Updated: May 29
Is Florida a football or basketball school? How about baseball? The Gators have as good a baseball coach as there is in the gamely, Kevin O’Sullivan, and UF has as fine a new ballpark as there is on the planet. And now they’re winning again in Hoover, never having trailed in the first three games as they whacked their way to the semifinals. O’Sullivan shuffled his lineup, the Gator bats exploded and now his team is right in the mix for an SEC championship. Come out, come out! It’s cool to love baseball again!
I remember the day I got my first real baseball uniform for Little League. They told us not to wear them except for baseball. I was 11. I slept in it. They told us not to wear them on the street, but that night I proudly put on my Exchange Club Giants jersey, pants and green hat with the white “O” on it and paraded outside at dusk. When a car with its lights on turned the corner, I ran into the bushes and hid from the “uniform police,” even though feeling that if I was caught, it would be worth it just to feel like Stan Musial for five minutes. That was my first date of a 10-year romance with America’s Pastime, back when they called it that.
Ninety percent of today’s youth will never know that feeling. In fact, 99 percent don’t even care to experience it. They’d rather play a video game. To say baseball was better back in the day, which is what it felt like, would be irresponsibly invoking the cliche that the good old days of less-is-more were better — three TV channels, 25-cent burgers, etc. Not necessarily. Though it may have seemed so to some, there just wasn’t as much else to do in the Andy Griffith-like era when baseball was king. But oh how I loved it.
This past two weeks I gorged myself on watching baseball, including the Rays winning 11 straight. I saw almost every game of the SEC tournament and I feasted on Florida’s latest three-game winning streak by O’Sullivan’s team in Hoover. And I tried to remember why I once loved the game so much. Especially playing it. And dreaming of pitching in the big leagues one day.
As a youngster I played it, BTW, well enough to be a starting pitcher in Little League, Babe Ruth, American Legion and make their all-star teams. We won a state Babe Ruth tournament. I was captain of my Ocala High School team. And I begged the universe to help me land a baseball scholarship, which was about as likely as me hitting the lottery. I just wasn’t good enough. And baseball scholarships were about as rare as honest politicians.
So I gave up my dream, paid my own admission to the University of Florida and walked on to play baseball for the Gator freshman team. I made the cut and pitched one complete game, which we won. Coach Earl Scarborough put me in the outfield on defense late in a couple of meaningless games, like vs. Brewton Parker. It was enough to earn me a freshman letter. And the next year I was on Dave Fuller’s varsity roster for half a season. There were 15 pitchers. I was the 15th best and it was pretty clear I wasn’t and going to get the ball that much, if ever, so I decided it might be important to work on my grades and quit the team before I flunked out. A semester later, I dropped out of UF and came home to Ocala where I applied to the Star-Banner and worked as a journalist. If I couldn’t be a player, at least I could get paid to write about it.
Thus ended my less-than-illustrious baseball career, except for a couple games I pitched for the local semi-pro team. A few years later, I made a comeback as I donned a dress and pitched for the Junior Women’s League in a charity game to Ted Williams. (Yes THAT Ted Williams!) The script called for Ted to hit a home for the former Red Sox stars – all in their 60s or older – and win over the ladies. I cannot tell you how frightening it was to be on the mound staring down at The Splendid Splinter in the batter’s box. I was so nervous I almost hit him with the pitch, but finally he tapped a soft liner to right and lightly jogged around the bases. That ended my baseball career. Proud to say No. 9 was my last batter I faced.
Over the years I’ve covered about eight World Series, followed Hank Aaron’s quest to break Babe Ruth’s home run record, personally met quite a few of the game’s most iconic figures, seen and written about hundreds of baseball games, campaigned in my columns for new major league franchises in a couple of cities and watched rookie Tom Seaver strike out Mickey Mantle with the bases loaded in the ninth inning to preserve the National League All-Stars’ 1-0 victory because Willie Mays stole home in the first inning. Yet I’m not really a “baseball guy.” And my romance with the game ended many years ago.
So this interlude with baseball has been invigorating and refreshing, like a reunion with an old friend. I will admit to the fact that I’d been a bit adrenaline-starved by the Pandemic, so maybe having a rooting interest in games as part fan/part journalist had a bearing. It just reaffirmed my conviction that baseball is better savored when it’s a local team. Even though I grew up a St. Louis Cardinal fan only because I could pick up the static-ky radio broadcasts on my father’s giant Zenith console; it was far better when I had every-night radio/TV access to the Mets and Yankees in New York, Rockies in Denver and the Rays in Florida. And now, college baseball has won me back over.
The other day I read a Washington Post story about the joy of the communities welcoming back their minor league teams after a year off. I hadn’t thought about how intimate the fans were with some of the teams with those funny nicknames. We don’t have minor league baseball around Ocala/Gainesville anymore. So many baseball fans have reached out to the Gators as their local team. Especially in Ocala, since Jud Fabian, Kirby McMullen, Hunter McMullen and Sterlin Thompson are all from the Ocala area.
This was to be O’Sullivan’s big year with the No. 1 ranked team in the country, a first-round prospect in Fabian, several other promising draft picks and a strong pitching staff. The Gators opened the season with a three-game set vs. Miami in the sparkling new Florida baseball park. But things fell apart and the Hurricanes stole the series. It has been a bit of an uphill struggle since.
Briefly the Gators righted the ship at season’s send and were set up for a redemption series with No. 1 ranked Arkansas, but got swept.
As Sully often does, he fiddled around with his lineup card and put catcher Nathan Hickey at third base so he could get more pop in the lineup. And it worked. After only five hits vs. Kentucky in a 4-1 win, the bats woke up and so did the defense. That and solid pitching propelled them to the semis in Hoover, including the 7-2 win over Alabama Thursday. It started with a solo home run by Jacob Young and Franco Aleman pitched his best game.
After three wins in the SEC tournament -- with 32 hits in games two and three -- Florida drew an off day Friday and was poised, perhaps, for another crack at Arkansas. “They are starting to look like a Omaha team,” said the baseball analysts on the SEC Network.
At least that seemed put them back on track. Maybe not as a Super Regional Host or a national seed, but back to playing O’Sullivan baseball. They’ve been doing that for 14 years at Florida. And that’s not too shabby. Yet another reason to reclaim your birthright as a baseball fan.