An April snowstorm left the Gophers baseball team in a pickle. A home series against Penn State wasn’t possible so coach John Anderson scrambled to find an alternative site.
A group of his players visited his office as he made contingency plans. We’ll take a bus anywhere to play, they said.
Purdue agreed to loan its ballpark. The Gophers accepted the offer and swept Penn State that weekend. On the nine-hour drive home, the battery on their bus went kaput, forcing the Gophers to switch to a new bus somewhere in Wisconsin.
“Just another travel story for the book someday,” Anderson joked.
The irony of that situation feels especially illuminating today. The weather this spring was historically dreadful but the Gophers baseball team has produced one of its best seasons ever in spite of it.
The Gophers are one of 16 teams still alive in the NCAA tournament after winning their regional championship by clobbering UCLA on Sunday night. That very sentence sounds preposterous when placed in the context of the north vs. south imbalance in college baseball.
Minnesota outclassed UCLA in baseball? This has been a fairy tale run, regardless of how it ends.
“Sometimes the kids feel like they don’t get the respect they deserve because of where we’re located,” Anderson said.
Years ago, Anderson took his team to California to play USC on a spring trip. A few Trojans players asked the Gophers what conference they play in.
“Our guys said, ‘You ever hear of the Rose Bowl?’ ” Anderson said.
The Gophers haven’t advanced this far in a season since 1977. They will be underdogs in the super regionals against Oregon State this weekend. They won’t be intimidated.
“Bring ’em on,” said shortstop Terrin Vavra, who embodies the toughness that permeates the roster.
Playing baseball at Minnesota isn’t easy. Long winters invade the season and create all kinds of complications. They had a dozen games either postponed, canceled or relocated because of inclement weather this season. They crammed five games into four days last season, including two doubleheaders, after weather made a mess of the schedule. They also fly commercial on trips, leaving them at the mercy of air travel adventures.
“I have friends and family that won’t travel with me because they say I’m bad luck,” Anderson said.
Anderson and his players somehow manage to laugh when weather throws them a curveball. Maybe because complaining won’t change anything.
Nobody enjoys playing baseball in cold weather, though. The Big Ten has a rule that requires the “Real Feel” temperature to be 28 degrees to start a game.
“There were some games this year where it got down to Real Feel 22, 23 [in later innings] and we’re out there playing,” Anderson said.
His roster is made up primarily of players from cold-weather states. As kids, they grew up on indoor practices and wearing hoodies in the field.
When the forecast this past Saturday looked ominous, the Gophers shrugged. Big deal. Their motto is “control the controllable.”
College baseball is dominated by southern schools for obvious reasons. If you don’t classify Oregon State as a northern school, Ohio State was the last northern team to win the College World Series, in 1966.
The deck is stacked against a Big Ten team even reaching Omaha. To win the whole thing? Bill Gates has a better chance of going broke.
“[Northern schools] still lose way too many talented players to southern schools because they have [better] weather, they have better stadiums, they play more home games, they have more access to the NCAA tournament and they get to Omaha more often,” Anderson said. “That’s not going to change.”
He was speaking in general terms with 37 years of perspective. He isn’t selling his current team short. He loves this collection of players. Loves their spirit and competitive fight.
Anderson discovered he had something special in April when bad weather put his team in a tough spot. His players didn’t pout. Get a bus and find a field, they said. The location didn’t matter. They just wanted to play.
Nothing has changed. They just want to keep playing.