Conquering the Curve: The struggles and triumphs of Columbia College’s baseball team

Conquering+the+Curve%3A+The+struggles+and+triumphs+of+Columbia+College%27s+baseball+team

Graphic Designer

Conquering the Curve: The struggles and triumphs of Columbia College's baseball team

By Copy Chief

With Columbia’s Renegades baseball team becoming more well-known on campus, the team’s original name has become a distant memory, even to those who have been at the college longer than a decade.

Columbia was once home to the Coyotes, an art school baseball team that won a championship in 2004 despite not being taken seriously. The team first started playing at Waveland Park off of Addison Street, shivering by the lake and throwing trash in the fire pits to keep warm. They eventually moved over to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s baseball field at Roosevelt Road and Halsted Street—a more traditional park with dugouts.

The original team has changed since, but it left a legacy.

Michael Moran, a player on the 2004 team, started playing tee ball when he was 5 years old. He stopped playing for the college’s team in 2006 before working on his photography-based senior thesis on the baseball team in 2007, when he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in photography.

Now, the closest Moran gets to a baseball experience is playing drunken wiffle ball in his front yard during family cookouts.

Having remained undefeated until the first game of a double-header just before the championship game, Moran recalls winning against Northwestern University’s club team.

“A lot of those guys were stacked,” Moran said. “Those guys were probably Division I guys who just didn’t make the team, so we were playing almost the equivalent of a division baseball team. They thought they were going to cakewalk in, and we ended up beating them.”

Known as the Renegades since 2005, Columbia’s baseball team continues to play without its own home field. The team currently practices at Dunbar Park, located at 300 E. 31st St., taking the 29 bus from campus miles down State Street before walking a block east to reach a poorly maintained baseball diamond with no bases, a home plate buried under dirt and a mound nearly devoid of dirt. The grass is covered in weeds and the balls bouncing off it during practice either ricochet off divots or hardly bounce at all, staying low to the ground.

“There’s holes, so a lot of the guys are sometimes scared to take ground balls because they’re never going to get a ball that’s just a regular hit,” said Cory Merriman, current co-captain of the team. “We take our own bases out there and eyeball where they’re supposed to be. When game days come [and] we play on a nice field, it’s a little different. Balls come at you a little quicker, they come at you a little straighter, but we’re still used to being timid about it.”

Merriman, the team’s catcher who also pitches when necessary, transferred to Columbia from the University of Mount Union in Ohio. He said the current team has more problems aside from the lack of a home field, such as players not consistently attending practices.

“We have yet to have a practice where everyone on the team is able to show up and actually develop some on-field chemistry,” Merriman said. “A lot of schedules that guys on the team have conflict with each other’s. When the weekends roll around, that’s when everybody’s free, so we still want to put the best guys out there, but it’s hard for them to play together because they haven’t done it before.”

Scott Wilson, a former captain on the team and a graduating senior, said the team’s losses tend to start in a downward spiral of errors.

“The team’s competitive and, for the most part, we’re in most of these games,” Wilson said. “It usually comes down to just one inning. Same story as always.”

The Renegades team had gone years without a win, getting run-ruled every game during Wilson’s first season. Students at the time did not know the college had a team, and many still don’t.

Wilson said he was a “classic Columbia student” who did not know the college had sports. He was on his tour of the school and had to talk about the St. Louis Cardinals, his favorite team, and one of the tour guides said, “Oh, you’re into baseball. We have a team here.”

The team was pitched to Wilson as one that won a championship “not too long ago,” which he said made him nervous about the idea of playing for a college team. But when he went to tryouts a couple weeks later and saw some of the guys did not know how to throw or hit, he questioned if he wanted to be part of the team, adding that he would not stick around if he didn’t like his teammates.

“It ended up being that outlet, and then from there we started recruiting more,” Wilson said. “I became a captain my second semester on the team. From there, that’s when—I’m not taking credit at all, it was a group effort—that’s when the team started turning. We started getting more and more guys, and the rest is history.”

Merriman joined the team in the Fall 2013 Semester along with Connor Hudson, a pitcher who once led the National Club Baseball Association in strikeouts. It was that semester the team ended its years-long losing streak behind Merriman’s power hitting and Hudson’s contact hitting among other contributions from the team.

Unlike Wilson, Merriman said he knew before enrolling that there was a baseball team at Columbia and would not have attended the college otherwise.

Still, he said it’s not easy to win or to even compete without resources.

He said the team is being held back by not having a home field and that it is not enough to be able to practice fielding in Roosevelt University’s Goodman Center, located at 501 S. Wabash Ave.

However, the team now holds batting practices at an indoor batting cage multiple times a week. Through the Goodman Center and the cages, the team has a chance to practice when it’s cold outside—as opposed to previous years, when cold weather meant no practice at all.

Even when the players are practicing at Dunbar, there are 6 year olds playing soccer and pedestrians walking through the outfield that prevent the team from going all out in practice.

These problems are not new, though. The team was even less prepared for games before the Fall 2013 Semester. The team was also less competitive, allowing everyone the opportunity to play equally, Sempek said.

Like Wilson, Sempek said he too considered leaving the team. He said the system in place at the time gave everyone equal playing time, but he said the team would never win that way.

Sempek became captain the following year, making it clear that being on the team did not necessarily mean playing in games. From then on, the best talent was on the field at all times, he said, and morale has since improved.

“When I first [joined], morale was just goofing off and we don’t really care what happens,” Sempek said. “We go out there, and the guys who had experience hated it—getting beat that bad. There was no focus. It was like Little League, where you just show up and play and oh, well. We made the switch to the best players out. A lot of guys started getting upset because they didn’t think that was fair, and they didn’t understand why we were doing that.”

He said the team is currently at a point where those who sit the bench for entire games are still as invested in the team emotionally and remain as excited about games and the team’s successes as those who are on the field.

“I couldn’t ask for anything else,” Sempek said. “That’s all I ever wanted was to have everyone on the team, head to toe, even guys who know they aren’t that good, want the same thing. We all just want to win.”

Even without adequate funding from the college, the Renegades make do with what they have and what resources others allow them to use, such as the Goodman Center and B.I.G. Baseball Academy, the batting cages at which the team practices and also where co-captain Toby Pechner currently works.

“We’ve gotten a great amount of batting practice that we were never able to before,” Sempek said.

The team played a tailgate game on April 18, and though food was on the grill, it was not as lighthearted as Moran’s front yard wiffle ball games. The game ended in a tale that summarizes the team’s struggles and inability to capitalize at key points in the game.

“People came out and got to see what we’re able to do,” Sempek said. “It stung. We lost 7-6. We had bases loaded in the bottom of the last inning with Cory up. Bases loaded. Two outs. He popped it up and we lost. All we needed was one run to tie it, and that would be huge for us. I personally didn’t play very well. I had one of my worst weekends of my whole career at this school. That was very tough for me.”

Sempek said it’s difficult for all of the players to perform at their best simultaneously, and with poor weather, a short schedule, traveling and minimal funding, it is hard for him and his teammates to fit the pieces together at the same time.

Echoing Merriman, Wilson and Sempek, Joe Walsh, first baseman and pitcher on the team, said the biggest challenge the team faces is recruiting. The team has its capable, experienced players, but not enough to effectively fill all nine positions.

“We’re trying to build a program and create awareness because there’s guys here that play baseball, and they probably played at a pretty high level and they’re probably pretty good, but they just don’t know that we have a baseball team,” Walsh said. “That’s one of the similarities between this team and the team when I first started.”

Ending the season with a 1-7 record, the team may not be championship-ready at the moment. However, it is still fighting. Despite tearing his ACL and meniscus in his left knee simultaneously, Walsh continued to pitch and play first base for the team since the Fall 2013 Semester.

He and Wilson both said the current Renegades team would crush the team they originally started playing for.

“We would smash that team,” Walsh said. “It’s really amazing all the way around how much better we’ve gotten since then.”

He explained that the Renegades team may not have won this year, but its improvement in the last few years has kept players optimistic. Even if they did not reach their goal of winning a championship like the 2004 Coyotes, they take what they can get.

“When a program doesn’t have a win for five years, then anything positive is a win for us,” Walsh said. “Scoring 10 runs in a game, that’s big considering the teams in the past have been no-hit, shut out and run-ruled over and over again. It’s small wins here and there.”