Thursday, March 5, 2009
A College Baseball Team, Always on the Road
By BILL PENNINGTON...New York Times
Two days after leaving the Canadian border town of Presque Isle, Me., the bus with 14 players, 2 coaches and a manager pulled into a lot at the baseball field of Ferrum College in western Virginia. The drive had been 22 hours, but for this baseball team, the journey was finally over.
Or was it just beginning?
This February day’s doubleheader against Ferrum would be the first of 37 successive away games scheduled for the University of Maine at Presque Isle team this year.
Because winter can last until May in northern Maine, Presque Isle routinely plays its entire season on the road. With their campus 400 miles north of Boston, the Owls have not played a home baseball game since 2005, when there were two.
“You can either complain that the baseball field is buried under six feet of snow, or you drive to where you can play baseball,” said Tyler Delaney, a junior infielder. “We don’t complain.”
Waiting for batting practice to start at Ferrum, the players in the bus, none of whom have ever played a home game, were buttoning their jerseys and pulling on game socks when a woman approached and knocked on the door. Two lines of written script are on the side of the blue-and-white bus: The University of Maine at Presque Isle
North of Ordinary
When the bus door opened, the woman peered inside and asked in a drawl, “Where’s Ordinary?”
The nation’s prominent college sports of basketball and football are flashed across television screens around the clock, a big-money, high-stakes enterprise awash in excess. Unseen but nonetheless part of the same intercollegiate athletic community are teams like Presque Isle, bumping along the quiet country back roads of Virginia looking for a game.
“Believe me, we know the difference between them and us,” first baseman D. J. Charette said the next day as the bus rolled down Interstate 81.
“Their sport got them an athletic scholarship, and they might see it as a career. We aren’t in that world. We just want to play.”
Presque Isle has had a baseball team since at least the 1940s, about the time the Army built an airstrip there, from which scores of World War II fighter planes departed for Europe. The Presque Isle baseball teams have always been road warriors. But in an era of all-weather playing surfaces and expansive indoor college athletic complexes, this team may be the only college baseball squad in the nation to regularly play all its games on the road.
The university, known as U.M.P.I., which the locals pronounce “Um-Pea,” has teams in N.C.A.A. Division III and in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
Representatives from each organization said they had no record of any other baseball teams routinely playing entire seasons without a home game.
The boys of winter from Presque Isle play on, laughing when opposing players tease them about frostbite or ask if they brought any snow with them in the bus. Their closest opponent, Daniel Webster College in Nashua, N.H., is about seven hours away.
Presque Isle’s only winter practice facility is in a basketball gymnasium, making the first fly balls and pop-ups of the season an adventure.
Because every extra dollar is poured into the extensive travel budget, there is not money for technologically advanced bats. Their helmets are clearly a few years old.
The roster was small, at 14 players, for the weeklong eight-game trip against six Virginia programs, so almost everyone had to pitch occasionally, whether they liked pitching or not.
The players get $15 a day for food. They stayed in budget hotels, four to a room for $60 at a Howard Johnson’s last month. There are no athletic scholarships, and their bus lacked a restroom. They are literally and figuratively miles away from the pumped-up, high-price world of professional baseball.
“We do it for the love of the game,” the senior Brandon Elie said. “We do it because we’ve been playing since we were in T-ball, and we don’t want to stop.”
Charette added: “No one should feel sorry for us. This is fun. I feel sorry for all the people who don’t get to play college baseball.”
The late afternoon sky was a mix of snow and hail when the Presque Isle bus left Maine to start the Virginia trip. The team could have left earlier, before the storm, but Coach Leo Saucier did not want any player to miss a class. Despite all the travel, Saucier’s players work in tandem with the college’s faculty to minimize absences and to make up homework or take tests early, even if that means extra, advance studying.
The trip’s first stop was Boston. The second day brought 15 hours on the road, counting several stops for food and bathroom breaks. When they arrived at their Virginia hotel at 11 p.m., the players unpacked the team’s bags and equipment, which could fill a small U-Haul.
When a player entered the hotel lobby, he would remove his cap or hat, acknowledging a team rule adopted and enforced by the players.
“We want to show respect for the hotels and restaurants we visit,” first baseman Andrew Parker said later. “We don’t want anyone to say anything bad about that Maine team they saw one day.”
The Maine visitors lost both games of the opening-day doubleheader at Ferrum College, and a day later, against the Division III powerhouse Lynchburg College, the Presque Isle visitors were behind, 15-1, in the fifth inning.
With two outs and a runner at third base, every player and coach in the Presque Isle dugout was on his feet cheering as Delaney doggedly worked the count to 3-2. He then fouled off seven consecutive pitches. Delaney, a Nova Scotia native and the only player on the Presque Isle roster not from Maine, eventually grounded out to shortstop. But his teammates met him as he came off the field, touching fists and handing out high-fives.
“We rely on each other because we are all we have,” said Clint Carter, a sophomore pitcher. “We never have any fans cheering us. It’s easy to give up. We pick each other up instead.”
The next day, playing their fourth game in three days — after a layoff of nearly nine months — the Presque Isle pitching staff looked weary in an 18-0 loss at Roanoke College.
“No one likes to lose, but I admired those kids and what they’ll go through to play,” Roanoke Coach Larry Wood said. “We lined up after the game to shake hands, and they all looked you in the eye and wished you luck. I can’t say that about a lot of teams.”
After the game, the team found a parking lot in walking distance of a Sonic, a Burger King and a Pizza Hut. Players scattered, meal money in hand.
“When you practice in a gym, you don’t come down here expecting to go 8-0,” Saucier said, waiting in the parking lot. “This is meant to help us get ready for the rest of our schedule and do what athletics is supposed to do — teach the value of teammates, teach responsibility and maybe some other life lessons, too.”
The Presque Isle baseball team was 5-20 last season, a major improvement from a couple of winless seasons earlier in the decade. Scanning the team’s spring schedule of games across New England and New York, Saucier said he thought this season’s team could reach double digits in victories.
By 9 p.m., the bus had rumbled back to the team hotel. Some players immediately alighted for the laundry room with bundles of dirty socks. Some did homework. Some did both. The majority fell asleep with televisions turned to ESPN.
The next day’s game was at Shenandoah University. In a twist the Presque Isle players found unbelievable, it was nearly snowed out. Instead, it was moved back a few hours.
The players used the delay to crowd into their already crowded rooms and when prodded, wondered what it would be like to play major college athletics: traveling in jets, playing before packed grandstands, staying in swanky hotels.
“I’d settle for a home game that my parents could come to,” Elie, the lone senior on the team, said.
Delaney said: “I don’t know, I kind of like it that it takes more passion to play at our level.”
Caleb Hale, a freshman pitcher, snickered.
“Well, I’d love to play on TV, have someone pay for college and do my homework for me,” he said.
The room filled with laughter.
“There is that,” Delaney conceded.
The Presque Isle team was still winless as it entered the final game of the February trip, but led Southern Virginia University, 4-3, in the fifth inning. A two-out, bases-loaded bloop single proved to be the pivotal moment in a game-winning rally for the home team.
The Presque Isle players headed back to Maine to face another three weeks of practice in the university gym before their next game. The day they returned to campus, a foot of snow fell as a greeting.
“The guys were disappointed about that last loss in Virginia, but even before we got home, some were already talking about the next trip,” Saucier said in a telephone interview Thursday. “They believe we can do some good things. You know kids, they love to play the game.”
On March 20, the blue-and-white Presque Isle bus will roll out of northern Maine bound for the next day’s game in Boston. It will head south and west, but as the script on the side of the bus will attest, it will always have originated from somewhere north of ordinary.