For the love of the game: Why small college athletes give it their all

Last week I began this topic by pointing out an earlier story in The A-T. Four local athletes participated in a recent Heidelberg/Dennison women’s basketball game.

Are they playing for the chance to go to the next level? No. None of them are likely to play professionally. Are they playing for the adulation of admiring fans? If you have been to a small college athletic contest lately, you know that can’t be their motivation.

They are playing because they love the game. They are willing to endure long practices and giving up other opportunities for the chance to compete. No frills, no guarantees. You suit up hoping that there will be moments of success, both team-wise and individually. Some will experience many proud moments. Others achieve very few if any.

I then told of my own small college athletic career. I played basketball for three years and baseball for four. In basketball I started my very first game and my last, but in between the term successful was not often used. I suggested that my baseball career was more rewarding and now you will get to decide if you agree.

Hiram College took a spring trip to Jacksonville, Florida each year. It began with a stop at Guilford College in North Carolina. We would get in around midnight on Friday, and to save money, slept in bunk beds under their gymnasium floor. Somehow we managed to scrounge up a basketball and played pick-up games until the night watchman — seeing the lights on in the gym — would race in to see what the heck was going on.

Saturday afternoon meant a doubleheader with Guilford and then it was off to Florida. We played Jacksonville University, Navy and many MAC schools on our trip. Needless to say we didn’t win often, but that was not the purpose. We just wanted to get our work in so we would be better prepared for the season when we returned home.

My freshman year did not start out well for me personally. On the last day of the spring trip, all of our pitchers had sore arms. Unfortunately we still had one game to play, so coach Bill Proverbs asked for volunteers to toe the rubber. My hand shot up immediately. Hey, I pitched in high school. Why not me?

So I took to the mound against Bowling Green State University. I retired the first two batters (remember that) before walking the next two. BG’s fifth hitter was a tall drink of water by the name of Bob Hill. You may recognize the name. Hill later would be a head coach in the NBA with the Pacers, Knicks and Spurs.

I induced the big fellow to hit a lazy fly ball to left field. I’m heading to the dugout thinking that I may be a starting pitcher. Unfortunately our left fielder never saw the ball. It hit some 10 feet from him and I was back on the bump. But I only needed one more out. How tough could that be? Well …

Before that elusive third out was recorded, BG scored 11 runs! Seriously, how can anyone get the first two batters out and give up 11 runs? When I finally did reach the dugout coach Proverbs gave me that “don’t ever ask me to pitch again” look.

In retrospect my teammate did me a favor by not seeing that ball. Since I would not be a pitcher, I became an everyday player.

That pitching embarrassment was NOT the worst thing that happened to me as a frosh. If you’re wondering what could possibly be worse than that debacle … just wait, I’m getting to it.

Hiram went to Marietta late that year to play for a chance to go to the regional tournament. We had a good pitcher and Marietta had another tall fella who came from down under. Not Australia, but he threw submarine style. Maybe you have heard of this guy. Kent Tekulve became a major league closer with the Pirates and Phillies!

Coach Proverbs believed that his infield should be manned by upperclassmen. Freshmen were put in the outfield. For the Marietta game I was manning center field. In the fourth inning of a 1-1 tie game, a Pioneer batter hit a fly ball to me. I completely lost the ball in the sun, but no damage was done. I was given a pair of flip-down sunglasses at the end of the inning.

A couple of innings later another ball came my way. I saw it, lost it and then flipped the glasses down. At that point I couldn’t see anything! The ball dropped, Marietta scored what proved to be the winning run and my replacement came trotting out from the dugout mid-inning.

I had to run off the field to the jeers and catcalls of the Marietta fans. The pitching thing suddenly didn’t seem all that bad!

Despite that shaky start, over the next three years I became the starting third baseman. My senior year I batted third in the lineup, hit over .300 and was a co-captain. Life was good … until the last game of my career.

By 1972 Hiram had moved to the President’s Conference and we went to Allegheny with the league title on the line. The game was played in a steady light rain and with the score tied in the bottom of the ninth an Allegheny player hit a ground ball. Our third baseman let the ball go right between his legs and the game was over.

Yeah — that was me. Game over, career over, but I can honestly say I have no regrets. I would not have changed a thing about my sports experiences at Hiram. I had a lot of fun. I made some great friends, in fact Anita and I got a Christmas card from coach Proverbs and his wife Pat just the other day. Most of all I have some wonderful memories that can never be taken away.

No, I would not change a thing except for the end result of two batted balls. One hit in the air on a sunny day along the banks of the Ohio River.

The other: a ground ball hit on a rainy day in Pennsylvania.

Al Stephenson is a sports columnist for The Advertiser-Tribune.

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