Part II: The Climb

Written by Neal Kunik

As I stood in the warm glow of the May sun outside of Willey Hall on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota campus, a subtle feeling of accomplishment was beginning to wash over me. After clawing my way out of the academic sink hole that I created for myself the previous semester, I was finally walking out of my last final exam of my freshman year confidently knowing I would be off academic probation. My focus could eagerly go back to preparing myself mentally and physically for the following fall’s walk-on tryouts.

On the off chance you haven’t noticed already, I absolutely love the game of baseball and everything about it. From the soft, almost cloud-like feeling of the freshly cut grass during pregame stretching, to the smell of that fresh pearl of a baseball that gets placed in my hand at the start of every game. Pure and unblemished by the evil contact of the opposing team’s bats, and, hopefully, it would remain that way for the rest of the game. I loved baseball so much that even in the summer after my freshman year, when I wasn’t playing for Eagan’s town ball team, the Bandits, I was working for the City of Eagan cleaning up and preparing the baseball and softball fields for games during the weeks and on weekends. I just couldn’t get enough of it. This is where the comeback to achieving my dream would begin, right on that slightly flat and dilapidated mound in the middle of Goat Hill Park, Home of the Eagan Bandits.

Another thing that you may have noticed from the previous post is that I am a competitor until you physically drag me out of the game. Basically, I’m stubborn as all hell. These traits, although potentially very appealing on the pitching mound under the right circumstances, would ultimately lead me to learn a very important lesson about my own physical limitations. Towards the end of the summer, in a close league bout with Rosemount, I walked out to the mound to start the bottom of the ninth inning in a 2-2 tie game. Then came the tenth inning, and the eleventh, but I still walked out to that mound every 2-2 tie inning. Now at this point I feel it is important to mention that, although this was a league game, it had absolutely no relevant outcome on the future of the season. Additionally, it’s important to note that there really was no coaching on the Bandits at that point in time, so there was nobody that would take me out of the game (not like it mattered because I would have bitten their head off had they tried). Long story short, the Bandits would ultimately win the game in the top of the thirteenth inning aided by the 184-pitch complete game by some stubborn idiot on the mound. Although there were no immediate repercussions, my stubbornness and competitiveness on this day would come back to bite me in the very near future.

The summer quickly came to an end, and it was finally time to get back to campus. It felt like I was walking on the clouds. I had ended my freshman academic year on a high note, I had pushed myself physically to my limits all summer to be in the best shape possible for tryouts, and, most importantly, I felt as though I was playing the best baseball of my life. After throwing a few bullpens to stay sharp before tryouts, with one of my closest friends growing up who had just transferred from Duke to finish his career at the University of Minnesota, I began to feel even better about my chances to achieve my goal and blow the coaches out of the water at this year’s tryouts. After each bullpen, my friend would tell me his honest opinions regarding which pitches were working, which pitches were off, and which pitches needed fine tuning, and each time he would reaffirm the fact that he knew that I was good enough to play for the Gophers and deserved a spot on the team this year.

The following week, I strutted out to the mound with the glaring confidence of a pitcher that knew that he had already won. In my mind, I had earned a spot on the team and this tryout was just a dress rehearsal to prove my worth. Although last year’s tryouts went well and were very promising (only giving up a few hits and only one run over the course of my three outings), this year’s tryouts would prove to go very differently. That blooming confidence, bordering on arrogance, would quickly reveal itself to be well-founded in this years tryouts as I would give up zero runs and zero hits with a handful of strikeouts in my three outings. What made the performance even more noteworthy was the fact that not only had I not given up any hits but I hadn’t even given up a hard hit ball. In the congratulatory words of a few players, who I was hoping would soon be my teammates, I had truly dominated the hitters out there and would easily compete in the Big Ten. All this did was continue to elevate the confidence that I had in my own pitching abilities, as well as help to affirm all of the tireless work that I had put in during the summer to get ready for this moment.

In stark contrast to the year before, I would have my meeting with the coaches only a few days after the conclusion of tryouts and all signs were pointing towards good news. I had it from an inside source that there were a few players that were struggling academically and may not be eligible to play in the spring, which would quickly open up spots that would need to be filled. Additionally, having the meeting quickly after tryouts would allow for me to jump right into the lifting and practice program, so that I could catch up with the team. If you remember from my last post, as I slowly approached Bierman Athletic Building and the impending fate of hearing what the coaches had decided on my future, my nerves would very quickly multiply to the point where I felt like I had “just drank 10 Red Bulls.” This year on the other hand was a different story completely. I walked into that office with my head held high with confidence, a smile on my face, and the very realistic possibility that all the work I had put in over the last 6 months would finally culminate in the achievement of my childhood dream.

Unfortunately, as if breathed by Capt. Edward A. Murphy in his well-known adage, “If anything can go wrong. It will.” In an instant, my world would be flipped on its head. I don’t remember the exact words that were spoken to, but it was extremely similar to the previous year, almost as if I had gone back in time and was reliving one of the most disappointing moments in my life. As Coach Todd Oakes would look me in the eye again and say:

“You are definitely good enough to play on this team and to compete in the Big Ten…but, unfortunately, we have a full roster and don’t have a spot for you this year.”

In spite of every thing that I had done over the last six months. Every drop of blood, sweat, and tears that had poured out of my body as I worked to mold the greatest version of myself in the pursuit of playing Division 1 baseball. Waking up every morning to the screaming soreness of every muscle in my body after workouts. Spending hours a day under the hot summer sun meticulously crafting, reshaping, and polishing my pitching mechanics. All of it was for absolutely nothing as I quickly watched my childhood dream disappear into the infinite darkness and forever out of my grasp, much like Ray Kinsella watching his dad forever vanish into the cornfields of Iowa after their long awaited game of catch. For the briefest of moments, I didn’t have a care in the world because I was playing baseball and living my dream, only to have it ripped from my outstretched fingertips before I could truly enjoy it.

The following week, as if straight out of Luke Combs’ “When It Rains It Pours,” I would find out that, due to overuse (I told you that 184-pitch game would come back to haunt me), I had developed an impingement in my right shoulder that was hindering me from throwing a baseball farther than 60ft and with absolutely no power behind it. If you remember my last post, the realization that I hadn’t made the baseball team my freshman year sent me into a bit of a sluggish, dark phase because, for the first time in my life, I was lost and had no idea what my motivations or goals would be to wake up every morning and push myself. What ensued after this year’s tryouts would, ultimately, prove to be so much worse. For the sake of brevity, I will save your hearts and imaginations from what would ultimately follow the bad news and the injury. I’ll just give you the cliff notes.

The news, that even at the best I’ve ever been (physically, mechanically, movement and accuracy-wise, etc.), I still wasn’t good enough to achieve my childhood dream and play for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. This would send me into a crippling depression that was constantly fueled by an endless reservoir of pity and, worst of all, self-doubt. I quickly lost confidence in my abilities - physically, athletically, and academically - to the point that I would stop going to class. In my mind, even if I went to class I wouldn’t be smart enough to understand anything. This would spiral out of control until I had essentially hit rock bottom when my academic advisor would tell me that I was literally 0.1 GPA points away from being kicked out of the University of Minnesota. I had done nothing for the last 6 months except gain 40 pounds and waste an unbelievable amount of money, potential, and, worst of all, time. Pulling myself out of this wasn’t like the last time. It wouldn’t happen in an instant when I would realize that I wanted to actually fight for my dreams rather than just have them handed to me. This process would ultimately require a lot of self-talk and convincing myself that I had earned a place in the classrooms of this University, that I deserved to give myself the opportunity to work towards achieving goals that didn’t involve baseball, and that I deserved to see what I could accomplish if I just put in the time and effort. Just because the Gophers didn’t want me at my best didn’t mean that I couldn’t find new dreams to pursue and see what I could achieve off of the baseball field in life, love, and the pursuit of happiness.

The following summer would be very busy as, once again, I was working for the City of Eagan with their baseball fields full-time, taking three summer classes to make up for all of the time I wasted the past academic year, and playing baseball for fun with the Eagan Bandits (because I just couldn’t keep myself away). The summer quickly came to a close and the cool breeze of the Minnesota fall crept in. I had the father of one of my close friends, and roommate, ask me a question that I, surprisingly, hadn’t given any thought to since pulling myself out of the black hole of emptiness that I had been in my sophomore year, “Are you going to tryout for the Gophers again this fall?” After taking a second to think about it, and don’t judge me for this next part, I contemplated continuing to chase my dream or hang up my cleats. Slowly, a song started to creep in and play in my head.

“I get knocked down, but I get up again. You are never gonna keep me down.”

I looked him in the eye and told him, “Yes. At this point, they are either going to put me on the team because I deserve to be there, or they are going to put me on the team because they are sick of turning me away at tryouts. Either way, I’m not stopping until I play for the Gophers.”

A few months later, my junior year tryouts would once again follow the same script as the previous two years. I would show up with confidence that I would prove my worth to coaches and, once again, I would hear those dreaded words coming out of Coach Oakes’ mouth.

“You are definitely good enough to play on this team and to compete in the Big Ten…but, unfortunately, we have a full roster and don’t have a spot for you this year.”

Unlike the last two years, I didn’t take the rejection hard this time around. I had already made up my mind that they were either going to like me enough to put me on the team, or they weren’t and there wasn’t anything more that I could do besides work hard, perform my best at tryouts, and have fun playing baseball. My junior year would ultimately fly by as I took heavy course loads to make up for the time and academic standing that I lost during my sophomore year. I would jump around to different majors trying to find one that I was both interested in as well as would accept me after the damage I had done to my GPA by failing out of engineering.

It didn’t take long before another Minnesota fall was upon me and I was heading back to campus to start my senior fall semester. Now this time around, I was preparing myself for tryouts with reckless abandon. I knew in my head that I was either going to achieve my dream of playing for the Gophers this fall or I was going to hang up my cleats and focus on life outside of baseball. For the first time since attending the Gophers’ fall tryouts my freshman year, there were no nerves. I wasn’t brimming with overconfidence knowing that I was going out there to shove down every hitter’s throat and prove that I deserve a spot on the team. No, this year I was walking in with a calm, almost zen-like, confidence. I had been told every year after tryouts that I was good enough to be on this field, so there was no self-doubt about my worthiness. I had performed well against the hitters every year, so there was no question about my stuff. For the first time since coming to the University of Minnesota, I would walk out on that mound with the sole intention of just having fun playing the game that I love for potentially the final time.

A few weeks later, as I had in all three of my previous years, I would walk into the doors of Bierman Athletic Facility to meet with the Gophers’ pitching coach Todd Oakes. The script of the meeting would follow the same pattern as the previous years, we would take about how I was doing in school and in life, we would talk about my overall health and well-being, we would talk about my performance in tryouts that fall, and then we would arrive at the moment of truth. As I sat there awaiting my fate, I started to hear the beginning of a very familiar phrase that I had become accustomed to over the last three years.

“You are definitely good enough to play on this team and to compete in the Big Ten…”

And then there was a pause. As I sat motionless in the cramped, warm office of Coach Oakes, I began to see the corners of his mouth begin to curl.

“…and I am very proud and honored to offer you a spot on the Golden Gopher baseball team for the upcoming season.”

Many more words were spoken after that sentence regarding where to go from here. What the schedule for the week and rest of the semester would look like. Who to talk to and set up meetings with to get everything squared away. I would meet with all of the coaches as they congratulated me on what I had achieved, and how I truly deserved what I had just earned. But it was all background noise as I slept walked through the rest of the meeting. There was no feeling of a weight being lifted off my shoulders, there was no shaking with excitement, there was no emotional break down because of the holes that I had pulled myself out of to get to this point the last three years. There was just a calm serenity throughout my entire body like this was where I truly belonged, a feeling that I hadn’t felt as long as I could remember. As I walked back out of the doors of Bierman to the glow of the fall sunshine and the hustle and bustle of daily car and foot traffic on 15th Ave, I would shed a single tear of pure, unadulterated, childhood joy, and then the feeling of joy and serenity was gone. It was very quickly replaced by a new feeling. A hot feeling of a fire being lit deep down inside of me. I wasn’t done yet. This was only the beginning.