The sound of a baseball hitting a leather glove, the smell of grass and the view from the batter’s box has been moved indoors, but that hasn’t stopped the Columbia Renegades baseball team from practicing for the upcoming season.
The Renegades are limited to a paid hour and a half of pitching, hitting and defense practice at Line Drive Baseball Academy, 6501 W. 65th St. This is a drawback compared to other teams who have more time to work on fundamentals by practicing nearly every weekday in their own facilities.
Columbia was 2-14 last spring in the National Club Baseball Association Division I. They were mostly plagued by short rosters of no more than 20 players, which didn’t help them sustain any momentum in a three-game series, according to team captain and senior radio major Mackinley Salk.
Without more players on the pitching staff, in the bullpen or utility players, the Renegades usually have athletes who are playing in unfamiliar positions.
“The odds are against us, but I like that,” Salk said. “It’s motivating. It really is.”
The Renegades recently switched to Division II of the NCBA, and Salk said it was done to remain competitive on the baseball diamond and because Columbia isn’t affiliated with any NCAA athletics.
“We looked at the whole, big picture and said, ‘We’re not a school that has a Division I team,’” Salk said. “We are our top team. I feel like the past couple of years we were Northwestern [University football] playing in the Southeastern Conference. It just was not fair.”
The Renegades typically have three starting pitchers. If a player can’t pitch because of arm soreness or fatigue, it creates problems for a team carrying 18-20 players on its roster.
“We’re lucky to go on the road with 15 players, let alone have 30 players,” Salk said. “At the end of the weekend, the guys [who] play, they’re done.”
Given that the Renegades are limited as far as players on its roster, the chance to play baseball competitively has some participants eager to begin the season.
Junior music major Dave Vessella likened his ability to play baseball to the movie “Bull Durham.” Vessella said he is happy to be part of a team, and he hasn’t played competitively since high school. He also added he likes that the Renegades are a self-coached team because players accustomed to pitching and hitting certain ways don’t have to worry about changing their styles.
“It’s a very Columbia philosophy [on] how we do things,” Vessella said. “People do things [different ways]. You may like to hit far back in the box and take a big step. You may like to take no step. You may like to throw sidearm. It doesn’t matter.”
Vessella said he has a natural playing style. When he had a pitching session on Jan. 19 at Line Drive Baseball Academy, he was told it was unnecessary to change his pitching delivery. He was able to throw strikes in a simulated environment without much movement on the mound.
For co-captain Dustin Ruppenstein, senior advertising art direction major, getting organized early is one of the top priorities for the team. He said getting players to get used to game speed helps them prepare for opponents better than seeing their first live pitch in their opener.
“When we start our first conference series, [we want to be] able to hit the ball instead of getting our first shots at it then, like we have in the past,” Ruppenstein said.
The team used to practice batting at Sluggers Bar & Grill, 3450 N. Clark St., which wasn’t the ideal place to practice hitting, according to Ruppenstein. He said it was great the Renegades were able to find Line Drive because they can practice pitching, fielding and hitting.
He added another problem with practicing for the Renegades is the ability to get all team members honing their skills on the same day.
For batters, he said hitting breaking balls was a problem last spring, and it’s something they’ve addressed in practice.
“A lot of us [hitters] were having a hard time picking up the curveball from the [opposing] pitcher,” Ruppenstein said.
Carpooling and working on fundamentals on a limited basis doesn’t have any of the Renegades regretting playing for the love of the game.
“You know you really love baseball when you take this much time out of your schedule to put it all together,” Salk said. “It’s student-run and I love it. I have a blast.”