There’s a photo of Joe Dimaggio on the wall in my office. It was taken sometime in 1969, nearly 20 years after he’d hung up the spikes. He’s 55 years old, salt overtaking pepper, the paunch of late middle age visible on the once-narrow frame. He’s alone in the picture, in an unpopulated Yankee Stadium, taking batting practice – captured in the middle of a true and level swing, catching a high pitch in front of the plate, and driving it.
DiMaggio is one of the best hitters who ever lived. Of the millions of humans who have attempted to strike a round ball with a round stick, there’s maybe a dozen or so who did it as well. And yet there he is. Nothing to prove, no one to see him, getting in cuts for his own satisfaction. Chasing, I imagine, that perfect feeling of pure gratification when the middle of the ball meets squarely with the fat part of the bat.
But as anyone who’s ever watched a couple of innings knows, a barrelled ball isn’t a guarantee of anything whatsoever.
I hung that photo on my wall because I think there’s a kind of poetry in it that’s often present in any image that moves us. I think it says something about work ethic and determination; about the drive it takes to maximize one’s God-given abilities, about the compulsion we sometimes feel to do what we know bone-deep we were put on Earth to do. But maybe even more than those things, it says something about baseball: about its ceaseless pull on our imaginations, about its dogged refusal to be solved or conquered, about how it can compel even the best to keep coming back – long after their glory days are done – seeking that fleeting sensation the sport rewards when you could swear mastery is within reach.
I think those feelings are universal among baseball people, felt by anyone who’s ever fallen under the game’s spell –from grown men who haven’t squared up a belt-high fastball in decades, to little girls who learned to recognize a quality at-bat at their big brothers’ four-nights-a-week Little League regimen, to the best who have ever played the game.
I can’t pretend to know what’s going through the minds of Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn and his players today after another flirtation with an elusive national championship ended three games too soon. But I’d be willing to bet, whether it’s now or some time in the near future, they’re feeling a little bit like they just got under one. Like they had their chance and just missed it. Just missed it. Again. Or maybe closer still, that they squared one up, only to have it die on the warning track.
It’s an awful way to feel, especially when there are no more swings to take. But while the emotions are still raw enough to overpower logic, it’s important to keep in mind that failure doesn’t portend doom. That’s a loser’s way of thinking, and if there’s one thing we know – more than anything else about the Arkansas baseball program – it’s that it’s composed of winners.
They do it year after year, over and over. Star players pass through, leave their mark, depart, and the machine churns out another. That’s what has been built here. When the ultimate prize has vanished from our reaching hands so many times, it might be tough to get a handle on, to fully believe, but it’s true.
Arkansas is the only team in the country to win more than 45 games in each of the last four seasons, and one of only three programs to reach the College World Series three times during that span. The Hogs have been a good program for a good long while, but what we’ve seen over the last few years is something different. We’ve become elite.
Six trips to Omaha in the last 10 years doesn’t imply an inability to perform in crucial situations just because we came home without the title. It’s the ability to rise to big moments that allows a team to reach the College World Series in the first place. And what all those visits to college baseball’s promised land actually signifies, is sustained excellence.
Baseball is a game of enduring mysteries, unsolvable riddles, a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. The allure that pulls us back is that we think we can find them. You could call it blind faith, and maybe it is, but I believe we will, sooner rather than later. We’ll lift the couch cushion one year, dig under the rug, and come up with the two-base knock we’ve been missing, or the ball that deflects off the webbing tip of a diving first baseman’s glove will instead land snugly in the mitt, snuffing the opponent’s two-out rally and preserving the tie game.
With as many bites at the apple as Van Horn’s program gives us, one year – maybe more – we’re going to sink our teeth in.
At least that’s what I’m telling myself now, and I hope it’s what we all believe. Because baseball is a heck of a lot more fun viewed through the lens of perpetual hope – that if we could get one more inning, one more out, one more pitch, this time, we’d find the sweet spot.
In baseball, more than any other sport, that possibility always exists.
There is no terminal clock ticking mercilessly down. There’s little physical will to be imposed. There’s no amount of size, strength or fastball velocity that has, as of yet, bullied a team of resolute slap hitters on a hot streak. And there’s no flashy left-handed freshman on a roll who can’t be brought to his knees by a well-placed fastball with just the right amount of horizontal run.
I’ll admit, I’ve had doubts about this team and this program in the past. Years ago I had a hard time believing we’d ever truly have one of the top-tier programs in the sport. And as recently as last month, I couldn’t foresee this year’s team giving us the run we just witnessed, going on the road to end the seasons of two top-10 teams, putting up double-digit runs four times in the NCAA Tournament and embarrassing the nation’s No. 2 seed in Omaha.
Those doubts are gone now, and the fact that the kid from Ole Miss spun a masterpiece on Thursday doesn’t change anything. By the way, he’s now thrown over 16 innings in Omaha, hasn’t walked anybody, and has allowed just eight hits and one run. Sometimes all you can do is tip your cap and get ‘em next time.
And there will be a next time, which is the larger point here. The Hogs are going to lose a ton of production from this year’s team, but if the past is any indication, the future looks bright. And if recruiting evaluations mean anything, the well of talent isn’t running dry any time soon, as Van Horn is set to bring a top-five class for the fifth consecutive season. All indications are that Arkansas will again be among the best teams in the country next year.
But as we know, even for the best, baseball is a game that mystifies more often than it satisfies. DiMaggio, after all, went back to the dugout unsuccessful in 60 percent of his Major League plate appearances.
A barrelled ball doesn’t guarantee a base hit, and a great team isn’t promised a championship.
So while Arkansas hasn’t yet conquered college baseball, it certainly feels to me like mastery is within reach. And by now, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if one more swing is all it takes.
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.