Trying Out for the Team
Mike Vitale '73
My story is about my freshman year. It seems a bit comedic, but the result was profound for a young, somewhat awkward 18-year-old who was trying to find himself.
February 1970 rolled around, and tryouts for freshman baseball were announced. I was never very accomplished at sports but always loved baseball. My brother was the athlete in our family, and I was the “bookish” younger brother. I hadn’t played organized ball since I was 8 or 9, but as Trinity was a small-population school, I convinced myself I should try out. I remember that there was another young man trying out who took a locker near me, had a similar background in terms of not having played much in the last few years, and also wanted to give this a try.
Tryouts were run by Coach Don Miller, whose main sport was, of course, football. We were in the old Field House where there was an indoor field to use. I’m sure I gave the fellows a laugh when I got a chance to bat, and the pitcher threw me a curve ball. Never having seen one “up close and personal,” I was impressed with the break at the end and said so in a “gee-whiz” sort of way. The catcher’s response was, “Quite a bender he has there!” and I asked him to have the pitcher throw it again, cementing my position as a neophyte.
I was not very good. I had thick glasses and no particular physical gifts other than perhaps size. I was always last running around the bases as a drill, and I remember Coach yelling, “C’mon, Vitale—hustle up!” or some such. I was determined, however, and kept coming to practice. Finally, the weather allowed us to go outside, and Coach placed me in the outfield for drills and reviewed the rudiments of outfield play. I was always last to get batting practice.
Soon, it was time for the first game on the schedule. Coach announced to the group something like, “First game is Friday. Come to the cage (the place at which you got or returned equipment). There will be a list of those who will pick up uniforms for the first game.” That was all he said.
Now the story gets funny, if it isn’t already.
I, being literal to the extreme, remember going to the cage, not seeing my name, and thinking, “Well, guess I’m not good enough to get to go to a game yet.” Because I hadn’t been on any organized sports team since I was 9, I didn’t realize that this “list” was a way for Coach to cut players from the team. As far as I was concerned, no one had told me I was “cut,” so I figured I was still a part of the team! If he had just said something like, “. . . and to those not on the list, thanks for trying out. Come back next year,” or something, the rest of this story would not have come to pass.
Monday came, and I was at practice. I noticed that the other fellow who lockered near me and who had struggled similarly was not there, and I remember thinking, “Huh. Guess he quit. I’m not quitting!” and went to practice. Incredibly, no one said anything to me, including Coach. I went last in batting practice, as usual, and was last running the bases during drill, just like always. Situation normal for me. But I wasn’t going to quit. I knew I was not very good at baseball, but I had the desire to keep trying. Someone was going to have to tell me not to come back for me to stop.
This kept up through the next game. From my perspective, I could see that I was improving slightly. I actually started hitting the ball in batting practice and felt I was learning to play outfield. I’m not sure when it happened, but one day, Coach came up to me and said that he felt I had shown enough to get a uniform and be part of the team for our next home game. He didn’t put me into the game as a player, but I was on the bench, in uniform, and was allowed to be “first-base coach” for a couple of innings.
To protest the Vietnam War, the all-college strike, which happened in spring 1970, ended the baseball season soon after, as well as classes and eventually finals.
After this, Coach always said hello to me by name (always “Vitale”) when we passed in the athletic building, which happened enough times over the years as I loved to play pick-up basketball and squash and use the weight room from time to time. However, I never got the chance to thank Coach Miller for putting up with my naivety. I found out eventually when one of my fraternity brothers told me. He said everyone figured I had some sort of “deal” that allowed me to keep coming to practice. I still think that this showed the quality of the young men who played on that team then, as I like to think they were being polite to me at the very least.
The bottom line on this story is that I learned one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned. Because I could see a modest improvement over the few months of this experience, I took away from it that hard work and perseverance could pay off. Academically, I had never gotten the same feeling. Perhaps it was because I was not talented at sports, and so it had more impact on me. Whatever the reasoning, I came away from this thinking that there wasn’t anything stopping me from learning or doing anything that I wanted badly enough. It was a real confidence builder for my 18-year-old self.
It was a life lesson not found in any of the books I felt so comfortable with, and for that, I thank Coach Miller and all of my teammates from 1970 Trinity freshman baseball.