Students and Athletes – Baseball in Junior College
Sometimes it’s a chance to get away from our desks and enjoy the warm sunshine; other times it’s so cold we retrieve blankets from our cars beforehand. But several afternoons each spring semester, my fellow English teachers and I meander from our offices in the red brick Osborne Building, down the sidewalk, past the Student Union and historic Norton Hall, to the baseball field. It’s one of my favorite places on this beautiful campus.
A low, red brick wall wraps around the backstop and up the baselines, where meticulously manicured grass meets the red clay; more sandy than most fields, this dirt resembles the farmland surrounding this little town atop the aptly named Sand Mountain in Northeast Alabama.
The boundary of its outfield, marked with a royal blue banner that declares “Snead State Community College” in varsity letters, features a newly installed scoreboard that mixes classic lines and logos with digital score keeping. The lure of this spot is always enough to draw me away from ungraded papers and unplanned lessons, if only for a few innings.
But watching a game here prompts a strange mixture of emotion for me; it’s somewhere between maternal instinct and awe, between the nervousness of watching your child play little league next to a dozen other screaming parents and watching your favorite Gold Glove winner earn his millions in a stadium full of fans.
The boys on this field are college athletes; a few will leave here to play for four-year institutions, and some may even make it to the pros.
The scouts, always on hand, lean quietly against the bleachers or the press box, hoping to find their next all-star among them. I’ve watched these players sign autographs for children, or make a teenager’s day by asking how his high school season is going. I can imagine them doing the same thing beside an Atlanta Braves dugout, during batting practice, before a summer afternoon MLB game.
In comparison to youth league or high school, the game is almost startling. It’s the same distance from the action to the bleachers as one might experience at a high school stadium, or even a nice local park. Maybe that’s why the velocity is such a surprise: The players are big and fast and they throw hard.
Their pitches, just a few feet away from the bleachers where we sit, sizzle like bacon frying and land in the catcher’s mitt with a blur; the collisions at the plate are sometimes so violent they shake the ground.
But these boys – these men — are not just aspiring pros. They are sons and boyfriends and brothers, and – maybe most significantly to the English-teacher convoy – students.
Their essays, written in the required study hall that all Snead athletes must attend, or by the light of a laptop on the five-hour bus ride home from a game, often pour out their hopes and dreams of making it to the next level. They tell their stories of supportive parents – or unsupportive parents, of mentors or encouragers, victories and broken hearts along their journey to this community college campus.
I don’t know them all. In fact, of the three dozen or so players on Snead’s roster, each of us knows maybe four or five. They come through an English 101 or 102 class, or an American lit class, sharing glimpses of themselves in the papers they write or the comments they make in the classroom, then moving on.
But the interaction of those brief few months strums a parental chord that causes me – all of us – to spend the game hoping to catch a glimpse of the players we do know, the ones we can claim as ours. Last week, I was thrilled to see Orvis, a precious Dominican boy who came to Snead by way of Boston, make two nice catches in right field.
Orvis was in my 101 class last spring. The loyal parental cheering squad called him “O.” The jump in my heart that I felt as the ball screamed his way resembled the feeling in my chest when my own son makes a play in the outfield.
And yet, our students aren’t “ours” in such a sense. With them, we exist in some awkward middle ground between cheerleader and parent. And while we invest in them for a brief while, they move on, leaving us to the next crop of freshmen with different stories to tell and different dreams to dream.
I like to think they care that I come to see them play, that I look for them on the field. But with parents coming from out of state and scouts watching to determine their futures, I’m sure my attendance matters little to my student-athletes. And that’s okay. It’s still important to me. It’s my chance to set aside the red pen and be a fan.
To clap and cheer and gripe about bad calls, and watch for a familiar face to appear and be a hero — or at least to get a hit or make a good play. It’s the chance to connect with the experience of my students chasing their dreams outside of a classroom. Not because it’s my job, but because it’s a game I love, at a place I love, being played by people I love, even if only for a brief moment in time on a weekday afternoon.
*Dr. Matthew Smart contributed to this article.