Wow, the hardest thing about writing a story about college athletes is figuring out the Byzantine NCAA regulations about transfers and eligibility. You can transfer from a two year to a four year college, but if you’re transferring from a four year to another four year, unless it’s Division I to II or III, you have to spin a plate on a stick for six hours each day except on game day when you stand on one foot… So there may be factual inaccuracies in here for now, but that’s because…NOBODY understands NCAA eligibility regulations.
So I had to go back and fix Coach Blaine’s “two year” requirement for Brian (if he goes to university, he has to log three years in school before he’s re-eligible for the pros). And after I wrote today’s bit, I had to go back and true up Brian’s commitment to school (which was lax in yesterday’s draft, but not so much now, at least for now…). I know, first draft, but for anyone coming in now and reading them in sequence they won’t flow unless I fix that shit :0
I’m reading “Three and Out” about Rich Rodriguez’s term as coach at Michigan to learn more about big-school football programs. John U. Bacon’s writing is great and I’ve preordered “Fourth and Long,” his book on college football in general coming out next week. So yeah, a lot of research to do, but it’s fun. Gotta stop writing soon and spend some time working the corner and selling my ass to get sales going again on “A Little Too Broken”!
And Brian kept his promise. He took batting practice, he fielded grounders, he showed up on time, and a couple of things happened that shocked him. First, that being a team player meant that the team liked you. He’d never worried too much about that before, never cared if the other guys wanted to hang out after practice or games or not. And they’d never invited him to hang out in high school; they’d labeled him “Barry Bonds” and he’d thought it was for his awesome HR percentage. Only after he’d made his promise to Coach Blaine, and finished his senior year with a better attitude, did he realize they were referring to Bonds’ notorious cold shoulder of the other players in the Giants clubhouse.
The other thing that shocked him was how much better he was getting by applying himself. His natural talent was like sparkling silver, and it only took a touch of polish to remove the tarnish that had dimmed it. At first, shagging fly balls all through practice made him want to shout, “Fuck this!” Watching everyone else hitting, doing it wrong, while he cleaned up after them by catching their “skyed to right” outs or scrambling to intercept a bouncing ball before it hit the backstop, was humiliating, enraging, frustrating. Exactly as Coach Blaine had intended.
Ball players have a section of their brain devoted entirely to physics and geometry. In the best players, it’s a supercomputer, that sees a ball leaving a bat, or a pitcher’s hand, and immediately starts calculating exactly where that thing is going and how long it will take to get there and where its owner’s hands need to be to hit or catch it. But you have to program it through repetition, and only now was Brian feeding it the massive amounts of problem-solving requests it needed to function correctly.
NCAA rules limited how much time you could spend on “countable athletically related activities,” but nobody could stop Brian from working out on Santa Vera’s softball fields on his own time, and he soon got a reputation at Lessing as a madman who wouldn’t leave other guys alone, c’mon, let’s go hit some balls, c’mon, let’s go.
He’d always been contemptuous of the cornpone surrounding baseball, the halcyon sentimentality and gooey prose, the swooping sound of the music in “The Natural.” But some late crisp afternoons that first fall, he got it – a playoff game on the scratchy radio in the empty dugout, just him and a buddy or two hitting and catching and throwing, gold and yellow leaves drifting across the field, a cold beer or two waiting in the cooler for the end of practice. He started loving the game, for itself, for more than just his father’s love of his success at it.
He took the freshman grind classes, and got B’s and the occasional B minus. But it was Professor Ehrens’ American History I class that knocked his socks off. High school history had been the old-school tweedle-dee fife-and-drum version of the American Revolution, boring as all get-out and full of lies, teachers acting like they were revealing a Great Man’s Flaw when they told you about Washington’s wooden teeth. But Ehrens made it real, made it…fun. Fascinating. And as he didn’t give you any bullshit, he didn’t take any, either.
Brian phoned in his first paper on the Puritans, too distracted by his newfound obsession with practice to do more than make a word count. And when Professor Ehrens was handing graded papers out at the end of class one day, he said, “Brian, will you stay after class, please?” Brian took his paper and swallowed hard at the red mark: F.
Later on he’d see the resemblance in his son. Professor Ehrens’ dark hair was half gray now, and he was far slimmer than his son, almost rail-like. But the blue eyes were the same, clear and bright and sharp. “Do you know why you got an F on this paper, Brian?”
Brian might have bullshitted someone else. “Because it sucked?”
That was another thing the prof had in common with his son – when he laughed, it was like the whole room was lit up by it. “Because you didn’t try. If you tried and it sucked, you’d have gotten a C. Listen to this and tell me what it means. Ahem. ‘The Puritans were the original meaning of Puritanical, because they were pure and obsessed with purity.’ Well, that’s…some words on paper.”
Brian laughed, too. “Yes, sir. Sorry.”
“I know you did the reading. You participate in class, you have good comments and good questions. So why the shitty paper?”
“I just have a lot on my plate, with baseball and all…”
“Duh, you’re a full time college student, you’ll always have a lot on your plate. But it’s fall, Brian. If you’re phoning it in now, what’s your coursework going to look like in the spring when you’re playing ball, when you’re on the road?”
Brian remembered that someone had told him Ehrens’ son played football, had come out of Santa Vera High and gone right to Cal, so right, the guy obviously knew what it was like to have both school and sports to deal with.
“Look.” He took off his wire-rim glasses, his blue eyes all the sharper now. “I’m going to let you rewrite…replace this paper. You have till Monday morning to give me something real. Not blah blah. I know you can do it.”
“Yes, sir, thank you.” Brian was still not used to kindness and interest in his well-being from father figures, and he nearly cried. He thought he held it in pretty well, but Professor Ehrens had been around a while and knew a fatherless boy when he saw one, and diplomatically did not react to the glistening moisture in his student’s eyes.
When Brian got his replaced paper back, he thought it would look childish, putting his grade up on the wall like a parent putting his kid’s shitty A++ drawing on the fridge.
“B+. You make several arguments in your opening paragraph, but you didn’t follow up on all of them. It’s okay to circle back and drop one if you don’t intend to expand it.”
Flush with secret pride, he hid it under his dorm room bed where his roommate would never see it. He didn’t have to take it out and look at it – he could just think about it, and know it was there.
But there was still a part of him that was looking for an out, that whispered in the back of his head, “Hey, man, you’re going to get an A in AH I. So, you can get a C in biology and keep your B average.” What a great idea! He was inordinately proud of himself for having it, and sure enough, a C is what he got.
When spring came, he was ready. He took 12 credits instead of 18, to make more time for baseball, mostly since he knew that Ehrens’ AH II class would not be slackable. He was learning that good students succeed in college not because they are good at everything, but because they know how to be good enough at some things. Success was a game, a system to be gamed. And there were teachers who were in on the game, who would take a paper that was properly outlined and had good subsection headers and give it an A, never actually reading it. Or who were too burned out and tired to do more than wave distractedly at an exam, words on paper proving you’d done something. So he started reserving more of his energy for the two things that mattered – baseball and Professor Ehrens’ class.
The team started winning. Lessing was a Division III school, small potatoes in the big scheme of college sports, a liberal arts college where the athletic director had not become more powerful than the school’s President. So Podunk U. v. Bohunk State didn’t make many headlines, but it did start making the subject lines of a few emails. “A guy you want to look at,” or, “Lessing has a hitter.” Nobody could do anything about it, other than look, but baseball was a long game, and patience was a virtue it embraced.
Coach Blaine knew them by sight, the recruiters from the big schools as well as the scouts from the pros. He watched their eyes move to track one player, saw their hands moving, making notes after that player’s activities, and he knew what was up. He was playing a long game, too, already thinking about how he’d fill the hole in his roster after two years when Brian moved up.
Winning felt good. Having friends, being on a team, felt good. Being a bit of a BMOC felt good too – girls had always looked at him, big and tall and handsome, but now he gave off another set of pheromones, the victor’s scent. He got laid, a lot. A lot! It was funny; liberal arts chicks who would turn their noses up at football players, somehow felt a baseball player was a more…literary pursuit. Which was fine with him.
His dad was there, of course, in the stands, but Brian understood now why he yelled and screamed and carried on. Or thought he did. He wants my success for himself. He wants my reflected glory. He wants everyone to congratulate him and pat him on the back for being such a fucking great father to raise such a great player. Brian had role models now, father figures, and the pain of his real father’s apathy and cruelty would never be eliminated, but it was…less.
And sure enough, Division I came calling. The recruiters who’d seen him in high school were impressed by the change, but not surprised – he wasn’t the first case of that type Coach Blaine had taken.
He sat down with Coach Blaine, his hands shaking as they walked through the offers. Cal State Fullerton, Florida State, Miami, Texas… practically the whole recent list of College World Series champions. “I don’t want to live in the South, Coach. I just…don’t. Too many rednecks.”
Coach Blaine’s eyes sparkled. “You don’t have to explain that to me.”
Brian grinned. Then he sobered. “I, uh, do have another offer. It’s maybe not the greatest baseball choice.”
He didn’t need to say much more. It was a risky choice for a ball player – the previous year, the school had announced it was cutting its baseball program, and only a wave of contributions from the community, including rival Stanford, whose supporters couldn’t stand the idea of not having a rival around to beat, had kept the program intact. But this year Cal was headed for the College World Series, riding the wave of momentum that the $10 million they’d raised to keep the program had given them.
“It’s not just for ball, though,” Brian said, surprising himself. “They’ve got a great history department. And I want to be a history major,” he blurted.
Coach Blaine was silent for a minute. “Well, I’m glad to hear it. I know Professor Ehrens speaks highly of you.”
Brian was startled on a number of levels. He supposed professors and coaches never spoke to each other, but duh, Ehrens’ kid was a football player so he was probably more involved with the athletic department here. And the idea that Ehrens had spoken highly of him…it was like the sun coming out.
Blaine nodded. “I think it’s a good call, son. You know baseball isn’t forever. For most guys it’s not ever. You can have all the talent in the world, and one day you get injured and it’s all over. An education is forever. I’m proud of you, Brian.” He extended his hand. “Congratulations.”
Brian shook it, knowing it was a reward for more than just choosing to get an education. “Okay,” Brian said. “Okay. Holy shit. I’m going to Cal.”