Three years beyond the program's best season, Gator Baseball starts all over again. It is supposed to be a time of renewal, but I can't help but feeling a sense of pessimism about the team.
The 2005 season was important not just because of the Gators' second place finish to a Texas team stacked with prospects. It was important because the Gators conquered their demons; winning 2 of 3 against Miami to start the season, taking the SEC title, popping Buchholz graduate Andrew Miller in the regionals, and sweeping FSU in the super regional. As a fan, it was tremendously satisfying because the Gators are third place in the state (or fourth behind D3 powerhouse Tampa) and an after thought in the SEC. With Matt LaPorta and a great pitching staff, that would be no longer true.
2006 though was the season of the injury and the season of the exodus. After LaPorta suffered the dreaded oblique injury, the Gators could not build momentum. It didn't help that on Sundays the Gators elected to place a tee at home plate, rather than waste a pitcher. After being a fan my first few years in school, I managed to get 2006 as the season I covered them as a reporter. I enjoyed covering Adam Davis, Gavin Dickey, and Brian Jeroloman but all those guys were gone after a horrific season that began with a sweep at Miami. Their head coach, Pat McMahon, who I greatly admired, could not save the ship in 2007 and he was exiled to the Yankees minor league system.
When Jeremy Foley hired Kevin O'Sullivan, he made a very calculated decision. Foley saw McMahon struggling recruiting and hired Clemson's best recruiter and pitching coach. The fact that Clemson usually has one of the best pitching staffs in college baseball helped since our pitching, um, sucks. (Where have you gone Alan Horne? The Gator Nation turns its lonely eyes to you!) In terms of recruiting, Cole Figueroa, was actually drafted by Toronto before the Gators considered him. According to the Blue Jays' manager of Minor League Operations, Toronto drafted him believing that he was not going to college. The Gators could have missed a very talented player. (By the way, the Gators are going to the italic F on their caps? Seriously? Sorry, it looks too much like Fullerton. I have to buy a new cap now. Thanks UF.)
That brings us to this season. The new schedule will put an extra level of stress on pitching staffs around the country. While it makes for a MLB type of schedule (five games a week) and a better judge of talent, it could also increase offense as teams rely on inexperienced pitchers to eat innings. One of those pitchers will be Tampa's Tommy Toledo who will automatically win six games since he is from The City of Champions. He also has three pitches (low 90s fastball, low 80s change, breaking ball) which will help too.
As for the offense; they chose a picture of Hampton Tignor bunting to preview Friday's practice. I hope that isn't an omen. Matt den Dekker, Figueroa, and Jon Townsend, are the top returnees, plus there is always the hope that this is the season Brandon McArthur starts pounding.
That all said, spring is the season of rebirth and optimism and baseball is the perfect for that. (The two phrases that make people happiest the most in February are, "I love you," and "pitchers and catchers report.") Going to Gator spring football practice is nice, as are basketball games, but there is something different about Gator baseball. Maybe it's the colors and the loyalty of the diehards. Maybe it's the sorority girls and their matching Vera Bradleys getting some sun on a Sunday afternoon. Each year it sucks me in and I'll be there again for opening weekend, the sixth consecutive year. If you've never been into Gator baseball, make that your goal for this spring. Jump on the bandwagon, there is plenty of room.