“Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.” — Leo Durocher
“More than any other American sport, baseball creates the magnetic, addictive illusion that it can almost be understood.” — Thomas Boswell
The paradox created by the two preceding quotes, each feeling equally true and logically opposed, is, to me, baseball in a nutshell.
The best teams don’t always win, and even the greatest players, most often, do not succeed. You don’t need to be a scholar of the game to have encountered these fundamental, endlessly perplexing truths.
That’s baseball – especially at its highest levels where the margin between good and great is the width of a raised seam. Over the course of a 162-game Major League season, the difference between hitting .280 and .330 can be as small as a solitary blooper each week that happens to find the pockets on the diamond where the other team ain’t.
Sometimes, that’s all that makes up the difference between being “good” and being “special.”
I’ve been puzzling over all of the above for the last couple of weeks, ever since Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn made the distinction following the Hogs’ first midweek loss of the season.
“We’ve got to keep getting better,” Van Horn said after falling to Missouri State on May 3. “We’re a good team; we’re not special.”
I don’t know if it was a calculated motivational ploy from the veteran coach or an honest assessment. Both seem plausible, because I think that’s about how most Arkansas fans feel about this team heading into the home stretch of the regular season.
If that feels overly critical of a team that has been ranked near the top of the country all season and is projected to hold a national seed for the fourth consecutive postseason next month, maybe it is. But it’s also an understandable byproduct of our own success – and of the mysteries of the game itself.
To the outside observer, things with Arkansas baseball probably seem to be progressing pretty well.
Maybe we haven’t hit quite as well as expected, but we’re also striking out less. Maybe a dominant ace hasn’t emerged after Peyton Pallette’s preseason injury, but Connor Noland has taken the ball capably on Friday nights and delivered a sub-3.00 ERA. Maybe Kevin Kopps isn’t walking through that bullpen door, but freshman Brady Tygart has done a pretty good impersonation. Maybe we’re not dominating the way we want to, but we are winning at a rate sufficient to hold a two-game lead in the SEC West with six games to go.
So, it’s safe to say nearly every program in America would happily trade their season for the one the Hogs are having.
And yet, I think most of us tend to see this team the way Van Horn described. Good, not special, because our standards are high. We’ve seen a lot of excellence, especially in the recent past, and yet none of it has resulted in a championship. Amplifying the unease is the experience of last season, which only raised the bar for what’s considered truly exemplary for this program. Because, if a team that won every SEC series, the regular season crown and the tournament championship in the country’s toughest conference can somehow still not end up in Omaha, we know with unhappy assurance that there are no guarantees in this game.
If you want a seat at the College World Series, the only iron-clad way to be there is to buy a ticket. Everything else – to a greater degree than we’d like to admit – is up to chance.
Such is baseball when the talent gap between the pretenders and contenders narrows ever tighter the closer one gets to the top.
Need evidence? Consider these facts: Since the current NCAA tournament format was introduced 23 years ago, about 75 percent of top regional seeds make it to Omaha, but the No. 1 overall seed has only taken the title one time, when Miami did it in 1999.
In other words, talent and intangibles will take you far, but in this sport, the cream only rises so high before fortune intervenes.
It’s the same story in Major League Baseball, where the Los Angeles Dodgers have won at least 90 games in every full season since 2013 and led the NL in wins two of the last three years and three of the last five. They’ve, without a doubt, been the best team in baseball for years running – and they have just one World Series trophy to show for it.
Meanwhile, the defending champs – both Mississippi State in NCAA and the Atlanta Braves in MLB – weren’t what anybody would call special last season, until suddenly, they were.
The Bulldogs, whom the Hogs swept in Starkville, barely earned a national seed last year, entering the tournament at No. 7 (and for what it’s worth, D1baseball.com currently has the Hogs projected as the No. 6 overall seed for this year’s tournament).
So, does this year’s Arkansas team have the same ability? Right now, I’d agree with Van Horn’s stated assessment. But, I also believe it has the talent to give itself a chance, which may be just as important.
When Charlie Welch sent that ball arcing moonward about a year ago, I would’ve sworn the 2021 Hogs were destined for greatness. Fortune was smiling and everything seemed aligned.
But a week later, after lashing out 17 hits in Game 1 of the super regional, we got less than half of that in the final two games of the series combined. NC State wasn’t a better team than Arkansas. But they survived, advanced, and on one weekend, they were.
In large enough samples, the rock-solid truth is told. But in small ones, it’s a game susceptible to the vagaries of fate or whimsies of chance. A belted line drive catches an inbound draft and dies on the warning track, while a dribbler toward third hugs the line and goes down as a hit.
The good news is that over the long run, the Hogs have proven themselves to be better than the vast majority of teams they have faced or will face. They have given themselves a chance, and if they’re able to close the season strong and seize a national seed, history says they’ll have a good chance of getting back to Omaha.
After that, the best I can offer is to pray that the bats get hot, the strike zones are friendly and the providence of the divine is on our side.
That’s about as close as I’ve come so far to joining Durocher’s congregation of the few.
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.