Boyhood Dreams

With the opening series just days away, the ’Eaters gear up for many victories this season.

Even in Irvine during the winter, a beautiful day for baseball comes few and far between. On this particular day, it’s dark and overcast with no rain, just the threatening skies, as if the clouds hold us hostage to its possibilities. And yet on this, the dullest of days, noise echoes from Cicerone Field.

Also compassionately known as Anteater Ballpark, this baseball abode has always held a special magic that is different than anywhere else on this campus. Baseball and UCI have always shared a special bond, with a sense of belonging and comfort that stems from the team’s long and rich culture.

The white resin chalk is meticulously painted down the right field line. The mower roams the outfield, trimming the grass to the perfect height. Some alumni play catch in front of the home dugout while current players mosey over to the batting cages or bullpens, getting their work in before practice starts. There is never a dull moment, with the jokes and ribbing indicative of a team not yet faced with the pressures of a long season. Anteater alumni Ben Orloff and D.J Crumlich, who both now play minor league baseball, chat away with the coaching staff. Even the February gloom can’t dampen the excitement surrounding the Anteaters’ upcoming season.

But then Head Coach Mike Gillespie appears. Coach Gillespie has been a head coach for more than two decades; he’s taken USC to 15 postseason appearances, developed future MLB All-Stars and now heads into his sixth season as the skipper here at UCI. From afar, he seems to combine the sternness of a general with the command of a king. And yet, the first thing he does is go into the dugout and crack jokes with his players. Then he asks another player to tell the team a joke. In an amazing juxtaposition of personalities, even the stern-looking coach is a kid at heart.

Today’s practice is a scheduled intersquad game, a chance for the team to get a game-like feel and work on game situations in preparation for this Friday’s season-opener against Baylor. Outfielder Scott Gottschling and pitcher Race Parmenter shared their opinion on practice and all things UCI baseball.

“I love practice. It’s productive but fun, we’re just getting our work in,” Gottschling said. “For us outfielders, we split off from the pitchers and infielders and we work drills, just working on our footwork, staying deep and getting good reads.”

“For me, I’m just working on staying calm and keeping the ball down,” Parmenter said. “Practice is about working on stuff to help us win more games and more series this season.”

They both described practice as “loose,” proving good reason for the excitement during practice. For them and for most of their teammates, practice is what they look forward to in the long day of an Irvine student athlete. Gottschling outlined all that is entailed in the life of a student athlete.

“It’s a lot. We have morning weights at about 6:30, then if you’re lucky, you grab a quick bite before going to class. Then it’s class until practice and then some guys have class after practice too. We have to go to bed early, but believe me, it’s worth it.”

For this Anteater team, practice doesn’t seem to be about pressure or a requirement or any of the negative connotations of the grind of practice.

It’s just a group of boys, living and chasing and embracing their dreams. The dreams that many of us were forced to give up, they are fortunate enough to live, and they play and practice like they know it too. The youthful exuberance, from the players to the coaches, is truly special. And with this Friday’s season opener against Baylor, this exuberant bunch will be able to show just what they can do.

“Sometimes with a young team you tense up against a good program like Baylor, but we have an older team now this year and we’re ready for them, and ready for this season,” Gottschling said before a teammate, true to the spirit of the team, teases him for interviewing, before sprinting out like a little boy.