green I can remember from last summer. I've done this for two decades, but there it goes again -- the heart starts pounding a bit faster.
10:40 a.m. - At Baggage Claim in the Tampa Airport: The guys are betting whose bag is going to come out on the conveyer belt first just like my roommate Jim Tonelli and I did in this very airport before our first games as Huskies in 1991. The scene is familiar as veterans casually check their phones for messages. Meanwhile, the freshmen stand together trying to look like they know what they're doing, but their anxious eyes and happy feet betray them. There's Tom again. His glove is still on. Holy cowhide! Did he even take it off to open his in-flight peanuts? Oh boy, I just caught him smelling it. Yeah, he's a rookie, but he knows - it's baseball season. Opening day is tomorrow. No more looking in the rearview mirror, it's all finally right in front of us. We can see it and even smell it. We're all rookies again. Let's go outside and play.