A Sudden Adjustment: Amid COVID-19, players make the most of an uncertain college baseball landscape
By Patrick Sanderson and Noah Ziegler
Five months ago, the 2020 college baseball season began across the nation.
For some players, it was a chance to build upon previous success; for others, a chance to earn more time on the field; and for seniors, one last collegiate show before going to the pros or out into the real world.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic had only just begun to creep its way across the United States in January and February. As the virus spread across the country and cases rose, Americans began to shut things down and prepare for the worst.
Fast forward four months later to July: global cases have surpassed ten million, North American sports are still on hold, economies are slowly reopening in phases and Shirley Povich Field sits empty and silent after the cancellation of the 2020 Cal Ripken League season.
The pandemic brought college baseball seasons to a screeching halt, cancelling regular season campaigns, conference tournaments, the College World Series and many summer ball opportunities. Players and coaches across the country have been forced to step out of the box to regroup and figure out the next steps.
While the shutdown stung, many underclassmen got to work right away, training and preparing for next season. Seniors, meanwhile, were left pondering whether or not baseball would be part of their futures.
Longing for a return: Underclassmen stay engaged with game, team despite distance
Players and coaches have been thrown a pitch that nobody has seen before: coronavirus. From mounds of dirt used as tees to looking longingly at the stadium gates, they have found unconventional ways of getting a baseball fix. If anything, it has led them to return to the fundamentals, rekindling the love of the game they discovered when they were kids.
When Chase Lee (Big Train 2019) and his Alabama teammates returned to Tuscaloosa after a March 10 midweek victory over UAB, he said they started to notice schools suspending all athletic events. At the time, they remained hopeful that they wouldn’t be affected. But as the team prepared to welcome Missouri for its conference opener, the coaches called a meeting in the outfield to deliver the news that the entirety of the 2020 season had been canceled.
The coronavirus had robbed Lee and the Crimson Tide of a chance to continue a 16-1 start into SEC play and potentially carve a path to Omaha for the first time in more than two decades.
“It stung. Guys were crying, coaches were upset, everybody was just disappointed,” Lee said. “We all wanted to play in the postseason, but understanding that this virus has affected a lot of people, it was probably the best decision from the leadership of the NCAA.”
At that point, the uncertainty took complete control. Players across the country were told to go home and wait for further word, including Sacramento State infielder Keith Torres (Big Train 2019), who was set to return to Bethesda this summer.
Unlike Alabama, Torres’ team did not shut down immediately. Players were still able to go to facilities and practice, but this too was short-lived as nationwide lockdowns began.
When Torres returned home to Waipahu, Hawaii, the state had a two-week quarantine during which everything was closed, besides essential services. This forced him to get innovative with how he was going to maintain his fitness and continue practicing. It meant making the most out of anything around his house. From phantom swings to making adjustments to his batting stance, he did everything he could to make sure he polished all facets of his game in order to be ready to go whenever he’s allowed to return to campus.
“I ended up making a tee with dirt and a ball at the top and hit that into a net,” Torres said. “I know some people among my team, they’re doing work with what they got like buckets of water, bags of sand, stuff like that.”
The makeshift workout equipment is how he has powered through the pandemic. As states begin to ease restrictions, thus allowing gyms to re-open to the public, he will soon return to normal physical training along with his teammates.
Meanwhile, Lee has been able to utilize local high school facilities while adhering to the restrictions placed, such as only using the facility when the school’s athletes aren’t present. Previously, he was limited to his home weight set. The absence of a college-level facility furthered his desire to return to the level of normalcy that he and his teammates are accustomed to.
The emotional toll has hit hard for those who are waiting indefinitely for their next time to step up to the plate or onto the mound. The simple sight of a field or the thought of the usual camaraderie drives players like Lee and Torres to stay focused through baseball’s sabbatical.
“I live about 30 miles from Tuscaloosa, so I drove down and back a couple times just to look at everything,” Lee said. “I went by and just sat in the parking lot of the baseball field. I can’t go in — gates are locked, doors are locked — I just sat outside the fence and looked. That sort of excitement to get all the guys there, it was a good feeling. It felt like home.”
For now, they train the best they can for when the NCAA allows them to return to their respective campuses. Beyond the pandemic, they are fortunate to have remaining eligibility to continue their college careers.
The NCAA extended eligibility for players affected by the coronavirus, giving them another season to play if they chose to do so. Current rules state that athletes are allowed to play four seasons in a five-year period, unless the player receives a medical redshirt. As Lee is a rising junior and Torres a rising senior, both will be able to retain eligibility if they and their schools so choose.
Meanwhile, they remain in constant contact with teammates and coaches both from their colleges and summer ball teams. Big Train manager Sal Colangelo has been talking with current and former players, trying to keep an optimistic attitude for both himself and the players through a difficult period.
“I try to spin it. Where there’s a negative, I’m gonna try to find a positive, and the positive [for me] is I’m able to help [my daughters], do some things at home, spend time with my wife,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed Colangelo’s perspective on various things. He stresses how every player that’s put on the Big Train uniform — or was supposed to — is a member of the baseball fraternity in Bethesda.
For now, Colangelo is focused on recruiting players for next summer. He has talked with college coaches and is working to bring a large portion of this summer’s projected roster back for the 2021 season.
While players might be making plans for the next spring and summer, the memories to be made in summer baseball are put on hold, leaving an empty feeling for them in the present moment.
“That’s probably one thing I’m going to miss the most — meeting up with the boys and creating more memories,” Torres said.
Fear of the unknown: Seniors ponder their futures after season cancelation
Torres and Lee entered this spring and the subsequent shutdown with visions of baseball in their future, no matter what.
Meanwhile, the 11 seniors from last summer’s Big Train team returned to school expecting just one more spring of college ball before pursuing the sport professionally or calling it a career.
In March, pitcher Elliot Zoellner (Big Train 2018-19) and his Maryland teammates had just finished a road trip to Coastal Carolina. Coronavirus cases dominated the news but remained low at the time, he said, until the numbers began to skyrocket in the following few days.
“Within the next week, we began to see the Ivy League shut down, the NBA shut down, and then things were changing all over the place,” he said.
He recalls a Wednesday night contest against James Madison University — a tough home loss that preceded a flight to Texas the following morning for a weekend series against TCU. The world was constantly changing, and conferences dropping like flies was a preview to the inevitable. Upon landing, Maryland head coach Rob Vaughn called an immediate meeting at the hotel.
“Our coach said, ‘there’s really no other way to say this, but the Big Ten has shut down the rest of the season,’” Zoellner said. “It took a little bit for that to set in.”
That same Wednesday night, a few states south, Jacksonville catcher Jacob Southern (Big Train 2018-19) was preparing for a contest against Yale. They received word just hours before first pitch that the Ivy League had pulled the plug on the entire season, but, since Yale was already in Florida, they were allowed to play the game and immediately head back to Connecticut afterward. The severity of the situation around the nation hadn’t yet set in.
“None of us were really worried about our season at that point,” Southern said.
At practice the next day, the team was informed that the Atlantic Sun Conference would make an announcement about the season later in the day. Originally, the conference suspended play until April 5 and teams were allowed to continue training. However, the next day during their Friday training session, he was told the whole season–and thus his college career–was cancelled.
“I sat in the locker room for about three or four hours afterwards with just a roller coaster of emotions because I’m a senior and I didn’t know what was going to (happen now),” Southern said. “The practice ended at about three and I don’t think I left the locker room until 7:30 or 8 p.m.”
This was before any seniors had any clarity on the prospect of extra eligibility, so as far as they knew, it was over.
Zoellner, fresh off a stellar 2019 in Bethesda, was off to the best start of his four-year collegiate career this spring, striking out 16 over 11 scoreless innings out of the bullpen. After a slow February, Southern was heating up too, hitting safely in 10 of his last 11 games before the cancelation.
Of course, they both knew their team’s and community’s health and safety were of the utmost importance, but this wasn’t how it was supposed to end. It seemed unfair. One last ride with brothers, one last run at hardware, all to be capped off by a final sendoff in front of fans, friends and family was gone, all in one moment.
“I had already accepted the fact that [the 2020 season] might be my last 56 games, and I was okay with it. Then the season ended after 18 games,” Southern said. “I wouldn’t say I wasn’t okay with it, but I was struggling to be alright with it right away.”
“It wasn’t sitting right,” he continued.
As schools began transitioning to online lessons for the rest of the year and students moved back home, the near future, very simply, didn’t look promising for these two and their fellow seniors.
Then, they each got a lifeline. In late March, the NCAA Division I council granted seniors an extra season of eligibility, giving them another shot at a final collegiate run.
Zoellner will return to Maryland for another season in 2021. Southern decided to transfer to Indiana University, where he will play his final season as a graduate student.
With his future more certain, Zoellner is grateful for the opportunities he and many others have as the shutdown continues.
“The whole silver lining in this situation is that a lot of people are now able to spend more time with their families,” he said.
Now with their paths secure, Zoellner and Southern join the likes of Lee and Torres, using the time off to prepare for another season on the college diamond. Come 2021, they’ll be beyond ready to get on the field and take care of unfinished business.
Photos courtesy of Chase Lee, Elliot Zoellner and Jacob Southern.
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