Harrisonburg, Va., February 1, 2012-- The opening day of baseball season is less than one month away and as a kick-off to the 2012 season, the James Madison baseball team hosted the Third Annual Batter Up Barbecue Sunday in Memorial Hall.
Baseball Head Coach Spanky McFarland is the mastermind behind the idea to host a team event in January with the athletes, families, fans and boosters. "When our season ends in June, nobody is around so a lot of people don't realize when we have a great year. You can't have any kind of get-together after the season so this is the ideal time; a little kick-off event," said Coach McFarland.
An estimated 175 members of the Diamond Dukes baseball family were in attendance Sunday evening and, after a barbecue-style buffet dinner, mingled around the silent auction tables before listening to McFarland and the evening's main speaker, Hall of Fame Coach, Ron Polk.
The event is a primary opportunity to build community support for the Dukes as the season approaches. "I think it opens some eyes and lets people know that we're getting ready to start," explained McFarland. Because professional teams do not kick off their seasons until March, most people are unaware that the college season begins in February.
"It's exciting. It's always nice to see all the guys together with their parents. It's a way to start the season and makes it sink in that it's getting that much closer," said senior pitcher Evan Scott. "It's good because it raises awareness for the program and raises money for it and anytime we can improve the program is always a good thing."
"If you're in the area and you're an alum, it's awesome to come back to listen to speakers and it's good to hear from other guys. It's always a good kick-off for the season and to see the team," added 2011 All-American and Cleveland Indians' draft pick, Jake Lowery.
"I know a lot of the guys' families came down for this and it's kind of a big deal for everybody to get in here and meet and greet with the coaches and have the silent auction," added junior catcher Bradley Shaban.
The annual silent auction was a main component of the evening with featured items signed by professional and amateur baseball players and coaches, as well as fan packs of tickets and other JMU baseball gear.
Lowery contributed a signed baseball bat to the auction this year. "I thought Coach was kidding around that he wanted a bat [from me]. It means something to me that it's actually worth something to someone, when to me, it's just a bat," commented Lowery.
Many of the items featured in the silent auction have been collected by Coach McFarland over the years. "Everywhere I go, I speak around. I go to clinics and camps and when I'm around my former players and associates, I just gather them," explained McFarland. "Some alumni will send some stuff because everybody knows I'm always looking for things so it's all by asking."
Along with Lowery's autographed bat, the silent auction tables also showcased a baseball signed by Andy Pettitte, a baseball glove and backpack and fan packs that included three Diamond Dukes t-shirts, hats and general admission game tickets.
McFarland closed down the auction tables after dinner and briefly spoke to the audience. He reviewed the events of last season and highlighted the scholar-athletes, team captain and class representatives for the team. Despite losing two players to the major league draft, the 2012 Diamond Dukes team is one of the fastest that McFarland has seen."The key to our season is that the players, coaches and parents must buy into what we're trying to do," he explained.
McFarland then introduced Polk to the audience, and he recounted stories of memorable coaching experiences that the two men have had together. "He's always been one of my role models in coaching; he's done so many great things for so long. It's just been a relationship that's developed and he's been helpful to me as a young coach. As an old coach, we're buddies. He's a really good man and I think you'll enjoy his speech."
Coach Ron Polk is currently in his fourth season as volunteer assistant coach at UAB. In 2008, Polk arrived in Birmingham after coaching 29 seasons at Mississippi State, along with three years at Georgia Southern and one season at the University of Georgia. In 2009 he was inducted into the College Hall of Fame and has the most wins as a coach in any sport in the history of the Southeastern Conference. Polk led his teams to a total of eight College World Series appearances in Omaha, Nebraska, five SEC championships and 23 Regional appearances.
"I've coached against him several times and improved against him, but he's always been out there, he's been one of those coaches that's been in the World Series most of the time so we developed a relationship," McFarland explained. "And he was actually on the Dominican Republic trip, the same one that I went one and we got closer through that."
Prior to speaking with everyone in attendance, Polk met with the team and shared his experiences with the athletes. "He had a 1-on-30 with the team and gave us some insight into what goes on in the NCAA and his experiences throughout college baseball. He's been doing this for 44 years so it was amazing to listen to him," said Shaban.
"He mostly talked to us about the importance of our education and realizing the opportunity we have," added Scott. "A lot of what he said was life lessons and how we made a good decision in coming to this university to get our education because of how important it is," added Shaban.
When Polk spoke to the audience, he shared numerous comical experiences of his time as a head coach and even claimed, "I've been thrown out of more games than any other coach in college baseball." He called three players to the stage and joked with them about various topics before digging into the heart of his talk. "I told the players, if you had no distractions, you'd be a better student and baseball player."
He challenged the athletes to be bold so that they are known as people who make a difference in society by encouraging their teammate who is in a slump or asking a girl in class how her day was going. When the evening ended, Polk shook the hand of each athlete and requested that they say to him, "I understand," if there was something that they learned from his talk.
With the evening behind them, the athletes were anxious to move on to the 2012 season. "I'm just really excited to get out on the field because it's been a while and I'm not used to the schedule yet," commented freshman shortstop Chad Carroll. At the helm of his freshman season, Carroll is most looking forward to "The increased intensity of each game and that there's more riding on each game as opposed to high school; there's more competitiveness. I feel closer to everyone on the team which makes the motivation higher than any team [I've been on] in the past."
"We're tired of waiting. We're just ready to get out there and start competing," remarked Shaban.
The Diamond Dukes begin their season February 17 against Coastal Carolina.