In particular, it was Jacksonville State’s baseball team, and let me clarify what I mean about feeling like a part of the team. I happened to have a pair of black Adidas sweats and a red Adidas top, so I wore them to blend in.
Per assignment, I sat in the back of their bus from the moment it left JSU’s campus to the moment it arrived outside of Auburn’s Plainsman Park on Tuesday.
I spent all of JSU’s 6-1 victory at Auburn with the guys in the Gamecocks’ dugout and interacted with players and coaches, then I rode back home in the same seat on the team bus.
I ate the same sandwiches they ate, watched the same videos they watched en route to and from Auburn, used the same bathrooms … one gets the picture.
For those seeking tales of jocks gone wild or heat-of-battle headiness, sorry. Not so much on this day. Truthfully, not so much on most days.
There’s much mundaneness in the daily life of a baseball team, and this was a day trip. It started at 1 p.m. and ended about 11:30 p.m., when the bus pulled back to the same curb outside of Kennamer Hall.
The true value of the experience was hanging with the guys in moments when top players like Michael Bishop and Coty Blanchard flashed their skills, and in hours when they were just guys hanging with the guys.
It was hearing “at-a-boys” from the dugout as JSU’s No. 4 pitcher, Adam Polk, worked five no-hit innings against an SEC team in its park.
It was hearing the snickers in the dugout as an Auburn fan — clearly audible in a sparsely attended midweek game on a campus deserted after graduation — relentlessly taunted third baseman Gavin Golsan for his amateur forays into rap music.
It was seeing JSU coach Jim Case suddenly miss and repeatedly search for his pencil.
It was Bull Durham, minus a Susan Sarandon character and “lollygaggers” but plus the Auburn-area storm sirens. They kept going off on a sunny, mild May afternoon and evening.
One assumes the sirens have been sufficiently tested.
The ride to Auburn
It’s 1 p.m., and cars driven by players and other team personnel cluster in the parking lot outside of Kennamer Hall.
Everyone makes sure to stop by the four-door pickup in front of the bus for lunch. Today, it’s a choice of ham or roast beef Subway sandwiches.
Get your sandwich in the passenger cabin, then visit the truck bed for one’s choice of chip.
“It’s a nice day for baseball,” the kindly bus driver says.
On the bus, players watch a replay of a Florida State-North Carolina State baseball game, picking up about the time FSU’s Jameis Winston makes a highlight-reel catch.
In the back of the bus, Blanchard once again has found himself in the seat closest to the garbage bag. It’s a solemn duty.
“Don’t try. Make sure you don’t spill anything on the bus, and find a bag for your trash,” the bus driver announces.
Bishop notices that, on a bus full of Adidas-clad teammates, he and Blanchard are wearing the same style of Under Armour shorts — black with white side stripes.
“Nice shorts, Coty,” Bishop says.
Players note extra folks on the trip, and the reality that some players will have to share seats sets in with all the joy of a groin pull.
JSU coach Jim Case boards and asks me and photographer Bill Wilson if we would like to be called by our first names or “mister.” First names work just fine.
Case makes brief announcements, and the bus gets under way.
First baseman Adam Miller settles in with his bus trip coping devices. He uses his New York Yankees pillow as an armrest as he plays a card game, Phase 10, on his iPad.
Later, he puts the Yankees pillow against the wall of the bus and rests his head. The pillow has a history … emphasize “history.”
“My girlfriend is going to kill me, but my ex-girlfriend, my junior year of high school, made it for me,” the Yankees fan from Nevada later says. “It’s probably one of the most comfortable pillows I have, so it’s my travel pillow.”
It’s a quiet bus ride down U.S. 431. Amid audio from the FSU-N.C. State game and the hum of the bus engine, players pass around and sign forms. The forms include the weekly playing and practice report and a draft questionnaire from the Seattle Mariners.
Four players seated in the middle of the bus set up a small table in the center aisle and play cards. Others try to catch winks, stretching their legs to the seat across the aisle.
Those seated in the front half of the bus run the obstacle course to reach the lavatory in the back. They climb on open chair arms, seat cushions and even headrests, until passing the last outstretched leg, then spikes hit the floor.
The only breaks in the monotony are the bus driver’s hard brakes in towns like Wedowee and Roanoke. With each hard brake, one hears the potty seats slam down.
Arrival in Auburn
As at most college locales, there is no visiting locker room at Plainsman Park. There is a bathroom, which is better than the port-a-potties the Gamecocks find at other places.
Because there’s no locker room, players board the bus in stirrups, shorts, tops and caps, then start changing into game garb on the bus. As the bus stops at the Toomer’s Corner intersection, players change into compression shorts.
Not to worry. The bus comes equipped with pull-down tinting curtains.
As dance music plays, Bishop pumps his arms in the air in a display of mock dance moves. The music plays until the bus pulls alongside the stadium.
The team enters by the right-field foul pole and makes its way to the dugout, where players slide on their jerseys as Auburn takes batting practice. Once in full uniform, JSU players make their way to the center-field fence for stretches.
Meanwhile, managers spread an assortment of fruit and bars on the bench. At Case’s encouragement, I try the yummy Great Value brand Sweet & Salty bar. It’s his favorite.
Case has his chat with Auburn coach John Pawlowski, then returns to the dugout. He tells a story about how he used to make one basketball road trip a year, and former JSU men’s basketball coach Mike LaPlante would make one baseball trip.
LaPlante was amazed at the ease of baseball road trips.
“You play 56 games a year, and a midweek game is nothing,” Case says. “Get a sandwich, get on the bus, play, get a sandwich and go home.”
As the JSU crew waits out Auburn batting practice, conversation rounds the bases.
Case relates advice he once got from former Auburn coach Hal Baird about working with pitchers and how Baird’s teams always played well late in the season. Turns out, Baird gradually installed things during the season and tried to work off-days into latter parts of the season.
Case has put some of that into practice at JSU. The Gamecocks recently had a day where their field was open for an hour. With music blaring, players knocked and threw the ball around in a relaxed … should we call it practice?
Chatter turns to Auburn’s Yankees-style uniforms, an evolution from the Dodgers-style uniforms they wore in the Bo Jackson-Frank Thomas era. Case digs the Dodgers’ duds, especially the homies.
Time comes for JSU’s turn at the organized chaos that is batting and fielding practice. As players take turns hitting from inside the rollaway cage, Case stands to the side, hitting grounders to his infielders.
Meanwhile, that shrill storm siren plays its one-note song, followed by the inaudible voice announcement.
Games within the game
Game time arrives, and JSU has bad week-old memories. They had Auburn beat 8-0 at home, only to yield a 12-run eighth inning May 7.
But one senses no tension. Even after Bishop pops out in the game’s first at-bat, he returns to the dugout all business, giving his teammates the info on what he saw of Auburn starting pitcher Rocky McCord.
“Flat,” Bishop says of McCord’s offerings.
From the dugout, I become aware of our closeness to the action. Foul nets protect the grandstands but not the dugouts, so one stray foul ball could become a life-changing event.
I’m also close enough to hear sounds like the thump when Miller blocked a Cullen Wacker grounder off his chest in the first inning.
Laced throughout the game are taunts from one fan, mostly directed at Golsan, and give the fan credit. He comes with good material to shower on the third baseman, the JSU player nearest the fan’s seat.
After Golsan grounds out, the man suggests the at-bat should go down as one of the player’s “greatest hits.”
“Hey Gavin, you should write a song about us,” the man later shouts. “Hey Gavin, I have a feeling that if you were iTunes, you would be not popular.”
Golsan grins when asked about it after the game.
“I didn’t hear any of it,” he says. “I was just focused on the field, so, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Asked if he would take the fan’s invitation to write a rap song about him, Golsan doesn’t bite.
“I’d write one about looking forward to playing Morehead State this weekend,” he says, referring to JSU’s crucial Ohio Valley Conference series.
Within the dugout, there are other minor dramas.
Case keeps notes on opponents in a small notebook. He has notes dating back to 1984 and calls them his “security blanket.”
He also conserves pencils. The one with which he starts Tuesday’s game goes missing sometime during JSU’s at-bat in the fifth inning, and Case searches. He comes back between at-bats in the sixth inning and searches more.
“That’s going to drive me nuts,” he says at the time.
After the game, he still seems perplexed.
“I don’t know what I did with my pencil,” he says. “Usually, I can make it through a year with one pencil.
“My other pencil broke, and then I pulled this one out a couple of weeks ago, and somehow, I don’t know where it is. That’s frustrating.”
The game turns
Had the storm sirens any sense of timing, they would have blared after Bishop’s third-inning two-run home run off reliever Daniel Koger.
Teammates file out of the dugout to meet Bishop with high-fives, and Bishop takes redemption from his home run.
“I faced the guy last week, and I was pretty frustrated,” he says after the game. “I faced him one time, and it was pretty much the same pitch he threw me, and I flew out to first base, so I was pretty frustrated last week.
“I went up there, knowing he’s going to try to throw the fastball with two outs, and it was the first pitch of the at-bat. I let it fly.”
It flies over Auburn’s “green monster” wall in left field and gives JSU a 2-0 lead.
The home run proves to be all the scoring JSU would need, thanks to Polk and four relievers. Auburn doesn’t get a hit until Damek Tomscha’s two-out double in the fifth inning.
“I really wasn’t focused on any no-hitter or anything like that,” Polk says after the game. “I was just focused on throwing up zeroes and giving my team a chance to win.”
Polk leaves the game with a 6-0 lead after 5 2/3 innings of work, having allowed just two hits and two walks.
A coach at work
Case quietly roots for Polk to last as long as possible. One, Polk has had his struggles this season and needs the boost from a nice performance. Two, Case wants to save his bullpen for the weekend.
Case leaves Polk in the game after one trip to the mound in the sixth inning. With two outs, Polk had just hit Wacker with a pitch and given up a double to Patrick Savage.
“When they got second and third with two outs,” Case says after the game, “I went out and I said, ‘You deserve the right to make this decision. Do you feel like you’re out of gas, or do you want to get this guy?’
“He said, ‘I want to get him,’ and I said, ‘OK, you’ve got one guy.’”
Polk then walks Dan Glevenyak on five pitches, the last going high and outside on a 3-1 count. In the dugout, Case calmly says, “That’s it.”
“I was not going to let him struggle after he pitched as well as he did,” Case says later.
Teammates meet Polk at the dugout with the same line of high-fives and “at-a-boys” they gave Bishop earlier.
From that point on, Case keeps working his bullpen, making changes every time Auburn starts to mount offense. First, it’s Ben Haynes, then Michael Barber, then Cody Ponder, then Travis Stout. None works more than Hayes and Ponder, each going an inning and a third.
With every pitching transition, Case tells a pitcher in the dugout to pass the clipboard onto another and begin stretching. He’s always thinking two pitchers ahead.
He’s also thinking of the weekend.
Polk’s performance “really was huge,” Case says after the game. “It also set the tone for the weekend for us. Our bullpen has been used a lot, and they were able to throw bullpens as opposed to coming in in stress.
“They didn’t need the stress today, with a short week.”
Case also has three in-game conversations with umpires, one to calmly protest a clearly missed foul ball on left-hander Griff Gordon’s hooking grounder inside the third-base bag in the third inning.
Case also visits home-plate umpire Vic Correll after two JSU players go down on called third strikes in the second inning, but it’s a personal call.
“His dad was a big-league catcher,” Case says later. “He caught for Atlanta. He caught with Cincinnati, and the interesting thing for me was, he caught in Cincinnati with a guy named Mike O’Berry, who went to my high school. … I told him (Correll) that I always followed his dad, because I followed Mike O’Berry.”
Case also works his players. He pokes a little fun at Miller from the dugout, after the first baseman walks up the baseline to pick up a foul ball and toss it to Correll.
“Adam, you need to stay away from popups,” Case says with a grin.
Miller has had his moments recently, including a popup miss that helped Auburn’s 12-run inning a week before Tuesday’s game. Case’s way is to handle it with good-natured ribbing every time the situation comes up.
When Blanchard comes from his spot as second baseman to the first-base line and calls Miller off in the seventh inning, Case flashes a grin and thumbs-up from the dugout.
“It’s kind of like the joke in the big leagues, when the catcher gets the yips,” Miller says after the game. “It’s kind of like that, because I dropped one or two.”
Miller points out that he broke his yips at Eastern Kentucky this past weekend.
Immediately after the game, Case huddles the Gamecocks around him in the dugout and gives a quick speech. After the disappointment of a loss to Auburn a week before, he lauds the way his team handles itself in Auburn’s park.
“I really feel like the best team won,” he tells the huddle.
Then he quickly shifts to the coming weekend’s OVC series against Morehead. With a sweep, JSU could clinch a first-round bye in the league tournament.
“We have bigger goals than this,” Case says.
Case, Bishop, Polk, Golsan and Miller report to the press box for interviews with me and JSU radio voice Mike Parris, then the team finishes loading back into the bus.
Baseball operations assistant Tyler Harris greets all comers from the first seat on the driver’s side with brown bags and a choice of turkey or chicken sandwiches. A cooler in the aisle holds Sunkist and root beer bottles.
As the bus driver makes two turnarounds, trying to figure his way back out of campus, and Miller fires up Clash of Clans on his iPad, the six bus monitors flash a recording of an Auburn Network broadcast of the game.
After watching his third-inning home run, Bishop immediately gets up and heads back to the lavatory for long-awaited relief.
The Gamecocks watch the game all the way home, fast-forwarding through lulls and making comments along the way.
“Get back off my plate,” one player says, after watching the replay of Barber’s pitch that tailed into the left leg of Auburn first baseman Garrett Cooper in the eighth inning.
Tuesday’s game has no conference relevance for JSU, but it has psyche relevance.
“It meant a lot,” Golsan said. “I mean, it’s a non-conference game, but we get to come out of here with a win and kind of get to redeem ourselves after the last time we played them. That was a tough loss.
“But a win is a win. We’re looking forward to getting some more this weekend.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.