More than any major American sport, baseball depends on its traditions.
But though the game is vintage, it isn’t hip.
The country moves at the pace of basketball with a thirst for football’s brutish, calculated surges. As others have proclaimed, the clip of baseball is chamber music compared to basketball’s jazz. It’s elitist and boring. It’s pastoral, lore-filled and old.
So it depends on its traditions, on the gorgeous, ancient crack of a ball against a wooden bat. It counts on the detail condensed into a single pitch, on the romanticism of working-class, minor-league players standing tall in the outfield as the burning sun sets behind the third-base line — its weary but durable boys of summer.
Thus, bereft of many traditions on a late-winter evening, aluminum bats clanging out their contact, young college kids taking the field in front of their families and friends, support for other sports so overshadowing baseball on the collegiate level, the night at Wake Forest’s David F. Couch Ballpark had its work cut out for it.
And the Wake Forest team did, too.
Before a victory against Triad rival UNCG, Wake (2-3) had lost its previous three games. So when the undefeated University of Southern California Trojans (4-0) came to Winston-Salem for the first of a three-game series on Feb. 24, Wake Forest needed a statement win to get its record up to .500.
The Deacs showed up.
Before the third inning began, the home team had jumped out to an impressive 8-0 lead. Were the last Wake batter not called out looking with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth, the Trojans could have been in even worse shape.
Defensively, the Deacons were pretty sharp. The team turned a spectacular 3-6-1 double-play in the top of the fourth, and starting pitcher Parker Dunshee held USC scoreless until the fifth.
With the team fulfilling its part on the field, the environment around it was left to prove that college baseball can match the familiar intrigue and traditions of its professional counterpart.
Beyond the outfield wall at Couch Ballpark, a single-file stand of firs stretches from right field to past the 400-foot marker in dead center. As evergreens, they disguise the foreign time of year for a baseball game. (The balmy 70-degree weather helped, too.)
But past the wall in far left, towering bare deciduous trees disclose the truth. They stand watchful, their limbs reaching out as if for foul balls or home runs. Though they’re old enough to have been around for the Deacons’ only NCAA baseball championship in 1955, their leafless displays seem out of place.
If the surroundings didn’t quite cut it, the crowd did, confirming that college baseball at Wake Forest indeed deserves recognition for still maintaining traditions.
Kids still somersaulted down the steep grassy slope out past the stands on the first-base line. They still raced each other along the bleachers.
Men still yelled obnoxious comments to the umpire. (“Hey ump, take your uniform back to Footlocker!”) Equally obnoxious but less bold men still slapped their knees with laughter, elbowing their sons for validation and camaraderie.
And high foul balls still slammed the metal roof of the grandstand like bombs, once setting loose a small flock of birds that fled east from the stadium.
Back on the diamond, Wake Forest remained in control. In the bottom of the seventh, Wake infielder Gavin Sheets homered to right field, giving the Deacons a comfortable 12-4 lead. As always, the whole team emerged from the dugout to meet their fellow as he headed back from rounding the bases. From the close distance between the players and those in the crowd, fans could hear the teammates’ support.
College baseball is intimate. But other than calls from the stands or the audible instructions from a baseline coach, it’s a quiet sport, fitting for an important figure in the stands when tradition is in question.
Throughout Couch Ballpark, as throughout any ballpark in the coming months or the past hundred years, old men sat alone, watching. They watch with the same look, the same minute changes of someone watching a campfire. Now he’s forlorn. Now there’s nostalgia, now almost joy.
The sudden, loud contact of bat on ball sends sparks through the crowd, much like a fire pops and a burning log puts forth its small firework display. But even among such energy, sometimes the man doesn’t move. His bleacher is his pew; his thoughts are his own. They may be guessed at or assumed, but they maintain a level of mystery that intrigue cannot permeate.
This figure is as common at a ballpark as cotton candy, as unnoticeable as a litter of peanut shells. At Wake Forest, he may be an alum, a player’s father or grandfather. Or he may be a Winston-Salem native whose memories bring him back year after year.
Wake Forest won two of its three games against USC. The Deacons take on Quinnipiac at home on Friday at 4 p.m.
The Deacons easily won the game 15-5. They tied a program record with six home runs in the process.
During an on-field interview after the game, Wake Forest player Gavin Sheets, who totaled three home runs and nine RBIs in the contest, admitted he wasn’t expecting to put up such impressive numbers.
“It’s a feeling that you have very few times, to have a night like tonight,” Sheets said.
He’s right; his stats weren’t everyday feats. But thankfully, for tradition’s sake, for baseball’s sake, and for the sake of those in the stands at Couch Ballpark, a night like that one isn’t going anywhere.