This, without question, is my favorite time of year. I'm a sucker for the early spring sea breezes that make their way inland and keep it cool. I'm a sucker for girls breaking out the bikinis for the first time. But most of all, I'm a sucker for baseball. Every year I think the Yankees will beat the Cubs in the World Series and they'll beat the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays in the ALCS. Every year I think there will be a surprise contender (I'm looking at you Nationals and Royals) who will ultimately go down in a blaze of glory by losing 9 of 10 in September.
I'm also a sucker for Gator Baseball which begins this weekend against Siena. Rarely did I ever miss a Gator home game, even if it meant dragging a girlfriend along. I saw Jonathan Tucker and Gavin Dickey be part of a dying tradition; the black college baseball player. I sat in the left field stands and saw Connor Falkenbach and the submarine delivery and Alan Horne destroying people in 2005. Unfortunately, I was in the press box the next season and saw a frustrated Pat McMahon as the team was sacked by injuries and playing guys out of position (Adam Davis was never a shortstop). But I also saw Dickey snap his bat on a line drive, which was like watching Benny `The Jet' Rodriguez hit the cover off the ball in "Sandlot".
That era of Gator Baseball is dead now. So we have a rebirth. I was originally skeptical of Kevin O'Sullivan, but he has shot some energy into a program that should be in the NCAAs every year. His experience as a pitching coach should help in a year when everyone's staff will be stretched to the limits thanks to the compressed schedule.
The part of me that is worried about O'Sullivan is also worried that UF is going to lose every game 13-0 because there is not much offense returning. The players are all familiar if you followed the team last year (Avery Barnes, Jon Townsend, Cole Figueroa) but none of them were mashers. Speaking of Figueroa, he is easily the best player on the team, but I have a problem with a baseball player with a Latin last name and a NASCAR first name. Let's call him Clemente Figueroa.
Anyway, Clemente Figueroa and freshman pitcher Tommy Toledo are the two guys I most want to see. Both are legit MLB prospects (drafted by Toronto and San Diego, respectively) but both have the burdens of that on them. As shortstop, Figueroa will be the field general despite seniors at third (Townsend) and first (Brandon McArthur). Will his responsibilities on the field affect him at the plate or vice versa?
Toledo is the real deal, but if O'Sullivan's experiment to put two career relief pitchers at the 1 and 2 fails, when does Toledo get the ball on Fridays? And at what pitch count is he working with? I have no problem with Kyle Mullaney pitching tonight and Patrick Keating on Saturday, but if this is an experiment, then O'Sullivan has to know when to pull the plug.
Despite these questions and the usual stacking of talent in the SEC, I think the Gators have a chance. Everyone gets a year older and a year better, but watching games the last two years, it was if they were just going through the motions. That's not happening (crossing fingers, knocking on wood, praying to various saints) this time around. Just like Pinella with the Cubbies, Francona in Boston, and Torre in New York, a manager can make a huge difference. I think the team is on the O'Sullivan Bandwagon and ready to play. This will be a season of rebirth.