I woke up early to vote before the day trip figuring polls would be closed by the time Kaylea and I returned home. (I was right.) Sophie was already awake, so she accompanied me to the small polling station, the Catholic church adjacent to the school where several games of catch have taken place. At 6:20 AM, I was voter #56 and my “I voted” sticker earned me a free donut. I bought an extra for the road and a cream-filled as a thank-you to Sophie for her company.
The drive south was filled with breath-taking views of colorful foliage, fog-covered rivers and valleys, and rays of morning sun streaking through dark clouds. Kaylea was excited for her official tour of the University of Central Arkansas (UCA). I was excited to play catch with the head coach of the university’s baseball team.
Coach Gum has been at UCA for 8-plus years and is the winningest coach in UCA history. His coaching tenure is full of stories of epic postseason wins as well as taking on some of the best baseball programs and winning.
“We beat Missouri State last year. Any time we can beat Coach Guttin, that’s a big win. We’ve beaten Oklahoma State and also Mizzou on a couple of occasions.”
UCA is 4 – 3 against Mississippi State which I think is phenomenal. This past year, three of Coach Gum’s players were drafted by the Kansas City Royals: pitcher Tyler Gray, catcher William Hancock, and outfielder Hunter Strong. The program also celebrated their first player in the big leagues — Jonathan Davis of the Toronto Blue Jays.
“He got his first big league hit against David Price.”
I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on all of them over the next few years.
Coach Gum grew up a fan of the Braves, watching all the games on TBS. He loved watching George Brett and Tony Gwynn hit and loves how Mookie Betts and Mike Trout play the game today.
His baseball philosophy can be aptly summarized by a Jimmy Dugan / Tom Hanks’ quote from A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
“I look for players with grit, who maybe got the shine knocked off of them at junior college. They need to be tough and truly love playing this game. It’s harder here, we don’t have a lot of the facilities that other programs have. We look for those players we feel like the other schools might have overlooked. Players who make other players better. Players who give energy to their teammates.”
Coach Gum is a southpaw and played baseball at Crowder College in Neosho, both as a pitcher and outfielder. Kaylea and I parked by the baseball field and he and his family were the first people to welcome us to campus. Not wanting to waste any time, I grabbed a glove and started walking out on the artificially turfed infield which survived the rains of recent days. He threw beautiful sliders and knuckleballs and even complimented the strength of my arm. He gifted me a couple of fun toys to help sharpen the run on my two-seam fastball.
And then, before we left for the tour, Coach told us the “1000 Marbles” story.
“We count out marbles for all of our guaranteed days; we’re not promised the postseason. Our senior players gift the marbles to underclassmen who work to earn them. I get a good idea of the feel and potential for the team by how they treat the marbles.”
Coach Gum continued, stressing the power and importance of a game of catch. How playing catch with a parent or adult created a love of the game for several of his current players. How playing catch with his sons can be a form of therapy when he goes home. Coach talked about playing catch like I talk about playing catch, how it is a whole body experience that connects two people like little else in sports.
And then he gifted Kaylea and I each a marble.
I was truly honored.
He helped us locate our next appointment where Kaylea nervously asked questions of the school’s orchestra conductor followed by a one-on-one tour of campus from a student in the music education department.
After the ninety minute tour, I could hear batting practice taking place as we slowly walked toward the baseball field. For a few minutes, I watched the pitchers running fielding drills and wished I hadn’t locked my glove in the Bryan Family Millennium Falcon.
I shook Coach’s hand and thanked him for his time and gifts.
“I’m convinced that baseball is the best sport for life lessons. It teaches perseverance and humility. Ultimately you’re not in control and you have to learn to surrender the outcome. To surrender the judgment. When I played at Crowder, when I had a bad game, the only ones who knew were my teammates. Now social media sends the message out practically everywhere. Ultimately, you just gotta outlast the other guy. Gotta have grit and simply outlast them.”
Next spring, UCA is coming to Springfield to play MSU. I’ve always had a heart for underdog stories.
Twelve hours after we pulled out of the driveway, Kaylea and I returned home, grateful for safe travels and the wonderful opportunities to make new friends.