By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor
Before there were basketball bubbles or hockey bubbles or even soccer bubbles, there was collegiate summer baseball.
Just three months after sports across the country came to a screeching halt in attempts to flatten and crush the curve of the coronavirus spread, baseball was back, and several Baylor players jumped at the opportunity to hit the field just 90 minutes south of Baylor Ballpark.
Senior pitcher Jacob Ashkinos, senior infielder Esteban Cardoza-Oquendo, sophomore outfielder Jared McKenzie and sophomore pitcher Hambleton Oliver traded the green and gold for navy and orange this summer, joining the Round Rock Hairy Men as part of the newly expanded Texas Collegiate League. Cardoza-Oquendo said getting to play baseball again was a special experience.
“It was an absolute blessing,” Cardoza-Oquendo said. “At one point we were the only sports games that people were watching across the nation because we were the only sports being televised. So whenever you get the opportunity to be able to play like that, especially when not a lot of other people were getting to, it’s pretty special.”
As Major League Baseball disputed the length of their shortened season and minor league ballparks remained empty, the TCL seized the opportunity to expand to a 10-team league, partnering with minor league-affiliated ballparks across Texas and Oklahoma to host six new teams. McKenzie, a Round Rock native, said an old high school teammate reached out to him about the opportunity to play for the Hairy Men at Dell Diamond, home of the Round Rock Express.
“His dad is the president of the Round Rock Express, and so he had kind of looped me in,” McKenzie said. “We reached out to a bunch of guys and a week later or so they announced that we’d be a part of it and we started to get everything finalized.”
The Bears packed their bags and headed down to Round Rock, staying with Mackenzie and his family while fellow teammate Tre Richardson joined the Victoria Generals, an already established TCL team.
“It was great,” Ashkinos said. “It was honestly a relief to hear that baseball was going to happen.”
So how does one go about playing baseball in the middle of a pandemic?
The TCL put in place several guidelines for teams to follow in order to protect their players and staff. Players had to receive a negative COVID-19 test result before reporting to the field at the beginning of the season and according to Cardoza-Oquendo, Round Rock provided tests to the players throughout the season. Other precautions included temperature checks for anyone entering the ballpark, social distancing by spacing out lockers in the locker rooms as well as skipping rows in the stands for the fans and masks protocol in certain areas of the park as well as when the team was traveling.
Overall, the players said that there wasn’t a moment they didn’t feel comfortable.
“The game’s going to change, and the fact that there’s a lot of health precautions taking place, I just think that moving forward it was a good foot in the door,” McKenzie said. “This might be the new reality in baseball.”
Ashkinos and Cardoza-Oquendo echoed the sentiment, saying the team and the league did a good job when it came to the players’ health and safety.
“I think we did everything we could do with what we were given,” Ashkinos said. “I felt safe the whole time. We weren’t doing anything that was irresponsible or not intelligent. I think they did a good job.”
However, that didn’t mean the league was untouched by the virus. The Frisco RoughRiders from the North division had to cancel several games early in the season due to positive tests, and Round Rock ended up forfeiting its spot in the playoffs when two players tested positive prior to their last series of the summer.
While the team was disappointed that their season ended the way it did, Cardoza-Oquendo said it was better to be “safe than sorry” and that canceling the last week of the season was the best thing to do. Had it happened at the beginning of the season like it did with the RoughRiders, it might have been a different story.
“We got to play 27 games,” Cardoza-Oquendo said. “And that’s 27 games that a lot of other players across the Division I level, and across other levels as well, didn’t get to experience. Any time you can get at bats like that, it’s just making you a better ball player.”
Nevertheless, Ashkinos, McKenzie and Cardoza-Oquendo spoke fondly of their summer playing at Dell Diamond. Their team ended the season with a 16-13 record, finishing with a sweep of the Brazos Valley Bombers, who went on to win the TCL title. Their most memorable moments included a combined no-hitter against the Acadiana Cane Cutters, a team out of Louisiana, as well as buying a $160 spartan helmet while waiting for a game in Amarillo, which became their “home run helmet.”
Spending time with new and old teammates was something everyone enjoyed most of all. According to Ashkinos, the best thing about playing summer baseball is that it reminds you why you love to play the game in the first place.
“When you’re playing in summer ball, you’re playing just because you love the game and you’re trying to win because that’s what you do as a competitor,” Ashkinos said. “You don’t play to get a scholarship or to get paid. You play to win — to prove that you’re the best. It kind of puts that mentality back inside of you. And you have a great group of guys beside you that want the same thing.”