When I was a kid, I idolized the stars of my local high school’s sports teams, and we had a couple of genuine articles come through my small hometown in south Arkansas in those days.
One was Julian Frazier, who eventually led the NAIA in rushing at SAU in 1993 after spending a couple of years in minor league baseball. He’s the best should’ve-been-a-Razorback this side of Basil Shabazz, if you ask me – or pretty much anybody else who saw him terrorizing opposing defenses in the early 90s. But that’s a column for another day.
The other was Chris Clark, another four-sport star and still probably the fastest athlete I’ve ever seen on a high school football field. He won the 200 meter dash in 21.5 seconds in the 1992 Meet of Champs before moving on to play center field for the Razorbacks.
With the limited means available to us in the pre-internet era, I did my best to follow both hometown heroes in their careers after they left Smackover. I had our high school baseball coach for homeroom when I was in junior high, so I could use his weekly copy of Baseball America to get Frazier’s stats while he was in the minors, and when he returned to the gridiron, my dad and I made the trip on a few Saturdays to watch him run for the Muleriders.
But for Clark, who twice hit over .300 and stole 42 bases for the Hogs while only being thrown out twice in his career, he might as well have been playing on Mars. Weekly dispatches from our Sunday copy of the Democrat-Gazette was the best I could hope for – such was the relative inaccessibility of college baseball in the early 1990s, until ESPN swooped in each summer with televised broadcasts once regionals began.
It remained that way for a while. Sure, you could follow it, but it required quite a bit of work, which is probably why even though Norm DeBriyn led the Hogs to three College World Series appearances in the 1980s, I never got the sense that the state was swept up in a fever with Arkansas baseball the way we often were when the football and basketball teams were rolling.
I could be wrong here, but I think that was just starting to change around the time Baum Stadium opened in 1996. Even prior to the multiple expansions and renovations it’s undergone since then, it was named the top college baseball facility in the country by Baseball America in 1998.
I know for certain that the state was in the grip of this program by 2004. I had moved to Georgia that winter and was visiting home sometime in the spring when I noticed it. My dad was listening to the game on the radio at home. Then a buddy came over, and he had it on in his truck. Nothing terribly strange about either of those – both were pretty hardcore fans. But as we made our way around town, making multiple stops, the soundtrack never changed. Every store we went in, every old friend we ran across, every dial was tuned to the same station.
These days, when practically every game is available to watch online and the Hogs are perennially ranked inside the top five, it’s easy to forget how much has changed, how far we’ve come. That 2004 season eventually became just the second time Arkansas had ever hosted a super regional. Now, we can’t imagine that we wouldn’t host one every year.
I’m not sure how it all ties together – or if it does at all – but it feels to me like we’ve been spoiled a bit, that we’re taking the access and the success equally for granted.
There’s some real anxiety brewing amongst a not-insignificant portion of the Hog faithful – and honestly, I get it, because I’ve felt it, too. Tuesday’s extra-innings win over UCA notwithstanding, we’re coming off a disappointing series loss against Texas A&M, made all the more painful by the way Sunday’s game played out, when an epic comeback fell one run short as the top of the lineup went down on strikes in succession after the tying and go-ahead runs reached scoring position in the eighth with nobody out.
It was the second series loss of the season, adding to the irksome angst that’s been present since presumed ace Peyton Pallette suffered a season-ending elbow injury before the season even started, and was further agitated by the Hogs’ first season-opener loss in Fayetteville since 1981 and back-to-back losses at Florida earlier this month. More on all that in a bit.
Going back to the most recent disappointment against the Aggies, even though it nearly spoiled my Sunday, I’m trying to remind myself to be grateful that at least we got to watch it – it wasn’t that long ago that doing so would’ve required a long weekend trip to College Station. And we’ll get to watch every other game from here on out, from the expanded seatbacks and boxes of Baum-Walker or from the comfort of our couches. We’ll get to hear one of the best play-by-play men on the radio at any level of baseball, if we choose.
And we can do all that secure in the knowledge that we helped create it, because you could make a strong case that no program better epitomizes the growing popularity of college baseball than Arkansas. Consider: George Cole Field, Baum’s predecessor, had a listed capacity of 3,000. In 1999, the Hogs won the SEC regular season title and ranked sixth in the nation with an average attendance of about 3,800. By 2007, after more rounds of expansion at Baum, Arkansas became the first team to average more than 8,000 per game, and now, we top 10,000 on a regular basis, ranking among the nation’s leaders in attendance.
In other words, we (and a few other fan bases around the country that have grown alongside or after us) represent the market demand that results in the widespread availability of college baseball broadcasts.
Of course, that knowledge is nice and all, but it’s cold comfort after our on-field dominance has been challenged.
But for that matter, many of us are somehow finding it just as unsatisfying that we’re still leading the SEC West – especially while the East-leading villains in Knoxville are currently smirking their way to one of the best regular season records in NCAA history.
Here’s where I could point out what we already know: that weird results are a fact of the game in baseball, that the regular season is a just marathon leading to the postseason sprint, that last year’s remarkable regular season fell short of Omaha, that the 2018 national runners-up didn’t win a single series on the road in SEC play, and that we’re actually getting more hits, striking out less and have a better team ERA than we did last year.
I know all of the above to be true just as certainly as I know that the Hogs are still one of the best teams in the country. But if I’m being honest, none of it completely soothes the anxiety that’s been present since that ill-fated foul ball four years ago. I know we’re very good, and yet somehow, it doesn’t feel like enough.
But what I’m trying to remind myself is, that this is what sustained excellence feels like – especially when you’ve been one strike away from a championship that never came – and that another chance is surely coming, maybe as soon as this summer. So, we should probably be enjoying the ride a little more and not fretting over what each turn in the road portends for the eventual destination.
That pang in our guts, the root of our worries, probably won’t completely dissipate until we finally see the dogpile of cream and cardinal on the Omaha grass. But until then, I’m trying to not take what we’ve done – what we’re still doing – for granted.
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.