By Ben Smith:
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it at least a hundred times: I love Opening Day. The sights, the smells, the anticipation, all get my adrenaline flowing. I love to watch the guys hit the field after months of practicing and playing each other. There’s no doubt that by the time Opening Day arrives, they are ready to play someone aside from each other, too. Although it was almost 20 years ago when I experienced my first ever college baseball opener, it still feels like yesterday.
It was February 4, 2005. Much like this past weekend, the weather was nice. There was barely a cloud in the sky, and it was warm enough not to need a long sleeve. We were scheduled to play Spalding University out of Kentucky for a three game series on Fri/Sat, and Cumberland University on Sunday. Spalding was ranked 13th in the country in the NAIA Pre-Season Rankings and Cumberland was the defending national champion and ranked #1 in the country. If memory serves me correct, we were ranked 15th in the nation to begin the season.
As an 18 year old freshman starting at shortstop in my first college game, being a little nervous was an understatement. I can remember barely being able to eat anything all day due to the butterflies in my stomach. I think I was mostly nervous due to not wanting to let my teammates down more than anything. I was fortunate to play with a group of guys that were used to winning. The year before, the team won 43 games and were an inning away from a trip to the NAIA World Series. I had a lot of respect for the guys that were returners and hoped that I could live up to their expectations. Not to mention, I was playing for a man that was a legend in the baseball world. I didn’t want to let him down, either.
It was finally time to get on the field. For the first time, WCU (then WCC) sported pinstripe uniforms…a trend that has continued since then to today. After stretching, I sprinted onto the field for batting practice with freshly polished spikes and a clean shaven face (not exactly the trend today). After both teams took batting practice and a round of infield, the national anthem played over the speakers at old H.R. Morgan Field on the campus of William Carey. I stood in shallow centerfield while the anthem played, my knees shaking and my hand trembling as I held it over my heart. It was go time.
I don’t remember what the first batter of the game did, but I very distinctly remember the second one. With one out, the second hitter ripped a groundball right at me. I don’t know if it was hit so hard that I didn’t have time to move, or if I was just a frozen statue due to my nerves. Either way, the ball hit me right above my glove on the inside of my wrist. Pain shot all the way up my arm. The ball bounced all the way to our left fielder, who picked it up and threw it in to me. I couldn’t believe it. We hadn’t gotten through the first inning of the season, and I’d already made an error! Running off of the field at the end of the inning, I was too ashamed to even look at Coach Halford. The comforting news, as fellow teammate Kyle Keeton said was, “Good to go ahead and get that one out of the way.” My psyche felt immediately better, but my wrist did not.
The rest of the game went much better. I ended up getting my first collegiate hit in my second at bat (I flew out to deep center on the first) and we won the game. The next day, we had a doubleheader against the same team. There were much less nerves on the second day, although the wrist was still sore. We won both games of the doubleheader, running our confidence high going into our Sunday matchup with the top NAIA team in America. We embraced the challenge of playing a tough schedule early. A lot of that had to do with having veteran players. Like I said, they were used to winning.
On Sunday, I watched Cumberland’s players take batting practice and groundballs before the game. They didn’t look anything like the team that we’d just swept. They were much more physical and a heckuva lot more polished. Balls flew out of the park left and right. The folks in Wilkes Dining Hall had to have been a nervous wreck with each ball that flew over the left field fence toward the windows. Watching them, I quickly realized that this is what a collegiate championship team looked like. There were draft picks all over the field. How were we going to beat them? I’ll tell you how…Kyle Keeton. Kyle wasn’t anything special, as far as “stuff” goes. He was a mid to upper 80’s guy with a couple of pretty good offspeed pitches, but he wasn’t a draftable pitcher like theirs. The one thing that Kyle had, along with so many other guys on that team, was he had more crap in him than a Port-a-Jon. The dude was tough.
We battled the #1 team in America back and forth all afternoon. They’d score, we’d score. They’d shut us down, we’d shut them down. Finally, in the bottom of the 8th, we got a pinch hit two-run homer to take a one run lead going into the ninth inning. I don’t remember how, but the leadoff batter reached base in the top of the ninth. Then, with one out, a hitter ripped a ball past our diving left fielder. He quickly raced to the fence to get the ball. With the runner heading home to tie the game, I took the relay throw in shallow left field and fired it to the plate. The throw was just in time to preserve the lead. The next hitter popped out, and just like that we’d beat the #1 team in the country to cap off a 4-0 opening weekend.
As the anthem played at Milton Wheeler Field on Saturday, I couldn’t help but think about that weekend. I thought about all of my teammates from that day and how much I loved them. I thought about how cool it was that I was standing next to the man that I didn’t want to let down that day. I thought about Dr. Wheeler, and his excitement after beating Cumberland. I thought about how my wife, then my girlfriend, was there to watch that opening weekend. I thought about my parents being able to watch their son play college baseball. Twenty years from now, I hope that some of the players today will be thinking about the same thing.
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