Every spring, it seems, The Pioneer writes the same article about the baseball team. Year after year, the baseball preview promises improvement, and year after year the team finishes another season with the same disappointing results. As a newly hired Sports Editor, I was very aware of this trend, but I was adamant about printing an article anyway. I knew that the article might come across as an ex-baseball player favoring his friends or blinded with unwarranted optimism, but this year, more than any year past, I meant it when I said the team was going to succeed.
Watching the team get off to a 3-2 start to this year has been bittersweet. Part of me laments giving two years of my life to a process and then quitting before seeing any results. More than that, though, I am proud of my friends for overcoming years of fruitless labor to finally get the success they deserve.
Coming in as part of an enormous first-year class two years ago, I saw that the team expected success. This confidence is a large part of succeeding in competitive sports, but until this year, I think the team expected the success to come to them. Some of the guys on the team have undeniable talent. Talent that makes you wonder how they ended up at Whitman. But for whatever reason- bad coaching, lack of motivation, success coming easily in high school––the team played far below their potential.
This year, more than any year I have seen, the team has been willing to make the sacrifices necessary to succeed. When I told Coach Kinney I would not be coming out in the fall, I told him that between personal issues and focuses on schoolwork, I would not be able to give a full effort to the team. I told him that I thought the guys he had were willing to make sacrifices I could not, and did not want to drag the team down with a less-than-full effort.
The guys who stuck with baseball are much stronger than me. They made the sacrifices necessary for improvement. They woke up at 6 AM every morning this semester for practice and then sat through class knowing they had more baseball in the afternoon. They went to the weight room. For the last three weeks they have truly been student-athletes because, aside from sleeping, school and baseball have dominated their days.
Dedication like that can’t be forced. You cannot convince a young adult whether or not something is worth it. They have to know it for themselves. Coach Kinney is doing something very difficult. He is changing a team from within. Changing their culture without changing faces. He has them working harder, but also working smarter. He has helped the team realize that the team and its success matter to them, that they have pride in what they do, but he did not instill that in them.
The baseball team has stuck with their sport for a reason. Even after five-win seasons, low fan support, and overall tension with the school, the retention rate of baseball players has been surprisingly high. A lot of the school does not understand that. The baseball team has a reputation of entitlement and unmerited arrogance around campus that stems from not recognizing the passion they have for their sport.
What Coach Kinney has done to increase work ethic and produce early improvement has been amazing, but he has not made the team good. The starting lineup has hardly changed from last year. The faces are the same. But he has been able to take a group of young men who care about a sport and give them the structure within which they can succeed.
It is early in the season. The team is still wrapping up its first road trip. They will come back to campus after having missed almost a week of school and get right back into working hard. This year is different. Not because they have gotten significantly more skilled or that they did not care enough in years past, but because they have the guidance to get what they have known they deserved all along. The point at which the expectation of success and understanding of how to attain it has been reached. And now it is a whole new ballgame.