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Catching Up With UConn Baseball

May 20, 2010

The only cards I played with as a kid didn’t have pictures of queens or kings on them.  Baseball players in powder blue jerseys or pinstripes were pictured on the fronts, and the backs contained statistics and biographical information on Kent Tekulve, George Brett, or Mickey Rivers.  I traded plenty of Fred Lynn’s for Thurman Munson’s, but aside from attempting the shuffle of a deck occasionally, I’ve never played a game of real cards.  So, when I use a poker reference with our team, I must admit, I’m really just trying to sound cool.  In spite of that, I know what “All-in” means.

All-in is super cool.  All-in is what James Bond does when he moves all of his poker chips to the middle of the table and bets them all.  It’s what Evel Knievel did when he got in the red, white, and blue jumpsuit and hoped the bike beneath him had enough horsepower to clear the school buses.  Gunslingers did it when they’d take the ten paces, turn, and draw.  All-in is jumping out of the planes over France before dawn on June 6, 1944.  It’s dropping to a knee, proposing, and not knowing if she’ll say yes.  Kirk Gibson was in pain, but he was all-in while fouling off those pitches against Eckersley in the ’88 World Series, and hooking one into the Dodger Stadium bleachers to win game one. 



All-in is Christopher Columbus saying, “I think you’re all crazy.  Hoist the sails.  I’m betting it’s round.”  All in is the magician’s assistant smiling in the box when the blades are lowered.  All-in is Todd Beamer saying, “Let’s roll,” and the United 93 passengers listening and rolling.  It’s Forrest Gump running and running, Rocky sprinting through the Italian Market District, and Jim Valvano never giving up.  All-in is total concentration and complete focus on the task at hand, absolute trust in your brothers beside you, knowing you deserve success in the moment because of the exhaustion and preparation endured that led you to that very moment. 

All-in is what we need for the coming days, and hopefully next several weeks as we make the final strides to reaching our goals of championships.  Back in August, we felt confident that we had the talent to do special things in the 2010 baseball season.  We had several guys returning from a peaking club at the end of 2009, and many of them had great seasons in good summer collegiate leagues around the country.  They worked hard through the fall and winter on the field, in the barn, and in the weight room.  The grades were good, the camaraderie was even better.  The sophomores pushed the juniors, the juniors pushed the seniors, and the freshmen fit in well and challenged for innings and at-bats.  The players kept themselves and each other accountable, and as a result, a team emerged.  There was accountability amongst peers and a productive balance between comfort and challenge amongst each other was a part of every day.  

Today, we have thirty-five players, four coaches, and a trainer in our dugout on game day.  Forty men have forty sets of individual potential distractions.  Some of those young men will be drafted in a few weeks and realize their dreams of careers in professional baseball.  Trainer-extraordinaire, Bobby Ruiz was our first draft-pick.  He was just offered a job with the Cleveland Indians.  Some student-athletes are looking for places to bunk in Storrs in order to boost their GPAs with summer courses.  A few will be heading to the Cape Cod League to challenge themselves and garner the interest of scouts.  There are probably a couple with girlfriend problems, sick aunts and grandparents, financial difficulties, or concerns about whether or not to transfer or return to UConn next fall. 

The coaches have their own set of individualistic potential pitfalls to somehow negotiate.  Coach Malinowski became an uncle for the first time to his sister’s daughter, Anna while we were in Tampa last weekend, and I would bet he still needs to buy a gift.  I’m making a conscious decision to ignore the annoying “MAINT REQ’D” light that blinks whenever I turn over the Honda.  On Wednesday, Hank left school early after the nurse discovered a foreign object in his ear, which she thought was an insect (his pediatrician successfully extracted the culprit later in the day, but a positive identification was not possible without extensive forensic testing).  Tess melted down with an epic tantrum tonight because I asked her how she’d feel about me chaperoning an upcoming third grade field trip.  And at the dinner table, two-year-old “sometimes potty-trained” Charlie matter-of-factly declared, “Mommy, poopy is not delicious.”  At the end of the season, I’ll take the time and effort necessary to ponder how my youngest might know that, and petition the pope to canonize Brooke immediately.  I’m quite confident Hannah Blood and Isabella Podeszwa (a.k.a. single moms at least for baseball season and often beyond) should get worthy consideration for sainthood as well. 

We all have our priorities, and worries, but the challenge over the next three days and hopefully, the next several weeks will be to possess the discipline necessary to make our collective investment pay off in a collective reward or a few.  Graduation occurred almost two weeks ago, and our campus is quiet.  Most of the UConn students are off to individual pursuits.  They’re beginning internships, vacationing, or reconnecting with family and friends.  Our guys, I hope, are different.  They need to resist the college student seasonal rhythm and stay together for our team a little longer.  Too much is on the line for them to begin to wander away from the pack.  They’ve all invested too much in themselves and each other, and the rewards are too rich to get selfish right now.

The first one of those few rewards could be UConn’s first-ever Big East regular season championship.  We last won a Big East tournament championship on this very weekend in 1994 at Bristol’s historic and beautiful Muzzy Field.  We beat Seton Hall there in the Big East tournament on May 21, 1994.  The Pirates are coming to Storrs tomorrow, and we’ll have to beat them again (probably more than once), 16 years after our last championship in order to raise another Big East trophy.  The task will be tough, and next to impossible if every man is not ALL-IN.