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Traveling the Bambino Road: Day Six

Day Six: March 11, 2003

There was only one stop on today’s itinerary: McKethan Stadium at the University of Florida in Gainesville. What is the Ruth/Yankees connection here? George Steinbrenner gave the money for the light towers at McKethan Stadium. Also, when Ruth was with the Red Sox, they played the Giants in an exhibition game that took place on the grounds right around where the current stadium stands. (Plus the Gators are winners, with many sectional titles and trips to the College World Series.) That is plenty of connection for me.

My one-inning stints at War Memorial and Piedmont College whetted my appetite for college baseball. And until today I was two for two, picking Ball State to beat the Aggies just because it was a Ball State dad I happened to talk to, and the Piedmont Lions over NC Wesleyan because I liked their attitude… and they both won. (I know because other readers of ‘Why I Like Baseball’ forwarded me the final scores after reading my previous trip logs.) Tonight there was no question I would be rooting for the Gators, though. My mother went to UF Gainesville so I guess I have Gator blood. (Though I have to admit, I don’t like Gatorade.)

I pulled into a parking lot on the university campus at around 4pm. I saw a group of older men and women wearing blue and orange baseball caps and shirts standing in the lot, talking. I pulled up to them. “I was going to ask if I came to the right place for Gator Baseball,” I told them, “but you guys made it real obvious.” They laughed. They were the ticket office crew, waiting for the “boss lady” with the money to come so they could open the window at 4:30. We chit-chatted for a while about the weather (warm, sunny, and beautiful) and about how the Gators have been doing (13-3, two of the losses coming against powerful rival Florida State last week) and the like.

Around 4:15 I wandered into the stadium to take some photos, figuring that I would go back out and purchase my ticket once they opened. I climbed up to the press box to get some shots of the field and noticed some people inside. I had been wanting to ask what Steinbrenner’s connection to UF was, and figured these would be the guys to know. I met Brian Dietz, the Gator Baseball media relations coordinator, who not only told me (Steinbrenner’s daughter went to UF), he gave me a press pass. “There’s no room for you to sit in here,” he told me, “but you can sit just about anywhere else.”

Tonight’s opponent was Pace University. Pace is a small college in the New York area, another northern team here on Spring Break to get some games in before the snow melts up north. Pace’s team has the unfortunate nickname of the Setters (figure it out and groan), and no one was expecting them to be a baseball superpower. They were expecting a light crowd tonight.

At 4:15 Gators batting practice began and I stood in the first row above the dugout to watch.

I love batting practice. I love infield practice, too. The Florida coaches choreographed a terrific ballet that had one group hitting, one group taking infield, and one distant group in center field hitting off a tee into a net. When it was time to rotate, Coach Cohen (the hitting coach) would give a short blast on a canned air horn.

“Excuse me, but those are our seats,” said a cheerful voice from behind me. Two folks decked out in their Gator blue and orange were making their way down the steps toward me. I laughed and moved over. Of course it was Murphy’s law that predicted this: the very first fans to arrive and I would be standing in their seats. This couple were the Rices. “He spent nine years as a professional ump,” the Mrs. told me, “but it was all the traveling that got to him. Now we just come here.” Even on the night they play the Pace Setters.

The Rices gave me the rundown on all the players, the coaches, who could hit, who could run, who liked to swing early in the count. “Corsaletti, he’s a good player,” that sort of thing. Florida has a winning tradition and is consistently ranked in the Top 25 college baseball programs by the nation’s media, so you know that some of the guys you are looking at are going to go in the MLB draft in a couple of months.

They pointed out one guy to me in particular, “Ol’ Double Nickels,” number 55, Brian Rose. “Rosey’s the token senior on the team,” they told me. “Felt he ought to stay, I guess. They made him team captain. And he runs the infield with an iron fist. Swings at everything though, never met a pitch he didn’t like.” In BP he was hitting the ball with authority and he was (like all of them) a fresh-faced, earnest-looking guy. I liked him immediately.

I cried during the national anthem again. I guess I should just get used to it. In Gainesville people sing along with the anthem, quietly, and I got too choked up to get past “the rockets red glare.”

Taking the hill was Bryan Ball. Someone said it was his first start, someone else thought it was his second. He was 1-1 with a 9.00 ERA, which seemed to indicate limited action thus far in the young season. His opposite number was Robert Van Piper, 0-0, 0.00, who probably hadn’t seen green grass since Thanksgiving, what with the unusually snowy and cold winter in the northeast this year. As he warmed up, Ball was popping Rosey’s mitt, and Rosey kept nodding to him like he liked what he saw.

But Ball started off in trouble as the leadoff man for Pace, Paul Bonaros, singled. Ricky Piovesan bunted him over, and then Ball walked the number three hitter, Rob Faist, to put two men on with one out. The crowd was shouting encouragement to the young right-hander, “make ’em hit it on the ground, Bryan!” I began to wonder what kind of nicknames a guy named “Ball” might have–and from where we were sitting we could hear the players in the dugout shouting, too–but I didn’t hear any for Bryan Ball. “C’mon, Bryan, double play and you’re out of it!”

I don’t know what Rosey called for, but the next pitch was hit on the ground by DH and cleanup hitter Michael Huffman, right to second, tailor made for the double play. But on the pivot the shortstop, Justin Tordi, hurried his throw and threw into the dirt. C.J. Smith couldn’t scoop the tough hop and the run scored. I know you can’t assume the double play, but as far as i was concerned, the bad throw allowing the run to score should have been scored an error. I don’t think the official scorer agreed with me, though. In my book, the run was unearned. Ball hung tough, getting the next batter to ground to third, inning over.

It was the only run that Pace would get for the next eight innings, though they threatened several times. I was enthralled with the guts of the Gator pitchers. Ball went four innings (3 K, 1 BB, 4 hits) and then was followed by Tommy Boss. T-Boss threw three scoreless, walked none and struck out four, and then Tom Potter, “Tea Pot,” threw the final two, giving up four hits and one run but striking out four. Both Toms had a penchant for bearing down and getting the strikeout when they needed it.

In my mind I decided this was partly due to the calming influence of Captain Rose, who not only seemed to be calling a great game, he was the game’s MVP as far as I was concerned. In the first inning, with the Gators down 1-0, Brett Dowdy led off the game with a home run to left. There was no wind to speak of and at first it looked like a can of corn, the left fielder running back and camping under it… until he turned his back to us and watched the ball sail over the bleachers. Mario Garza singled, and C.J. Smith worked a walk to bring cleanup hitter Ben Harrison to the plate. Harrison had a long at bat but stared at strike three. So up came Rosey with two on, one out. He crushed a pitch to left that went right about where Dowdy’s had. This time the left fielder didn’t look like he was going to catch it, he just ran back and stared. 4-1 Gators. Rose also gunned down a base stealer in the third to snuff a Pace rally in the making.

Pace was outclassed and they knew it. Van Piper gave up three more home runs in the game, to Harrison on his next at bat, C.J. Smith, and Jeff Corsaletti. After Corsaletti’s, his coach had seen enough and pulled him. Steve Delsavio and Kyle Muller kept the Gators contained after that, but Florida won the arms race and the Setters were never able to come back against the two Toms. A lot of people won coupons for free Wendy’s Frosties and Outback steaks that night, since every time a Gator walked the PA announcer would call a lucky scorecard number for a Wendy’s Walk This Way Winner. For every home run, it was the Outback “Outta Here” winner. But I get the feeling the crowd would have gone home happy regardless, not just with a 9-2 win but with a well-played game under their belts.

And hey, I am three for three on college games, now. (Maybe I should be betting on the basketball Final Four?)

Tomorrow the “road trip” portion of my trip will end. After my final two stops–the Ted Williams Museum and Tinker Field–I will head to my parents’ house near Tampa to start the New York Yankees portion of the trip. Stay tuned…

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