The game's quaint backwater
I feel sorry for the U-M baseball team. By the time winter's really, finally over, the Wolverines' season is finished. A decade or so ago, I went to Ray Fisher Stadium on Mother's Day to see the final home game of the season. About the fifth inning a stray storm cloud appeared, and it snowed.
No wonder all the top teams in college baseball are from Texas, Arizona, California, Florida, and other places you can play year round. Big Ten teams, by contrast, have to spend the first month of their season on the road.
This year, from February 18 through March 19, the U-M team traveled from Florida to Texas to South Carolina to Stanford in Palo Alto, California. The first home game on the schedule is March 25 against MSU, and the April schedule kicks off with a four-game weekend series against Indiana beginning April 1.
Given the iffy weather, U-M baseball (and women's softball, at the adjoining Alumni Field in what is now called the Wilpon Baseball and Softball Complex) is a real harbinger of spring, like crocuses. And, until Ray Fisher Stadium was refurbished for the 2008 season, watching often meant huddling in the chill with a few dozen other fans.
The field dates to 1923, when it was moved to this location to make room for Yost Fieldhouse. It was named after U-M's coach from 1921 to 1958 (his team won the national championship in '53). Luckily, the quaint charms of Fisher Field weren't spoiled by the recent renovation that replaced 1,700 of the bleacher seats with chairs and upgraded the press box and team facilities. If you don't sit behind home plate, where you're protected by the backstop, and instead perch behind or beyond the team dugouts, you're so close to the action that you must stay alert to the constant threat of whizzing foul line drives. Even though the place is now often packed, and you must endure canned anthems on the PA
(including "Hail to the Victors" after every run scored), you can still hear the players talk, the umpires squawk, a fastball's reassuring thump in the catcher's mitt--and the jarring ping of a pitch's contact with a metal bat.
The absence of lumber at home plate aside, watching a U-M home game is a baseball traditionalist's dream. The competition is keen, but with the somewhat limited skill sets of eager players not good enough to get scholarships to the top baseball schools, here in what is now college baseball's backwater you can still appreciate how challenging it is for a shortstop to throw out a fast base runner who slaps a grounder in the hole. The perfect dimensions of the diamond are perfectly palpable, the plain beauty of the sport is laid bare without the annoyance of too much hype. And if you're lucky, it might not snow.
[Originally published in April, 2011.]