The last time I picked up a baseball bat in competition, I was 7 years old. We had all moved past hitting off a tee, but we still weren’t allowed more than one base at a time.
So when IU coach Tracy Smith asked earlier in the fall if my fellow beat writer Ryan Gregg and I wanted to manage one of his team’s intrasquad Cream against Crimson fall games, the words “natural fit” came to mind. After all, those who can’t do, coach, right?
Still, despite our relative(ly immense) lack of experience in this field, Ryan and I set about preparing as any good staff would. We debated which players we wanted, chatting strategy and working out signs.
I got there late – previous commitments ran too long – so Ryan covered for the first half of the seven-inning affair, giving me a solid two-run lead.
I was, sad to say, ill-dressed for the occasion. But like Schilling with the bloody sock, like Koufax through the elbow pain, like Buckner because he was Buckner, I pressed on, slipping my No. 39 jersey over my blue-collared shirt.
“It looks good on you,” said senior outfielder Chris Hervey in his trademark New York accent.
Then I hit the field, and my dream of making it to the majors became one literal step closer to reality. I had arrived; it was my time to shine.
Pitching coach Ty Neal relinquished his spot at third when I finally hit the field.
“Got a runner on, 0-1 count with nobody out,” Neal said. “What do you think, call a steal right here?”
“Sure,” I thought, reassuring myself I had some idea of what the hell I was doing. I nodded blindly and proceeded to call a play-action pass.
The steal was on anyway, and miracle of miracles, it worked.
“Good call there, Zach,” Smith and Neal called from the dugout. Thank you, Brian Lambert, for making me look competent.
It took two innings for me to stop giving a sign before every pitch. I probably confused half my team, and I’m pretty sure All-American catcher Josh Phegley just laughed at me and did what he thought best – which was far and away the best policy to begin with.
I spent most of my three-and-a-half innings in charge coaching baseball the way comedian Brian Regan played it – not really sure what to do. At least he got a free snow cone at the end of the game.
Thankfully, talent can outweigh coaching.
Kipp Schutz, Jerrud Sabourin and Sterling Mack all had enough outfield power – something this Hoosier team continues to show more of as the fall progresses – to make Bobby Cox out of me in those final innings.
After Mack doubled to bring home the last two runs in our eventual 6-2 victory, he trotted over from second to ask me if anything was on. I told him I taped some episodes of “The West Wing” if he wanted to come over and watch after the game, but other than that, no.
Ryan and I (with a little help from Smith and Neal) made the call and relieved Kyle Leiendecker’s five-inning, four-strikeout performance with our ace-in-the-hole, stud freshman southpaw and almost-Yankee farmhand Blake Monar, to shut down the Crimson and call it a day.
High fives and butt slaps all around.
“Good job, coaches,” Smith said, shaking our hands. “Thanks for helping out today.”
“We’ll need you again tomorrow,” Hervey told me as we shook hands with our victorious crew.
A nice thought, but that was it for me.
To risk one more popular culture reference, I hit my dinger, and I hung ‘em up.
I hear there’s an opening in Visalia next season. You think I could make it to the show as a manager?
Yeah – maybe not.