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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    A day on the diamond

    Senior southpaw Ryan Casey, an assistant sports editor for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, warms up Tuesday before his tryout for the Arizona baseball team.
    Senior southpaw Ryan Casey, an assistant sports editor for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, warms up Tuesday before his tryout for the Arizona baseball team.

    “”Number two!””

    Mark Wasikowski’s words echo across the infield. I turn around and scan the group of players behind me. Yep, that’s me.

    “”Hey, it’s big guy,”” yells Wasikowski, Arizona’s assistant baseball coach, from the left batter’s box as the dirt churns under my feet, his smile evident from my spot midway between second and third base. “”What are you trying out for? First base?””

    I look down at the mitt on my right hand. “”No,”” I yell back. “”Second.””

    Crack! A ground ball is headed my way. I scoop it up and fire it over to first, then turn around and head toward the back of a line forming in shallow left field.

    Wasikowski’s voice is heard again – “”Three in a row, big guy!”” – so I retreat to my previous spot. I’ve been “”big guy”” for about 90 minutes now, ever since my attempt to make Andy Lopez’s Arizona baseball team was under way.

    Crack! Another grounder. I charge it and again shoot it across the infield.

    Crack! A third. Crack! A fourth. Crack! And a fifth.

    Just like that, one-third of my three-part tryout is over.

    It all started with a headline: “”Walk-on tryouts for baseball team set for Oct. 16.”” The Aug. 24 announcement on arizonaathletics.com was all I needed to see. The wheels had already started turning in my head.

    So I presented my idea to Matt Rector, baseball’s media relations director: Did he think Lopez would let me try out for his team?

    He told me he’d run it by Lopez, now in his sixth season at the helm of the program. A day later, I got my answer.

    “”He says you can do it,”” Rector told me, “”but he just doesn’t want you to get hurt.””

    So I dropped by Lopez’s office in late August. He directed me to Wasikowski – affectionately known as “”coach Was”” (Wahz) around the team – who took down my name and gave me a tryout form to fill out. I had a week to return it along with what he termed “”a baseball resume,”” complete with my baseball history and references from scouts who’d seen me play.

    “”You know, all the guys that’ve seen you play,”” Wasikowski said. I gave him a no-one’s-seen-me-play-since-I-was-11 look. “”Or not seen you play,”” he said.

    The tryout form was a breeze. It was this resume that had me stumped. Should I put my little league experience on this? Intramural softball? I decided on both, and also added in my 10 years of hockey experience. (Hey, I figured it’d give an appearance of athleticism.)

    All that was left to do was – wait, what? A physical?

    So I dragged myself down to Campus Health Service to get it out of the way. After about 45 minutes of waiting, I was called into a room – to sign up for another appointment.

    I set the appointment for the soonest available time, and two weeks later the big day had come, and I ended up getting that damn physical – coughing and all. The next day, I returned the form to Jeff Casper, another of Lopez’s assistants.

    I had less than a month until my tryout.

    Four years ago, Brad Mills went through a similar process.

    Then a freshman, the lefty had something to prove.

    After being recruited during his senior year of high school in Mesa by Jeff Moore, then Arizona’s pitching coach, Mills looked to have an in to make the team.

    “”(Moore) said that if I came in and talked to him the first week, I’d be on the fall roster, get to work out, throw bullpens – whatever,”” Mills said last week. “”I’d be on the team for the three weeks of fall practice like slam-dunk.””

    But by the time Mills got to campus, Moore was gone, having accepted a scouting position with the Cincinnati Reds.

    “”No one knew who I was,”” Mills said. “”I was kind of just stranded.””

    He had one option left: Walk-on tryouts.

    Before Mills’ tryout, Lopez addressed the pack of players hoping to make his roster.

    “”Honestly, we’re not really looking at position guys this year,”” he said. The team featured the likes of future high-draft picks Trevor Crowe, Jordan Brown and Nick Hundley. “”But we’re always looking for another arm. So we’re going to look at one pitcher, and probably one only.””

    After loosening up, Mills had 15 pitches to prove to Lopez that he should be that one pitcher.

    “”I think the first thing they’re looking at is your speed on the radar gun,”” Mills said. “”If a person was like 75 (mph), they’re just like ‘OK, next guy.'””

    Mills hit 86, which drew Lopez’s attention. The coach started directing Mills’ pitches.

    “”He was like, ‘All right, can you throw it on the arm side? Give me a change-up,'”” Mills recalled.

    After he followed Lopez’s instructions, the coach asked Mills if he had a breaking ball. He did.

    “”He really likes breaking balls,”” Mills said. “”That’s what he recruits in pitchers.””

    Once his session ended, Mills began jogging around the outfield to cool down. That’s when Casper, who was then the team’s volunteer assistant, jogged up to him.

    “”Coach decided to keep you for fall,”” he said. “”Come to Was’ office in the morning.””

    Wasikowski assigned Mills a locker and a uniform number – “”I mean I had no choice in any of it, I was just kind of along for the ride at that point,”” he said with a smile – and so began his three-week stint with the team during fall ball. (Once a player makes it through tryouts, he must then perform well during the fall to actually make the team.)

    “”I remember I pitched all right in the three weeks,”” Mills said. “”I didn’t pitch badly.””

    In truth, Mills had the lowest ERA on the team at 0.90, surrendering just one run that fall in 10 innings of work.

    After the three weeks were up, Mills returned to Wasikowski’s office and asked about his chances. He got the response he was looking for: “”It’s looking pretty good for you.””

    Mills went on to appear in 15 games that season – including a game against Georgia in the College World Series – and the only player to emerge from walk-on tryouts in the past four years hasn’t slowed down since.

    Over the summer, Mills was taken in the 22nd round of the MLB Draft by the Toronto Blue Jays. He chose to return to school for his senior season, but the uphill battle – from no-name walk-on to MLB draft pick – wasn’t anything new for him.

    “”That’s kind of been where I’ve been my whole life,”” he said. “”I mean, I didn’t even go into high school being anything special. …Hard work has really got me to where I needed to be.””

    As I walk toward Sancet Stadium in soccer cleats borrowed from my roommate, one thought keeps repeating through my mind: What the hell am I doing right now?

    Then I see the first of them. A total of 38 guys would try out throughout the night, but as I arrive around 4:30 p.m., about 15 others are scattered around Sancet’s bleachers. And they all have bat bags, batting gloves, bats and “”turfs,”” cleats specifically designed for (yep) turf.

    I came with a glove, my car keys and my notepad. (I think it might’ve been an understatement to say it wasn’t just my white pants that made me stand out.)

    An hour later, Lopez addresses all 38 of us, and – after detailing the most famous of his successful walk-on stories, Mills and current St. Louis Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein (who played for Lopez at Florida) – he gives almost an exact replica of the speech he gave to Mills’ group four years prior.

    “”I’m going to be honest with you,”” he says. “”We already have 46 guys on the roster, and we’re only allowed to keep 34.””

    So we split up, position players with Wasikowski and Casper and pitchers with Lopez.

    The first stop? A 60-yard dash.

    Catchers go first so they can go work with the pitchers, but within a few minutes, my number – “”number two!”” – is called.

    Rector acts as the gun-starter, his hat setting us free. Seven-point-four seconds later, I’m crossing the finish line.

    “”Not bad,”” Casper tells me later. “”You beat half the guys out here.””

    On a scale of one-to-four, one being “”a potential All-American,”” according to Wasikowski, and four being someone who can’t cut it, I earn a four in all categories: arm strength and accuracy, hands and feet. But after taking infield, things get worse just off right field in Sancet’s batting cages.

    As a team manager drops a baseball into a pitching machine, I settle in my stance, waiting in anticipation.

    It whistles right down the pipe before rapidly tailing away from me, the red seams of the spinning ball meshing into the white.

    Granted, it was going 80 mph, and I hadn’t seen a live pitch in nearly 10 years – or gone to the batting cages in more than five – but I whiff. Badly.

    Another pitch. Another swing. Another miss.

    I don’t even make contact until the fourth pitch, and even that would’ve either been a foul ball or a ground out. I get the bat on five of the next 11 pitches, but they don’t go anywhere either.

    No, I wouldn’t say I had a batting average that night -more like a contact average. (Even if that contact average hovered around 40 percent.)

    After the 15th pitch, Wasikowski tells me to exit the cage and come back the next day for the results of the tryout.

    Just as quickly as it’s begun, it’s over.

    And after it’s all said and done – 60-yard times timed, grounders grounded and swings swung – I walk up to Lopez and shake his hand, thanking him for the opportunity and telling him I probably won’t make the meeting the next day. (No, in the end, I didn’t make the team. One pitcher was invited to fall camp.)

    He smiles. “”You survived.””

    I survived. But my shoulder sure hurts like hell.

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