I’ve always considered myself a baseball fan. Growing up, I sat glued to the television, watching my beloved Tigers struggle their way through the AL Central division. When I was eleven, they managed to fight their way to the World Series for the first time in twenty-two years, after their star player, Magglio Ordóñez, hit a three-run homer to beat the Oakland Athletics. But as much as I felt connected to the sport, my athletic ability was honed on tennis courts, and I never felt the urge to venture onto the diamond myself.
Nevertheless, like most fans, I’ve often thought, “I could totally do that.” So, knowing that the Duke mantra celebrates learning outside the classroom, I set off to learn how an ordinary student might measure up to the varsity-athlete standard.
Each September, the baseball team holds an open tryout for brave souls who think they have what it takes to play at the Division I level. Under head coach Chris Pollard, entering his fourth year at Duke, the team has had a 90-76 record, with 31-22 last season. I knew that if I earned a spot the time commitment would be considerable: The NCAA restricts student-athletes to twenty-hour weeks during the season—including games, practices, and official team activities— but that doesn’t include travel and whatever time players put in on their own. (And I would need a lot of practice.) Still, Jack Coombs Field is the neighbor to my academic home, the Sanford School, so I figured I could make it work.
On the eve of my tryout, I couldn’t sleep. Though I try to do some jogging once in a while, I suspected I was nowhere near the physical shape needed to succeed in a high-pressure sports environment. The next morning, armed with nothing but basketball shorts and a knee brace, I ventured out to the field to join the three other players pining for a spot on the roster. I don’t own a glove, so I had to borrow one.
Pollard called us down to the dugout. In his warm, yet commanding tone, he stressed the rigors of playing for a successful team, and he warned us that no decisions would be made that afternoon. Though I’d never played baseball in my life, I’d certainly watched enough, and surely my time as a top-caliber tennis player in high school would be more than enough to prevent me from embarrassing myself.
I wasn’t worried! I could absolutely do this.
After the team trainer led us in some mild stretching—even the most basic stretches left me winded—the three other students, all pitching prospects, left for the bullpen. I was sent to my first task, a 60-yard dash. I shook off a slight leg cramp (yes, my legs cramped from movements meant to loosen them up) and got into my starting stance. I was told to break into a full sprint the second the coach—mimicking a pitcher making a pickoff play—tipped his hat. That didn’t sound too difficult.
He gave the signal, and I lurched my pudgy body forward. After twenty yards, I felt my leg twinge. After forty, I tasted my own sweat. Wheezing, I lunged through the finish line, feeling like I’d broken the land-speed record.
But I decided not to check my actual time.
Next up, fielding grounders. Sure, I wasn’t the fastest guy in town, but I could certainly track down ground balls, right? Twice, I ran over slow rollers, amazed that they consistently escaped my reach. When I finally fielded a few successfully, my subsequent throws were as slow and aimless as an elderly person taking a stroll.
Back at the dugout to pick up my helmet and bat, I crossed paths with my photographer, Donn. I asked him how I was doing, and he assured me it was going well. This was exactly what I needed to hear. Maybe I looked better than I felt! My spirits rebounded.
Right on cue, Pollard called up from the catacombs: “He’s lying to you, Shaker.”
My confidence now shaken (again), I moved on to the day’s final challenge: batting practice. I stepped into the cage and mentally called my shot—just as Ordóñez did before his at-bat ten years before. The first pitch looked to be headed on a oneway trip over the right-field wall. But it turns out the infield is a lot closer to the wall than I thought, and my blooper stopped just short of third base.
I swung at twenty pitches, making contact with seventeen. Not bad! Fifteen even went in the right direction. But then, on my third to last swing, something went terribly wrong. A sharp pain shot through my thumb, which had started turning purple. The pros call it a “pinch,” I’m told. I turned back to Pollard, silently pleading that I be allowed to quit. He nodded solemnly.
My tryout was officially over. The other three guys—likely still showing off their fastballs—were nowhere in sight. Pollard seemed to accept, even without my having to explain it, that due to my debilitating injury, I would have to retire from the sport altogether.
On my trek home that afternoon, I ran into a few friends, but none took any interest in my valiant efforts—and I had a semi-legitimate battle scar to show off, too. That night, as I crawled into my bed, an icepack nursing my bruised thumb, I found I wasn’t even upset. For a few hours on a Tuesday afternoon, I was a baseball player.