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Diamond in the Rough: The undocumented history of baseball at Columbia
Digging through Columbia’s archives, one finds hints of a baseball team: a brief mention in The Chronicle, a passing note on the website or just whispers in the hallway from students who know a friend of a friend who may have been on the fabled baseball team. But the championship flag of 2004 that once hung in the basement of the Alexandroff Campus Center, 600 S. Michigan Ave., has disappeared.
The archives don’t tell the story of a college freshman who felt like an outcast at a school that prides itself on inclusivity. One who came to the South Loop only to find that traditional high school roles had been reversed, and now his love of sports left him ostracized at a school with a profound lack of interest in athletics. So he joined a rag-tag team of baseball players who hadn’t won a single game in their first season. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Renegades (formerly the Coyotes) are now headed into their 12th season, which officially starts March 24, and they are confident in their chances of winning their conference. However, the current baseball team may not have had a season if it weren’t for the many who have since graduated and moved on but remain proud of the baseball legacy they left at Columbia.
Brian Kovar came to Columbia to study film and journalism in 2000. He played baseball his whole life, from little league at age 6 through high school, and wasn’t about to let the absence of a team at Columbia stop him from playing the game he loved.
“My motivation was honestly to promote the game to a student body that had no interest,” Kovar said. “And try to make Columbia more of a traditional college experience. That, and I really didn’t want to stop playing baseball just because Columbia didn’t have a team. I’m kind of baseball-obsessed.”
Turning the idea of a baseball team into reality wasn’t easy, he said. Among his biggest struggles were generating enough interest among students who wanted to play ball and getting school funding for uniforms, league fees and transportation.
“We didn’t see too many obstacles in forming a team, but getting players was quite a different story,” Kovar said. “We couldn’t cut anybody because there weren’t enough people.”
The work didn’t stop there. The 17 or so men who showed up to play weren’t exactly major league material, and Kovar said he adopted the role of coach on top of his duties as pitcher and shortstop.
“Everybody else hadn’t played in a few years or had never played, which was hard,” he said. “So I actually had to coach [the players], which I didn’t expect.”
The team had its first official practice March 2, 2001 at Grant Park. Eight days later, it had its first game against DePaul University.
The team struggled through its first season in the Wisconsin-Illinois Baseball Conference, not winning a single game. The second season wasn’t much better, although it managed to win four games, according to Kovar.
“Their first year, they sucked. They just sucked,” said team adviser and associate journalism professor, Howard Schlossberg. “I’m serious. You could pick up any nine people walking down the hall in the college to go out and play them, and you could have beat them.”
In its early stages, the Coyotes was more of a social club than a serious baseball team. To soften the sting of defeat, the team usually headed to the South Loop Club, 701 S. State St., to hang out and have a couple of drinks before heading home.
“When I started, there was more of a social aspect,” said former manager and player Anthony Piccoli. “I mean, we would literally have guys bring little mini grills.”
THE ANTHONY PICCOLI ERA
Piccoli joined when the team was still in its infancy, losing almost every game and partying more than winning. He came in with more baseball experience than most and a managerial mindset. His timing wasn’t bad, either. Kovar was graduating soon, and the team needed a manager. In 2004, Piccoli happily accepted the new role of leading a baseball team who sometimes drank in the dugout and grilled between innings.
“I would say in January of ’04, we started to get more serious,” Piccoli said. “We were still having fun, but we realized when to have fun and when to be serious.”
Under him, the team moved its preseason practices from late March to early January and started cracking down on defense. According to Piccoli, defense was the reason the team kept losing.
“For the first four practices, we just spent three hours in the gym and for three straight hours I just hit ground balls,” he said. “We didn’t even practice hitting at all because we didn’t need to worry about that. We could hit. It was just our defense that needed work.”
Piccoli said he wanted to make the team more serious but never wanted to lose the social aspect that it relied on in prior years.
“We were still very social,” he said. “We had a lot of fun times. It was a fun team.”
The hard work and friendship Piccoli strived for quickly started yielding results. The most famous and memorable moment in Columbia baseball history occurred in that same postseason.
The Coyotes were still part of the WIBC, playing against University of Wisconsin schools in Eau Claire, Fond Du Lac and Madison, as well as Marquette, Loyola and DePaul universities. The Northwestern University Wildcats were a bitter rival.
“We didn’t like them very much because for the first couple years they beat up on us,” Kovar said. “And we had the same colors. I hated them.”
The Wildcats’ club team was made up of men cut from the NCAA Division I baseball team, giving them an advantage over the group of art school athletes, most of whom hadn’t played baseball since high school, according to former player Mike Moran.
“We had a lot of people who were rusty, and some of the teams we went against, like Northwestern, we had a problem with because, when guys didn’t make the DI team, they would go play club-level,” he said. “So we were basically facing competitive league guys who had enough talent to go to the minors.”
By April 2004, the Coyotes were hot. They had cleaned up in the playoffs, beating teams they “had no business even being able to compete with,” according to Kovar, a senior at the time.
On May 1, the conference championship game pitted the Coyotes against the Wildcats for the last game in a triple-header series. Northwestern was down in the series and had to beat Columbia if it wanted to be conference champs.
While some players remember the game differently, a few details were too exciting to confuse. The game was close, going back and forth between the teams for all seven innings. Both teams were tired from the playoffs that had them playing three games the day before. Leo Moskall, who shared pitching responsibilities with Kovar, pitched the entirety of a game that came down to the very last play.
Northwestern was batting with a runner on first and third, one out. The pitch was thrown, and the crack of the bat resonated in Koval’s ears, even from his position on the diamond. He fielded the ball and ended his final game on the team he helped create with an unassisted double play. The game was over, and the rag-tag players defeated their bitter rivals to become champions.
“Everyone kind of stood and looked at each other for a second because no one really knew if my play had counted,” Kovar said. “I don’t know what gave us the clue that we won, but when we realized we had we celebrated.”
From that moment on, the team garnered legitimacy and a fan base and took itself more seriously, Piccoli said.
NEW CONFERENCE, NEW BEGINNING
The glorious 2004 season was Chris Schroeder’s first. The team gave him refuge from feelings of isolation in a college community that didn’t embrace or understand his love of sports, he said.
“I felt like there were a lot more people who felt alienated like I did,” Schroeder said. “Just because you don’t have a green Mohawk doesn’t mean you can’t fit the mold of a Columbia student. I just wanted to take that guy with the green Mohawk and have him throw a curve ball.”
He made it his mission to make athletics relevant to a college that cared more about art galleries than baseball games, and between 2004–2005, he started the athletic organization that would eventually become the Renegades.
“There’s a huge lack of student community at Columbia, which is unfortunate,” Schroeder said. “Sports can be an outlet for that.”
Armed with a knowledge of Web design, he made a website for campus athletics and pushed for support from an administration that minimally acknowledged the baseball team, giving it some money to cover expenses but never really monitoring or advising the players.
Soon he and the team were looking to be even more competitive and play more games. In 2006, they officially left the WIBC and joined the National Club Baseball Association, where they remain today.
He also developed the team’s fan base by moving its home field from Bensenville, Ill., to the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.
“[After Schroeder moved us to UIC], we did start getting a lot of people out there,” Moran said. “We were close enough to the school where our friends could come out.”
When Schroeder left, his passion and persistence to get sports at Columbia integrated with art meant things were looking up for the baseball team. According to current trainer, former player and Coach MacKinley Salk, the Renegades meant business when he joined the team in fall 2006.
“To be perfectly honest, I came from a big baseball program in Michigan, so when I came to Columbia, I had laughed at the fact that they had a baseball team,” Salk said. “But when I showed up for practice, I was like, ‘Wow, these guys run a tight shift.’ It was very well-organized.”
During Salk’s first two seasons, the team was managed by Ryan Knight, who focused on baseball and steered the team in the right direction, according to Salk. It was in 2008, the same year Knight graduated, that the progress of the team was interrupted.
According to Salk, his teammate and childhood friend Dan Gallagher took over as manager and subsequently reversed the trend of placing emphasis on baseball rather than socializing.
“When Ryan handed the team off to Gallagher, s–t hit the fan,” Salk said.
He also said during his time with the Renegades, from 2006 to present, the administration has remained unsupportive.
“Somewhere at the top of Columbia’s ranks, there’s someone who got beat up in high school by a bunch of athletes and they’re still holding that grudge,” Salk said. “At least that’s what it seems like.”
He said he believes there is no reason that sports and art can’t coexist on campus.
“It’s become very evident that the faculty not only doesn’t care, they don’t want sports here, which is a huge contradiction to their whole motto,” Salk said.
This season, the team joined a new NCBA conference, Division II, District IV-South, for the third time. Team Captain Jon Bowman and NBCA Division II Coordinator Christian Smith both think that the switch will benefit the team.
The new conference schedule will pit the Renegades against the Northern Illinois University Huskies, the Saginaw Valley State University Cardinals, the DePaul Blue Demons and the Loyola University Chicago Ramblers.
The Renegades had been training hard leading up to the start of the season, working out in the gym of the Residence Center, 731 S. Plymouth Court and getting outdoors when the weather permits, Bowman said.
Both Bowman and Salk agreed that this season will be one for rebuilding a team. Salk said they are still recovering from Gallagher’s lack of leadership.
“We’re still in that rut that Dan put us in, and we’re trying to get back to the club that Ryan Knight left us,” Salk said.