“Hey ump,” a guy in the audience yells. “That was a balk. Call the balk.”
The umpire yells right back: “He didn’t step off.”
Welcome to the world of community college baseball.
I’m at a game in suburban Dallas. The North Lake College Blazers are taking on the visiting Brookhaven College Bears. (Full disclosure: North Lake College is my day-job employer.) These are not only community colleges; they’re Division III, which is to say they don’t give out athletic scholarships. In the baseball business, these schools go by an abbreviated name: JuCo DIII.
The atmosphere at JuCo DIII games is as close as you can get to pure, uncommercialized baseball. Before the game, the two umpires don their black shirts and padding in the parking lot, behind an SUV, gossiping about blown calls from the previous week. During the game, the colleges’ players wander around behind the small metal bleachers, plucking foul balls off the grass.
Total attendance, in the second inning, is 45 people and three dogs. In the final inning, I have time to count again: 56 people and five dogs. (As with almost all games in this conference, attendance is officially recorded as zero.) One dog spends the game lying luxuriantly under its master’s folding chair, sometimes napping and sometimes challenging me to staring contests. One hound and its owner walk around the field’s perimeter. Every five minutes, there they are, behind the chain-link outfield fence, taking another lap from left field to right. The only interruption comes when Brookhaven catcher Adam Diehl hits a home run over the left-center wall—in all my years of watching community college DIII baseball, this is the first home run—and the hound and its owner retrieve the home run ball, bringing it back to the dugout so Diehl can keep it, or more likely so they can use the ball again next inning.
This is as close as a fan can get to the game—literally. I spend most innings right up against the chain link fence behind home plate, standing, my face right up to the fence and one eye peeking through. This close to the field, I finally realize just how awful an infielder I would be. Every time the batter hits a pop fly, I flinch and look over my head, in case of falling objects, but the ball is always a comfortable 50 feet away, usually on the other side of the diamond. Half the time, it lands completely out of sight. My eyes can never track the darn thing in the first place. Baseball is a slow-paced game, maybe, but its individual events are lightning-fast.
Though I’m the only person standing right up against the fence, others have their folding lawn chairs pulled up just as close to the diamond. The crowd is mostly comprised of players’ girlfriends and parents; between games at a doubleheader, you see the athletes emerge from their dugouts and give shambolic half-hugs. One dad is sucking on a grape Dum-Dum. Others chat idly with batters in the on-deck circle.
Three Brookhaven players emerge from the dugout mid-inning and sit directly behind home plate. One is carrying a cheap old radar gun and a spiral notebook of lined green paper. He hands off the radar gun to a fellow player with a curly black beard. They start taking down the velocity numbers of the Bears pitcher. “83,” the bearded guy tells his teammate. The trio starts debating the pitcher’s movement; it’s just not there, a flat fastball. “74.” The breaking pitch. “87.” A bit of shock: “Are you sure?” “Yeah, 87.”
Home-field advantage is real at this level of play, and I have concrete statistical proof. You might even call it sabermetric proof. At North Lake’s baseball diamond, the lonely brick bathroom structure is over a small hill behind the home team’s dugout. I count the steps. The visitors have an extra 110 paces to walk to get to the men’s room. Uncomplaining, the players make this trip throughout the game. They seem used to it; their girlfriends are not. One woman complains to her friend, “I couldn’t go. The stalls don’t have doors on them.” “So?” her friend asked. “Deal with it.” Alas: “I just couldn’t.” As I walk by the restrooms on the way back to my car, after North Lake has won, 6-2, I hear the women’s room door close and a muffled, echoing voice cry, “Oh shit.”
This is JuCo DIII. Somebody once described spring training as baseball if nobody was watching: the casual feel, the small crowds, the innocence of the whole endeavor. The same thing applies to two-year non-scholarship schools, though, schools where the players compete for a chance at the next level—even when nobody’s watching.
…There is a reason for that casualness, of course, and it is not about ideals. It’s money. Unable to offer scholarships, DIII community colleges cannot attract star talent, and they certainly can’t build elegant stadiums. “In essence,” says Greg Sommers, North Lake’s athletic director, “if you look at the professional level and the college level, we are the minor leagues of college.”
We have a tradition of romanticizing the poor. Tolstoy thought peasants led the purest lives; travel TV says the poor have the best food; hundreds of painters and filmmakers have glamorized the lives of farmers and laborers. Maybe your own grandparents told you something like this: “We had nothing growing up. But we were happy!”
And it’s easy to slip into that nostalgic feeling if you’re a baseball fan and you attend a game at community college, where the umpire will shout back at you, where the North Lake players pooled money together to buy a speaker so they can play songs between innings. But reality is different for the athletes. As Sommers says of the players’ shared speaker: “It’s kinda sad. It’s cool, but at the same time, they shouldn’t have to do that.”
To get an idea of the budget challenges of a JuCo DIII school, consider baseballs. Each baseball has to be certified by NJCAA, the NCAA’s junior-college equivalent. “That,” Sommers tells me, “eats a big portion of our budget. I think a dozen are $75.” So they recycle. Foul balls are collected and re-used; even home runs go back in the bucket. Major league games typically involve over a hundred different baseballs. At North Lake? “You’ll use two, three, four per game. You buy lower-end cheaper balls for practice, but they are cheaper, and they start to come apart if you hit ‘em hard.”
And then there are the bigger expenses. NLC’s playing field isn’t level, and the school’s coaching staff dreams of someday moving up to Division II, which means partial scholarships covering tuition, fees and books only (no room, board, or transportation costs; like many community colleges, those in Dallas do not offer student housing). Perhaps even more remote is the dream of a proper seating concourse, with a press box. That all sounds fantastic, of course, but in today’s budget-cut environment, a concourse is about as likely as a retractable roof.
…So why do players choose JuCo DIII? Why do these teams exist? Chris Wimmer, an associate scout with the Texas Rangers, has an explanation that at first sounds cynical. “For the most part, generally speaking they’re still playing baseball because they don’t know what else to do. They don’t understand the recruiting process and still think they’re the cat’s pajamas or they’re overlooked.” A smaller number of players, he thinks, are angling for scholarships at a DI or DII school, which they might earn after a promising year both on the field and in the classroom.
Wimmer is a former Blazers ballplayer himself, a right-handed pitcher who started assisting NLC head coach Corey Mercer after an injury to his elbow. As a recruit, he had a plan for life after junior college. “I always knew I’d stay in the game, just figured I’d be a coach.” Instead, he’s moving toward life as a scout. (His thoughts on scouting are deadpan: “It’s not for everybody. I like the road. But I’m missing the golden age of television.”)
Coach Corey Mercer joined the NLC staff in 2001; before that, he too was one of the players. “When I came to North Lake in the fall of 1997,” he says, “I still had the same dream of being a big leaguer that I had when I was five years old. Reality set in pretty quick, and I realized that I needed to have a backup plan.” He did score a transfer to UNC-Asheville, serving as a base-stealing sparkplug before returning to Texas.
Athletic director Sommers signed to play center field with Texas Christian University, then made the rare transfer from TCU into JuCo DIII. In part, it was a financial decision. But also, “I went to college really to play baseball,” maybe not so much to study, “and I wanted to go somewhere where I could play, not sit on the bench.” If playing time is your top priority, a small program can offer plenty of it, and community colleges also have stronger academic support for athletes who might not be ready for elite-school coursework.
Small community colleges face a Catch-22 when they try to recruit student athletes. The top-down pressure from leadership asks, “Why offer scholarships if our tuition is so low?” But, Sommers explains, “It’s hard to convince kids if they get a partial scholarship somewhere else, that, hey, you’d still be paying more there.”
So a JuCo DIII school like North Lake or Brookhaven winds up with an interesting assortment of players. Some are chip-on-shoulder kids, passed up by big schools and eager to prove themselves, even if there’s not much skill there to prove. Some, like Mercer, are chasing a big-school transfer and one last chance at a career in the pros. Others need academic help most of all, and developing student-athletes is an area at which community colleges excel. A few, like Wimmer and Sommers, are thinking about careers as coaches.
Only one DIII community college in the Dallas area, Eastfield, can claim a recent major leaguer, former Diamondbacks hitter Ryan Roberts. Before him, another Eastfield alum, Will Brunson, pitched 17.1 relief innings for the Dodgers and Tigers. A more typical career arc is that of NLC pitcher Ben Russell, who threw a no-hitter in 2014, an accomplishment heralded by an article in the community college’s student newspaper. (Actual quote: “He says he doesn’t have time for a girlfriend because his passion and efforts are focused on baseball.”) Russell transferred to Texas Wesleyan the following year, and racked up a 6.55 ERA as a starter.
The area’s bigger, scholarship-offering community colleges frequently produce top players. Vernon College batting sensation Aubrey Huff transferred to Miami, where the Tampa Bay Devil Rays spotted him. South of Dallas, Navarro College was once the home field of Brock Holt and Chris Davis. Another community college transfer, from Weatherford College, just west of Fort Worth: Jake Arrieta.
“Funny thing about Arrieta,” Wimmer tells me. “At Weatherford he had an ERA of three-four [author’s note: 3.43]. Then that summer, in the summer league, he played for McKinney or Frisco or something [the McKinney Marshalls] and had an ERA of 1. Transferred to TCU, became their ace. But something happened that summer. He figured something out.”
According to Mercer, that “he figured something out” is the goal of a community college coach. You can’t help thinking about players like Roberts and Arrieta when Mercer explains: “By the time we work out all the kinks, we are passing off a pretty good player to four-year schools to enjoy. If I have done my job, then those coaches can just plug them in and let them play.”
…Aside from the occasional Ryan Roberts, however, most JuCo DIII players are not potential professional stars. What’s happening here is often more personal, and more meaningful, than that. When you talk to coaches at this level, they brag not just about baseball, but about their players’ off-field growth. Classwork and GPA are important benchmarks in DIII, as much so as batting average and ERA. “It is a very needed stepping stone for many kids,” Mercer says, “including for me some 20 years ago.” All three of the alumni I spoke with credited their time on a DIII team with shaping their careers.
As I asked the college’s coaching staff why they are attracted to this level, that theme repeated itself. Mercer says the philosophy “is all about developing the student-athletes both on and off the field. I think that is what makes DIII JuCo special.” (He also likes that there’s no need to appease donors.) Sommers talks about “school/ball balance,” “the aspect of, you can just come here and work hard for two years, as a student-athlete. If you just apply yourself and work on your skill, and your sport, and your school, you can really change your life.”
There’s another delightful thing about community college baseball, for the fan: It’s everywhere. A ball field, with perfectly capable players, is probably within 10 miles of you. True, the passed balls, wild pitches and errors will make you appreciate major-league finesse even more. True, power pitching and hitting are relative rarities. But you’re not here for great baseball. You’re here, as a fan, for true baseball, the purist variety, free of commercialization. You’re here to argue with the ump and chat with the players. You’re here just in case somebody asks you to man the radar gun while they go to the doorless bathroom.
And although JuCo DIII is not a good place to catch the next generation of major-league stars, you may well see the next generation of coaches and scouts. You’ll see, too, young men working toward better futures. These are guys competing, often anonymously, in front of an announced attendance of zero, for one more chance in the game. And, whether their next move is on the field or in the real world, a junior college’s student-athletes are preparing for the next level. That’s something worth cheering for.