Grateful Anticipation: Michigan Baseball 2007-2008

A lot of things have been written about baseball. Every year more than a handful of masters or Ph.D. students submit dissertations and theses on the game proclaiming it dead, alive, hibernating, pulsing, or suffering the same steady decline as the aging superpower that spawned it. The old guard writes romantically about the fabric of American life, baseball and apple pie. About the sham of Pete Rose’s gambling and the carnival sideshow that the steroid era has brought. As if there weren’t enough voices, over the past decade a new form of baseball writing has emerged. One purely wedded to statistics and computer league play. A brand of writing without loyalty to a particular team or style of play, but devoted to numbers, projections and the standard deviation.

I chose not to focus on these things simply because they are nothing more than a collection of words randomly grouped on paper. They don’t reflect my views or more importantly my feelings about baseball. They don’t reflect the mysticism or magic you feel as a fan or player when a special season or special team plays for the school you love so dear. Baseball is as much about anticipation and appreciation as it is about athletic achievement, and this year’s Michigan Baseball team provided both feelings in abundance.

Irrespective of the Yankee’s 25 World Series titles, baseball is a southern sport. It is meant to be played on a cool summer day when the clouds are driven away by the sun. It requires us to be outside, to take in and enjoy the passage of time with people whose company we enjoy, while we nervously attempt to predict the outcome of each pitch. For those who play, baseball requires hours upon hours of tedious practice, wind sprints, batting practice, and screaming coaches, all for the right to step into the batters box three, perhaps four times in a nine inning game. It also requires that your muscles be relaxed enough to turn on a 94 mile an hour fastball, rather than clinched tighter than a steel rope in an attempt to prevent heat from escaping your body in mid November.

As a result, the southern and California boys have a developed a stranglehold on the College World Series. Their access to sun and warmth provide them with numerous advantages, not the least of which is to play games in their own back yard in the middle of February.

The intrepid Northern team must spend its late winter, early spring on the road. Playing tournaments in places like Boca Raton, Charleston, Shreveport, or Oklahoma City, all the while sleeping in hotel rooms, eating fast food, and missing their friends and their classes. There are only a handful of schools north of the Mason-Dixon that take baseball seriously.  Sadly, these schools do not populate the same conference, so their RPI’s take a beating once conference play begins, as the southern schools bask in the sun and the perceived serious conference competition.

Even before the season begins, Michigan knew the deck was most certainly stacked against them.

But this was a special team. Nearly the same team that made the NCAA’s for the second straight year after a decade of sanctions and mediocrity. The same team that took out last year’s overall No. 1 seed Vanderbilt and the game’s best college pitcher. The same team that gave eventual champions Oregon State its toughest games of the postseason. Something was building.

And because of this, Michigan’s players and fans alike began this season with a nervous anticipation. A feeling in the gut that’s not quite butterflies and not quite excitement. A feeling that something special was there for the taking, but it would not be taken easily.

Michigan’s pre-conference play included three eventual NCAA invitees in Arizona State, East Carolina, and Coastal Carolina; it even included the New York Mets. While some of the results were not what anyone would hope for, you could see momentum building as the Wolverines rolled into conference play.

And once the big blue boulder got rolling, there was little stopping it. Michigan went into hyperdrive once conference play began, amassing a 26-5 record in Big Ten play and setting a new record for Big Ten conference wins. All this despite starting its season on the road, playing out of hotels, and completing their assignments on a greasy Denny’s table while their buddies back home partied ‘till 2.

Once in the tournament they battled through a rain extended opener against Kentucky to earn the right to play 1 seeded Arizona later that day. Then, on a couple hours of rest, were within three inches of toppling the Wildcats.

Though Michigan did not advance to the Super Regionals, this season was a tremendous accomplishment. A Big Ten Conference Championship. A Big Ten Tournament Championship. A new record for Conference wins. Michigan’s first home Regional since the 80’s. And they demonstrated for all to see that the northern boys can play with the southern and the western schools.

As last season rolls into next season, we are left to appreciate the accomplishments of a special group of young men who wore the Maize and Blue. We are also left with a nervous anticipation of the upcoming season. What happens now that Nate, Zach and Chris are gone? Who will replace the gaps in the middle of the field? How will we match up against the Big Ten and start the season?

These are all questions that we never could have anticipated we’d ask five years ago. And now we’re left with a feeling in our gut that’s not quite butterflies and not quite excitement. A feeling that something special is there for the taking, but won’t be taken easily.

For that feeling, I owe my gratitude to Michigan’s 2007-2008 Baseball Team.

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