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The Red Shirt of Courage

by Jon Kaufman

All over this great land of ours college baseball teams of all levels are battling their opponents for the supremacy of their league.  Division races are being decided as we speak as longtime rivals vie for a berth into regional play, or even a spot in the national tournament.  Yet there are a large number of talented youngsters who will have to wait their turn, players who have been asked to forgo their first season of the game they have loved most of their lives.

So is the life of a college redshirt.

By definition, to redshirt an athlete is “To keep (a college or school athlete) out of varsity competition for one year in order to extend the athlete’s period of eligibility.”  In the early days of college sport, the purposely sidelined players actually wore red colored shirts to distinguish those players from their varsity teammates. Although not considered to be outcasts from the team, the days spent in redshirt status can be difficult and often try an athlete’s loyalty to their chosen sport.

California University of Pennsylvania (or Cal U as it is known), is a mid-sized school known for the success of their athletic teams and a nationally recognized Sports Management program. Recruited by head baseball Coach Mike Conte, my son Will traveled north this fall to continue his studies and play the game that was his passion since he could walk.

Following a few days of student orientation, Will was on the field with his new teammates, participating in fall workouts and trying not to be overwhelmed by the talent that lead the Vulcan’s to the NCAA Division II tournament the previous season.  The incumbent players were helpful and welcoming, as was the coaching staff who needed to trim down some one hundred men who showed up to try their hand at college baseball.

Although each participant was considered, the group quickly shrunk to thirty-four, including current roster members and recruited freshman. With three upper classman catchers on the roster, Will had an outside chance to be a bench player for the upcoming season. The next few weeks were tense for Will as he battled for a roster spot.

The closing of the fall season culminated with a one-on-one meeting between the coaching staff and each player.  Praising him for his skills and work ethic, the coaches asked Will if he would consider redshirting due to the glut of experience at the catcher’s position.  Knowing that the school would pay for his fifth year in college if he accepted the offer, Will recognized an opportunity to gain a year of graduate study and quickly accepted.  The hard part of this decision would come later when the season began and Will would be camped out on the sidelines for the first time in his young life.

Although redshirt’s practice and workout with the team, suiting up for games and traveling with the club rarely, if ever, happens. To make the most out of this experience, Will seized the opportunity to concentrate on his studies, add fifteen pounds of muscle and revamp his baseball swing during his time away from the game. There were sad moments when my wife Janet and I could hear the hurt in his voice on calls home, yet Will continued to work and forge lasting relationships with his teammates, opting to make himself available to pitchers who wanted a little extra throwing time or infielders who needed to see some more ground balls away from regular practice.

As a father and a baseball enthusiast, I was greatly looking forward to watching my son play baseball for one of the best Division II programs in the country this spring.  I am the kind of dad who would carry around the Vulcan’s press guide and bore anyone I could find to share the joy of my son’s accomplishments.

I will have to embarrass myself with that behavior next year, I suppose. Still, this season has been very special and eye-opening.  Although I did not experience the pride and joy of watching my child fulfill his dream of playing college baseball this spring, I have gained so much more. I learned that the boy we raised had become a man, a person who could face a challenge and benefit and even grow from the experience.

Red shirt? Red Badge of courage is more like it.

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