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Catching Up With UConn Baseball

Friday, April 25, 2008

I never thought I'd be so glad to see Morgantown, West Virginia. Did I just type that?

In fact, as difficult a task as we have ahead of us tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday against the Mountaineers here, I am relieved to be on the road. We haven't performed well at home. For whatever reason, we have played some of our better baseball away from J.O. Christian Field this season, and like Willie Nelson, I can't wait to get on the road again.

West Virginia always has some very good hitters and this year is no exception. We'll have to play mistake free to win a series here but we are optimistic. The guys have been playing with a little more emotion since Sunday's win against Seton Hall and I think if we can fight one pitch at a time, keep the ball down, throw strikes and get some timely hitting, we'll have a good weekend. All the pitchers we have on the trip have thrown at least one inning over the course of the last seven days and we feel they are all tuned up for a real test against the best hitting team in the BIG EAST.

One of the things I like about being on the road is that everyone is together. We eat breakfast together, we ride on the plane and bus together and the schedule is tightly controlled. There are bed checks, mandatory study halls and limited distractions.

Unlike some of the stops in the BIG EAST, Morgantown doesn't seem to attract much of a relative/friend following. If families are going to make a road trip or two, they tend to circle the weekends on their calendars on which we travel to cities like Pittsburgh, New York, Tampa, Philadelphia, Cincinnati or Washington. We stay in a quiet hotel on the banks of the muddy Monongahela River in town here and I've delighted in seeing some of our players take their Wal-Mart bought fishing rods on a stroll down the river to cast a little before our night games. On this particular trip, the guys have sheepishly unveiled some lame attempts at mustaches in the hopes a little lip hair will get us going.



I've abandoned my no facial hair rule as long as we win (I guess I'm getting soft), and joined the hirsute brotherhood with a pledge to grow my own mustache if we can duplicate our 2006 trip to this town with three wins this weekend. Because there are few distractions in Morgantown, the guys tend to do more things together. They not only grow facial hair, but they eat lunches and dinner with each other as opposed to visiting with their relatives or friends that may be on other trips. All of that is good for team chemistry, battle preparation, and focus.

At home, there always seems to be more ways to take away focus. I know that when we're in Storrs, I'm concerned about things other than figuring out whether to bunt or hit and run. There are the worries about when to put the tarp on, when to take it off, whether or not the p.a. system is going to cut out during the national anthem again, if we're ever going to get the water turned on to the sprinklers on the field, if everyone behaved in the dorm the night before, etc. Focus is a difficult thing to measure, but it is so apparent when observed.

The coaches (sans Coach Blood who is admirably staying in Connecticut to await the birth of his and his wife Hannah's first baby due any day now), and our trainer Natalie got an unbelievable example of focus yesterday as we waited for our delayed flight to leave Logan for Pittsburgh. From our seats at the gate we did some people-watching and observed one man in particular. For about an hour, we had a ball observing one guy sell fudge. His stand was an unassuming little kiosk in a tucked away corner of the Boston airport. His method overcame his lack of quality location. This guy was locked in. Not only did he have great stuff, he was a strike thrower, and knew exactly how to set someone up.

We were belly laughing at our guys trying to walk by the stand without being accosted. Pierre LePage didn't stand a chance. The second our friendly second baseman made eye contact, our fudge salesman was like a dog on a bone. The fudge man pounced, "Care for a sample?" Then, after strike one, he knocked the reluctant calorie and/or dollar-counting arithmetic out of Pierre's head with the seemingly innocuous question (but actual chin music) of, "What's your favorite ice cream flavor?" Pierre was reaching for his wallet and forking over a few bucks for a square of chocolate/peanut butter before he knew he was in the batter's box. He trudged over to us as if walking back to the dugout leaving the bases loaded, whispering, "I don't even like fudge, but I couldn't resist. That guy is good."

A moment later, Doug Jennings was buying some mint chocolate chip fudge. Coach Untiet looked like Superman in the midst of kryptonite as he came back with a bag. The sales guy locked in on women traipsing by too. They were all addressed as, "Hon." He'd pull them in with the ice cream line or the bright Tiffany blue boxes and bags. They would counter with a foul tip after the free sample. "Let me think about it," the ladies would say. He'd black out a slider on the outside corner without hesitation, "What's there to think about, doll? It's just a little fudge", or "I'll package it up nicely in this blue box", or, "Flying home to the kids? They'll love this stuff, I promise you. I'll cut it in smaller pieces so you can sneak a taste of a square or two on the plane."

He would break his scan of the terminal and would-be marks long enough only to call in the next order for another sheet of raspberry cream cheese or maple walnut from the factory. As soon as he put the phone down, his gaze was fixed upon the next terminal stroller and he was on. He was awesome. As I walked past him to give my boarding pass to the ticket agent and board our plane, I wanted to shake his hand and congratulate him on his unbelievable focus, consistency, and intensity, but I knew I'd be powerless and resisted the temptation. I had watched him for too long. So, I kept my head buried in Sports Illustrated, and walked past.

The last thing I needed was 1200 calories before I got down the jetway. His lesson was heeded though. I can't imagine one of his customers coming to the airport thinking, "Geez, I could really use a nice fat block of fudge before I get on the plane tonight", and yet, of the 100 or so people on our flight, I saw at least 20 fudge bags or boxes when we were at baggage claim in Pittsburgh. Total focus on the task at hand really can make a difference in performance.

As we leave spring weekend in Storrs, and all the distractions that come with it behind, I hope our guys noticed the fudge man too. If we can all focus and battle one pitch at a time, limit our distractions, and be present together, we will compete well this weekend. I never thought I'd be glad to see Morgantown, or hope to grow a mustache, but here we are. I have a sanguine day's growth of stubble and a hope that John Denver had the Huskies in mind when he sang, "Almost heaven, West Virginia."

- Jim Penders