Walk by McKethan Stadium this week and listen. Really listen.
Tune out the scooters zooming past and the birds squawking away and the busses humming along, and you’ll hear the persistent ping of metal meeting baseball, baseball meeting leather. Yes, in just three weeks, the defending national champion Florida baseball team will make McKethan Stadium home once again with a season-opening series against Siena beginning on Feb. 16. Based on the sounds already surrounding the field, it’s clear practice has begun.
From June 12 to June 14, eight UF baseball players were selected in the 2017 MLB Draft, the first step in their long journeys to the major leagues.
But before that series arrives, and before UF mounts a defense of its first-ever baseball title, and before the Gators send another potential No. 1-overall draft pick out as their Friday night starter, start your season by listening to those bat pings, or those glove pops.
If you do, you may notice that something is different. That the sound is different. That this whole team is different. And how could it not be? No Florida baseball player in the 106-year history of the program has ever laced up his cleats to defend a national title. Plus, nobody on the current team knows what it’s like to lose.
Foremost among that group are the sophomores, who won a national championship in their only season at Florida. But even seniors, like team captain JJ Schwarz, have always advanced to Omaha for the College World Series.
The Gators got bounced in both his freshman and sophomore years, but at least they got that far.
Seniors on last year’s team still remembered the humiliation of getting ousted from their own Super Regional with losses to the College of Charleston and North Carolina in 2014. This year’s team only has two seniors, and neither have ever known anything but elite baseball in their time at UF.
So how is coach Kevin O’Sullivan prepping a team that has never known failure for the obstacles that could cause it to crumble? In short, by trying to forget about the success.
“The preseason polls don’t mean anything,” he said of the rankings that place the Gators at No. 1. “I know that sounds cliché, (but) everybody feels good about their team right now. I think the biggest thing for us is to be able to turn the page.”
Getting players to forget about the defining moment of their baseball careers, if not their lives? That’s a hard sell, as O’Sullivan learned during fall ball.
He said he spoke with players extensively about leaving their success in the past and about how those triumphs mean nothing now. Still, he noticed some cockiness creeping in.
He’s hoping it disappears by the start of the season.
“We’re not defending a national championship,” he said. “We’ve got different players. It’s a different team. So I want this team to write their own chapter, their own book.”
A good place to start such a book might be to go over all the holes Florida has to fill after it lost half of its starting lineup and its ace to the MLB Draft.
Starter Alex Faedo? Drafted 18th overall by the Detroit Tigers. Catcher Mike Rivera? Drafted by Cleveland in the sixth round. Shortstop Dalton Guthrie? Drafted by the Phillies in the sixth round. Utility man Christian Hicks? Graduated. Frequent designated hitter Mark Kolosvary? Drafted by the Reds.
One name not on that list, however, is senior — and Florida’s first-ever team captain under O’Sullivan — JJ Schwarz.
Schwarz was drafted in the 38th round by the Tampa Bay Rays and elected to return to school. It was assumed at the time that scouts were put off by his desire to finish college. It turns out that wasn’t the case. His asking price was just too high after he hit a career-low .259 with a career-worst 56 RBIs in 2017.
“It was definitely something I didn’t expect and kind of really hit me personally,” Schwarz said. “I made peace with it, and I think it’s the best decision I’ve made.”
O’Sullivan was thrilled to have his star catcher/first baseman back for another year, and Schwarz has already assumed a prominent leadership role by holding teammates accountable for bad body language.
For a team that has never known disappointment, his cautionary tale of a draft slide could be motivation for players to hit harder and pitch better. Or his influence could do little outside of his spot in the lineup. Regardless, like his teammates, he’s eager to find out.
“That’s a big battle I’ve been facing,” he said of waiting for 2018’s first game. “I’m really anxious to start the season and see what this team’s made of.”