The heat, haze and humidity of summer have vanished. The playing field is awash in sunshine, but the air is cool and crisp, a friendly heads-up that winter is just around the corner. It’s way too cool for a T-shirt, but it’s ideal sweatshirt weather. The days are shorter now (sunset is scheduled for 6:40), so the light towers cast long shadows over the playing field in the late afternoon. Gradually, the players themselves yield taller and taller shadows.
The foregoing might sound like a nostalgic description of a World Series game back in the days before commerce commandeered Major League Baseball and decreed that night (i.e., prime time) baseball would rule. What? Never again an afternoon game to add to World Series lore? Quoth the commissioner, “Nevermore!”
But the scene I described in the first paragraph was not historical or fanciful; it was real, and it was contemporary. In fact, the scene unfolded on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, by coincidence, the day the last game of the World Series was played.
The locale was Williams-Reilly Field at Lupton Stadium on the campus of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. The contest, scheduled for high noon, pitted the TCU Horned Frogs against the Stephen F. Austin State University Lumberjacks, or, if you prefer, simply the Jacks.
It may have been the postseason in the majors, but this is college baseball. They started their postseason in late May and wrapped it up in Omaha in June. On the other hand, it certainly isn’t preseason ball, as the 2013 season is several months off. TCU, for example, won’t play again till Feb. 15, 2013. SFA hasn’t posted next season’s schedule yet, but I’m sure the Jacks will launch their season about the same time.
So for lack of a better term, fall ball is the prevailing term for this October contest, and it is called a scrimmage, not an exhibition game.
I first discovered fall ball several years ago while checking some Texas colleges to see if they had posted their schedules for the following season. While doing so, I found out that intra-squad games in the fall were common. Much to my surprise, I discovered that UT-Austin was playing a bona fide game against another school. As I checked some of the other schools in Texas, I discovered that this practice was not unique to UT-Austin.
These autumn games are not widely publicized, to put it mildly. You won’t find them listed in your local sports section calendar, and the next day there will be no write-up about the game. No video cameras will document the proceedings. No campus radio station will carry the game.
You have to consult each college’s web site in October to find out when these contests take place. Of course, the games “don’t count,” but then again, they’re free. Actually, just this fall, I noticed that UT-Austin was charging $5 general admission for fall ball games, so that may be the wave of the future. The savvy director of athletics doesn’t need a topographical map to locate the next revenue stream.
At such a pleasant venue as the TCU ballpark, however, it would take more than five bucks to discourage me from attending. I have no connection to the school in any way, and I had never seen a game at TCU until Opening Day in 2003. That was an unusually warm weekend in February, and I was casting about for some sort of outdoor activity when I happened upon a newspaper article about the opening of a new ballpark at TCU. So I had a destination for the day—and for seasons thereafter.
When I first saw Lupton Stadium, I liked the fact that it was double-decked; it looked like a real ballpark! In the ensuing years, numerous updates have improved the facility. The windbreak that wraps around the outfield fence has matured and provides a superb backdrop. The concourse features banners of former players who have gone on to the major leagues. The right field scoreboard is better than many I’ve seen in the minor leagues.
On this day, someone is operating the scoreboard, but the video screen is not on. There are no public address announcements (roster printouts from the teams’ web sites are a must at these affairs), but someone in the control booth is playing country music between innings. For some reason, the scoreboard clock has already been moved forward to Central Standard Time.
The crowd is sparse but about the same size as I’ve seen at previous fall ball games. The concession stands are not open, so BYOF (bring your own food) is the rule of the day; no need to smuggle it in! As is the case during the regular season at college games, a preponderance of the people in the stands are students, faculty, alumni, or parents of players. They aren’t there in large numbers today, so I can sit, or stand, almost anywhere I want.
I’m not sure what purpose fall ball serves, but I can hazard a few theories. The coaching staff is probably pretty familiar with returning players and the freshmen they have actively recruited, but they may be curious about some of the juco transfers and walk-ons. This is one way to see how they measure up to their returning players and the players on the other team. Basically, fall ball is the flip side of spring football, which is a big deal at some major colleges.
Actually, I’m not terribly familiar with the TCU players myself. Only a few names are recognizable, but given the short tenure of the average college player, that is hardly surprising. The most recognizable name on the roster is pitching coach (actually listed as assistant coach) Kirk Saarloos, who logged seven seasons pitching for the Astros, A’s, and Reds.
Occasionally, I notice a kid in a high school jacket walking over to the rail and talking with Tony Vitello, the team’s recruiting coordinator. That indicates to me that these fall games may be a recruiting tool. A prospective player can check out the facility while it’s in use and see if he is in tune with the vibes.
My purpose in being here, however, has no links to the future. I am here to bid farewell to real baseball witnessed in real time for 2012. Next stop in 2013 will likely be a college game in February, possibly right here, or a spring training game in March. There aren’t many days in Texas when I can sit in the sun and be comfortable, but this is one of those days.
Once underway, the game proceeds like any other. My first clue that something is different is that TCU has a batting order consisting of ten men. My first thought is I messed up my scorecard, but then after the second turnover of the batting order, it is obvious that there are indeed ten places in the batting order. What rules are we playing under here? The double designated hitter rule? Some sort of gentlemen’s agreement?
Other than the pitchers, substitutions are minimal. I would have thought there would be more. Curiously, there are four umpires working the game. That seems a bit extravagant for this contest, but perhaps the umpires, like the players, are trying to keep the rust from building up too much in the offseason.
After the last out of the game (a 6-2 victory for SFA), I start to pack up my gear and call it a season. The offseason is officially underway. The first frost will hit any minute. Then the baseball gods stood athwart the passage of time.
As we all know, the baseball gods are sometimes cruel—devastatingly cruel—and sometimes whimsical. But today they are beneficent.
I was ready to vacate the premises, but the players weren’t. The ground crew took the field. As soon as I saw the infield being dragged, I knew what was going on. Hey, they’re going to play another game! It’s a double-header!
What a way to end the season! Now I know why there weren’t wholesale substitutions in the first game. The second game will provide ample opportunity for the other players to get some playing time.
The score of the second game is 6-6 after nine innings, but I am not surprised that extra innings aren’t part of the deal. Eighteen innings of baseball on an afternoon in October—or any other month—are enough.
Well, this is an ideal way to ease into winter . After feasting on two games, I am sated. Now I can hibernate until spring.
It’s too late now to check out a fall ball game, but if you live in the sun belt, you might want to make a mental note to check the web sites of nearby colleges next October to see if they have any scrimmages scheduled. I haven’t checked any schools outside Texas, but I’m guessing Lone Star state schools are not unique in this respect. At the very least, you should be able to find an intra-squad game or two.
Of course, if you’re satisfied with the MLB postseason on television in October, then don’t bother. But if you grow tired of seeing the same commercials over and over, the cloying promotions for network programs, the non-stop yammering of the “color” commentator, the obsessive-compulsive analysis every time a player raises a finger or lifts an eyebrow, the overuse of instant replays (one more replay of that controversial infield fly rule call in the Atlanta-St. Louis Wild Card game and, I swear, I would have switched to Oprah!), and you just want to watch a game in the raw … fall ball fits the bill!