“Well, beat the drum and hold the phone
The sun came out today
We’re born again
There’s new grass on the field” – John Fogerty, Centerfield
Few four-word phrases can captivate the attention of sports fans, stirring them from their collective hibernation quite like: “opening day is here.”
Whether team MVPs or detached dandelion-pickers growing up, the ping of an aluminum bat striking a ball can create a Pavlovian response to yesteryear. Numerous June and July nights of our youth can be traced back to municipal parks all across the fruited plains, the echoes serving as the soundtrack of our summers.
While many would contend that football is now America’s sport, baseball remains America’s pastime.
The Super Bowl hangovers have subsided. And though few thermometers north of the Mason-Dixon Line reflect it, we’re tilting towards summer.
Even the memories of a first trip to a big-league park stay with us forever. Growing up 15 minutes from Busch Stadium II in St. Louis, I recall bits and pieces of my first Cardinals game.
It was August 1992 and the Dodgers were in town. I recognized Ozzie Smith, Ray Lankford, and Tom Pagnozzi. But it wasn’t until almost two decades later that I discovered a rich coincidence.
The starting third baseman for the Cardinals that game? Tracy Woodson. The baseball gods work in mysterious ways.
For the professionals, opening day symbolizes the shotgun start to the marathon of 162. For colleges across the country, it represents the waving of the green flag on the winding road to Omaha.
Today marks the last day all 298 NCAA Division I teams sit even. The Valparaiso Crusaders, the Arizona Wildcats, the Youngstown State Penguins will all lace their cleats tomorrow unbeaten, untied. Hope springs eternal.
2012 provides an extra layer of confidence for the local nine in 2013. Valpo found itself 5-14 at one point, but the band of gypsies rebounded with a 27-5 tear that included a road series sweep of heavily-armed Milwaukee, a series win over stalwart Wright State in Dayton, and a non-conference victory over the Fighting Irish in Notre Dame.
In a way it was fitting that the scrappy club of 2012 was assigned to the regional held in Gary, Indiana. The majority of deep-pocketed teams from BCS conferences played on the coasts or in sunny Texas. Instead of mountain ranges or ocean breezes, Valpo basked in the backdrop of smokestacks and substandard air quality.
But the Brown and Gold didn’t hold a pity party. After all, beggars can’t be choosers.
In their first trip to the Big Dance since 1968, last year’s squad experienced some of the jitters typically accustomed of sweaty-palmed freshmen. Five errors in the infield led to a career-high six unearned runs tagged to starter Tyler Deetjen against Purdue in the 7-2 loss.
The following day a weary Kentucky Wildcats team - coming off an epic 21-inning loss the night prior - emerged for a five-run 6th inning that broke a 1-1 tie. The offense stranded four runners over the final four frames in the defeat that ended the Crusaders’ historic season.
In the Gary Regional - the birthplace of Michael Jackson - the cinderella Kent State Golden Flashes made off like smooth criminals. Two one-run wins over Kentucky and another one-run victory over the Boilermakers thrust the MAC champs into the Super Regional held in Eugene, Oregon.
The Golden Flashes proceeded to pick off the Oregon Ducks in a best-of-three series (both wins by one run) to advance to the College World Series.
Their evolution could very well serve as a motivating blueprint for the Crusaders.
In 2010, Kent State was outscored 34-10 in their two NCAA Regional losses against UCLA and UC-Irvine. They returned to the Tournament the following year and won two games before losing in a winner-take-all game against the Texas Longhorns. Factor in last season and it is evident what postseason experience can do for a program too brazen to believe it doesn’t belong.
A progression in expectations is a sentiment shared by Woodson. “We may have been happy to just be there. Our mindset now is to get back and win some games,” the head coach in his 7th season said.
For all those associated with college baseball, the wait is over. Wipe the sleep from your eyes. Your Christmas Eve is here.
And as the Crusaders open the 2013 season tomorrow in the Music City, so begins the next song on the soundtrack of our summers.