Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Obscuring the spirit of college sports

The nights have turned cold here in Flagstaff, Arizona (29 degrees early yesterday morning), but not so cold that a trip to Baskin-Robbins wasn’t in order this evening. It has to be a few degrees below frozen tundra/near-white out conditions/1967 Green Bay Packers highlight reel levels for me to pass up a run for mint chocolate chip ice cream. We’re a little deprived here when it comes to gourmet ice cream, but Baskin-Robbins stands in admirably when it comes to mint chocolate chip.

I was having at my single scoop in a sugar cone, and my 15-month old daughter was busy stalking my wife’s scoop of something called “Bananas for Coconuts”, when my glance turned towards a somewhat glassy-eyed group of four college women. They didn’t look miserable – but for a group of college women at an ice cream place, they were decidedly unenthusiastic about their predicament.

I noticed their attire, and then felt a sympathetic twinge of familiarity.

Their collective wardrobe indicated that the group comprised the Utah Valley State College women's golf team, and they were in northern Arizona for a tournament. I haven’t been a women’s golfer, but I have been an athlete from an obscure college team, looking for ways to spend a meager meal allowance on the road.

Playing baseball in Division III’s Midwest Conference meant a lot of trips to restaurants where you ordered at the counter. With an admittedly mediocre team, the mood was usually lighter on the ride outbound than it was on the trip home. It was the trip out that sometimes included a stop at a pizza/ice cream parlour chain at which we’d declare it was an unsuspecting freshman player’s birthday, meaning a sundae with candles and an embarassing serenade from the wait staff.

But mostly, it was trips to McDonald’s in strange towns, the rain-delayed double-header or the blown save still fresh in our minds, deciding how to spend $12 in meal money, contemplating the long van ride home and the midterms that awaited us.

We read and hear a lot about the breaks given to some high-profile college athletes – breaks like special dorms for football players, lenient grading policies, outrageous recruiting tactics for prospective players. And sometimes – especially around NCAA basketball tournament time, we hear heartwarming stories about the lesser-known athletes, toiling in the “obscurity” of a program that rarely makes it to the Sweet 16.

But we almost never consider the athletes on the teams that have more modest aspirations. Winning ten baseball games in a season. Shooting two birdies on the back nine in the conference tournament. Beating their 100-year rival this season, even if their rival is also 1-and-8. (UVSC's golfers may well have their sights set on an NCAA championship, but probably not this year, which some quick research reveals is the team's first year of existence.)

What do you get out of playing baseball at Cornell College, or golf at Utah Valley State, or soccer at Guilford?

It’s a chance to do something in your college years besides studying political philosophy, drinking cheap beer, and having relationship crises. It’s feeling like a professional when the equipment ladies set out your crisply folded uniform in front of your locker on game days – even though you change into your uniform as the locker room is being shared by junior high school wrestlers trying to, um, reduce their weight before a meet. It’s getting an honest-to-god letter jacket that might – just might – still fit 13 years later. And in my case, it’s going out to the field to stretch two hours before a Saturday afternoon game, when the dew is still dampening the infield grass and the baselines aren’t even drawn yet, and thinking – this might not be Fenway Park, but I’ll take it.

Of course the other motivation is spending that meal allowance. And in 1992, $12 bought a lot of McNuggets. I never made it through more than 18 in one sitting – which at least means my letter jacket still fits.

So good luck to those Utah Valley State women golfers – may your next trip to Baskin-Robbins include a sundae with a candle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Can't believe you didn't try your luck with the all-you-can-eat buffets. I don't think we missed a single one Pizza Hut in PA. No wonder I won't eat there now.