The Murray State coach was moving snow in the football stadium just to give his Racers something that looked like a diamond for practice for this weekend’s season-opening games. And that came after a weekend of removing snow and ice from the tarp protecting an infield the school treated with 75 tons of dirt at the end of fall practice.
It’s a common activity for baseball teams in places like Murray, Ky., Charleston, Ill., and points north just to play the game they love. Even Jacksonville State isn’t immune to the elements, as last week’s debilitating ice storm proved.
With the Division I baseball season opening Friday and most of the OVC in the belt that usually battles snow, ice and frigid temperatures at this time of year, league teams have had to come up with creative ways to get their preseason work in – when they can practice at all.
And even when they’re not fighting snow and ice, it’s hard to get in quality work when bundled up looking like the Michelin Tire Man.
“I’d be lying if I said we weren’t excited about getting on a bus and getting to some warmer weather,” Morehead State coach Mike McGuire said.
McGuire’s Opening Day forecast calls for highs in the low 30s and snow.
The richest programs might be able to retire to a spacious indoor facility for their preseason work while groundskeepers work on the field. Most OVC teams spend their time in cramped gyms when they decide not to venture into the elements.
Some just don’t get out at all.
Eastern Illinois hasn’t been outside all winter. Temperatures there were in the teens most of Monday and were expected to hit lows below zero overnight.
The Panthers are headed to comparatively balmy Louisiana-Lafayette for their opening series then play Arkansas and Mississippi State before opening conference play. It’s a heavy gauntlet with no outside work to stretch their arms and legs -- all three opponents are ranked in Baseball America’s preseason top 25.
“The hardest thing is when we come back,” EIU coach Jim Schmitz said. “We’re in Louisiana and it’s 60 for the weekend and next week we’re back inside. That’s what you have to be real careful of. Mentally you want them to be fresh.”
And that’s just to get ready to play. There will be times during the first month and a half of the season – even at JSU – teams will be playing in temperatures only Jack Frost could love.
All four OVC season openers being played north of Alabama on Friday aren’t expected to make it into the mid-40s. The games at Morehead and Austin Peay aren’t expected to get out of the 30s.
So what are players to do in a game that has plenty of idle time? Pitchers and catchers are moving around every pitch, but the cold can be brutal for the players not in the game, outfielders who are standing around praying for ball to come their way, or a batter who hits one off the end of the bat.
There are no heaters in most dugouts. McGuire said he’s seen players become “a little delirious” trying to huddle for warmth in numbers.
“Everyone wants it to be warm, no rain, the sun out,” Jacksonville State closer Travis Stout said. “At the end of the day it’s a mental thing. I’ve been sitting in the dugout before and not been able to feel my fingers and toes.
“Everyone here handles it pretty well. In the past we’ve had people who didn’t really like it, but we’ve got a game to win. The other team can be cold and mope and pout about it, but we’re weathered veterans here. We’ll be cold and we’ll play our butt off.”
Eastern Kentucky coach Jason Stein simply doesn’t let his players talk about the cold. The Colonels had plenty of chances to gripe about it Sunday, working out in 25 degrees, but Stein said they haven’t complained once.
"It starts at the top,” he said. “If I complain about it they do. We try not to make it an excuse. I’m not saying young kids don’t say something about it, but I don’t want that to be a crutch. Indiana made a run last year. I would say they ignored the elements and played. That’s what we want to do.”
For all the things cold-weather teams endure to play their game, EIU’s Schmitz has a sure-fire way to fight off the chill.
“My favorite line is it’s always colder when you’re losing,” he said. “If you’re winning, you’re not that cold.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.
OVC Opening Day predicted high temperatures
All games Friday
Ball State at Morehead State, 34
Iowa at Austin Peay, 39
Illlinois State at Murray State, 40
Bowling Green at Belmont, 42
SIUE at Wichita State, 50
SE Missouri at Oral Roberts, 52
Northwestern State at JSU, 55
Tennessee-Martin at UAB, 57
Tennessee Tech at South Alabama, 59
Eastern Kentucky at Alabama State, 63
Eastern Illinois at Louisiana-Lafayette, 66