Carl Dubois

Seniors and Their Experience Can Be a Team’s Glue

by Carl Dubois May 24, 2009 in Baseball

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Because of its developmental nature, baseball might have more nomadic athletes than any other college sport. A player can sign with a Division I program as a high school senior, elect to transfer to a junior college for more playing time, return to Division I at a different school and move on to professional ball before becoming a senior.

Not every fan likes to see a roster loaded with seniors. The assumption is a player worth having will probably sign a minor-league contract as a junior and be gone, so what good is it to have a bunch of seniors on the team?

Ask a coach.
Often, it’s the seniors—both the fourth- and fifth-year variety—who provide stability. They are frequently called “program guys,” players who are the glue of a program they’ve committed to with a drive that conjures up images of a loyalty or blood oath.

Seniors have, with apologies to cowboys and cowgirls, been to the rodeo. They’ve seen it all, and they are largely unaffected by the highs and lows that sap freshmen of their energy when everything is new.

Talk to a coach after a preseason intrasquad game, perhaps a game under the lights and in front of a college-venue crowd, and the subject of newcomers invariably arises.
“They’ll sleep well tonight,” the coach will say, knowing how much adrenaline the rookies expended during their first taste of a higher pitch-by-pitch intensity.
Seniors, if they have made it this far, know when they can take a pitch off, which to a younger player might seem heretical, against the coach’s most fervent instructions. It’s like anything else—one must learn the rules before one learns when to break them.

The continual tightening of the requirements for a student-athlete to show steady progress toward completion of a degree plan all but ensures a senior understands more than the numbers of the grade point average. There is a real world out there, and it is closer to the senior than it was when he arrived as a wide-eyed freshman.

Their school might require them to spend time doing community service, but seniors tend to embrace it for its inherent value. Often, they find they derived more benefit from a hospital visit than did the sick child whose day they brightened. There is something self-sustaining and rejuvenating about a societal system of charitable works, and the senior’s world is large enough finally to have a view beyond what’s in it for him.

It is a sporting cliché to say a player leads by example, but it is so for a reason. There is truth in every saw, even the most time-worn. Alabama’s Nick Saban, a football coach with a fan’s passion for baseball, sharply summarizes it: “What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you say.”

The senior with fewer at-bats than a star freshman or sophomore is worth four or five wins a season because of his ability to keep things in perspective for his younger teammates, for his reminder of team goals, for his tendency to bring the extremes of behavior back to a center where the team—not the individual ego—is served.

It’s not uncommon for a junior to have a rollercoaster season, especially in May and June, when the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft approaches. The junior year is the pivotal one, when the player often has the most leverage.

With one eye on his draft status and one eye on his stats, a player has a hard time keeping his eye on the ball. A senior, past that Rubicon, knows this is his last turn, and he tends to soak up every experience full aware he will soon be leaving college forever.

These are the players who leave their mark on the program. Check the rosters of every championship team and find them. They are the cornerstones of every definition of success a college baseball program desires.