PART I: The First Punch

Written by Neal Kunik

Pre-High School:

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We’ll just go ahead and skip the part about how I fell in love with the game of baseball the second I first saw Ken Griffey Jr. stroke a ball over the right field fence. With his swing sweeter than my mom’s fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, just watching him forever cemented my place as a left-handed hitter, attempting to mimic said swing straight out of a dream, albeit with significantly less power. We can also skip the endless hours underneath the scorching summer sun playing whiffle ball in the front yard with my little brother, and anybody that we could find to fill a position (sometimes it would be as simple as playing one-on-one pitcher’s hand until we couldn’t see the ball anymore). These endless hours left scars and memories in the grass of our front yard in Eagan, Minnesota. They could not be repaired until well after both of us had gone off to college to chase our dreams. We can skip the countless times that I would drag my dad off the couch to hit me groundballs or pop flies in the street, and front yard, so that I could hone my skills to prepare myself for the game the following day. We can skip the loud, echoing sounds that my parents would have to endure during the winter months from me using every bit of energy that I could muster to practice fielding and diving plays by throwing a tennis ball against the underside of an out-of-operation ping pong table in the basement. I was always attempting to corral the ricochet, or the dents left in the garage door from the countless hours that I would spend working on my pitching prowess, rain or shine, at a ramshackle, taped on strike zone that I would have to re-tape every month from overuse. These are all the glorious, fantasized memories that every baseball and softball player has growing up that allowed and aided them to fall in love with this game. As much as I would like to reminisce about the rose-colored memories of falling in love with the game of baseball (and maybe that is something that I will tackle in a later post), this story unfortunately focuses on a different aspect of my baseball career, a learning and growing opportunity that I wouldn’t trade in for anything because it has helped me become who I am today.

High School:

One aspect of my playing career that I would like to highlight, however, is the role that pitching velocity played (or realistically didn’t play) in my development as a pitcher throughout my years. From as young as I can remember, I had never been the hardest thrower on any team that I ever played for. As a young ballplayer, I spent every moment of my time on the diamond with the widest grin that I could muster (most likely with a few teeth missing), wanting every pitch that I threw to be a strike. I may have been ahead of my time at a young age knowing that I could just let hitters get themselves out by throwing strikes and letting them hit the ball. But, as a below-average sized child, this mentality allowed to me find continued success all the way through childhood. To this day I still believe that the best thing that happened in my development as a pitcher was needing to learn how to throw strikes at a young age to get hitters out, especially since I could never blow the ball by anybody (unless they were swinging with their eyes closed). Once I got to high school, and finally started to develop, my knack for throwing strikes became the backbone of a newfound arm strength that would allow me to compete at the Varsity level early on. This ability to compete would lead me to finding some unexpected success my senior season. It would result in a litany of regional offers to play collegiate baseball, however, there was only one offer that I really cared about.

College Decision:

Unfortunately, that offer would never come. I spent my entire childhood being a diehard fan of the Golden Gophers (a trait that has proudly been passed down through most of my family), and I bled Maroon and Gold the entire way through. However, despite any success that I may have found at the high school level, I just wasn’t the projectable type of pitcher that would be approached by the only Division 1 baseball program in the state of Minnesota, that just happened to be my dream school. And, it would be smart to get this out of the way now; one thing that may become a common theme throughout this story is the fact that I am incredibly stubborn when it comes to the things I want. This story is no different. I ended up passing on other offers (including a Division 1 offer) to go to the University of Minnesota to attend their College of Science and Engineering, with the hopes that I would be able to walk onto the team the fall of my freshman year and turn dream into reality.

Year One:

Fast forward. Here I am, a few weeks until walk-on tryouts my freshman year of college where a bright-faced, honestly a little cocky, Neal confidently walked through the old rickety fence gates at the old Seibert Field ready to face any hitter that was placed in his path, in order to achieve that white whale of a goal to proudly put on the Maroon and Gold for the first time. After the initial bullpen session, I was invited back to throw in live intersquad scrimmages to truly prove myself against a Gopher’s team that was fresh off a Big Ten Championship season. In my typical fashion, I was able to maneuver my way through the hitters without too much difficulty, while using every kind of movement that I had in my arsenal, (2-seam, circle change-up, slider, and curveball) in order to make up for the velocity deficit compared to the pitchers that were currently on the roster. After three successful outings, culminating in only one run allowed and two hits surrendered, it was time for judgment day. Confidently walking around campus and through Dinkytown, I made my way to the Bierman Athletic Building to meet with Todd Oakes, the Gopher’s pitching coach, to hear the decision on whether I had thrown well enough to earn a spot on the team.

As I made my way through the brisk fall weather, getting closer to the doors, the weight of the impending meeting finally started to sink in. On the mound during tryouts, I played the game with a youthful exuberance and excitement that was reminiscent of my days in the steamy summer sun playing whiffle ball with my brother in the front yard. Not a care in the world, just happiness and baseball. However, as I approached Todd Oakes’ office, I could feel my hands starting to tremor and shake in my pockets, so I tried to dig them deeper, hoping to steady them. I could feel my heartbeat slowly getting faster and faster, as if an energetic rabbit was beginning to thump its happy foot against the inside of my chest. I realized that I was about 10 minutes away from either achieving my childhood dream or, living a life that didn’t include baseball. This thought sent my nerves into hyper drive, almost as if I had just inhaled 10 Red Bulls on the walk over from the freshman dorms. As I stood outside the door to the office, gingerly holding up my still shaking hand to the doorknob, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath to calm myself, opened my eyes slowly as I exhaled a deep slow breathe and stared into the mystery of what my future would hold as I grabbed the doorknob and raised my head with confidence as I walked into the meeting.

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The meeting seemed to drag on endlessly as we made our way through the small talk about how my transition from high school to college was going, and how he had followed along with my successful senior season at Eagan. He was even easy to admit that there were clearly more physically gifted pitchers in the state. However, he went on to say, I was one of the best ‘pitchers’ of the class with my repertoire of pitches, ability to locate, and my knowledge of how to get hitters out. At this point my heart began beating louder in my chest like the bass drum in a marching band. As we moved into discussing my performance during the intersquad scrimmages, each passing moment seemed to bring with it a compliment about how I handled a specific hitter or how he was impressed with the poise that I was able to show being thrown into a stressful situation during tryouts, such as pitching in the annual ‘Steak and Beans’ fall series. The meeting would reach its apex about a minute later when Coach Oakes offered up a compliment that I honestly did not expect to hear as he looked me in the eyes as said, “Neal, clearly you are good enough to not only be on the team but you are good enough to compete with success at the Division 1 level.” The feeling of pure bliss that washed over my body as I heard those words trickle out of his mouth was like slipping into the comfort of a warm bath, all my fears and concerns just washed away in an instant. This immediate feeling of accomplishment had me feeling so emotionally high that for all I know I could’ve been riding around the bright blue sky on a cloud, which is why the next words that came out of his mouth would be so devastating.

“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 an instant my life was flipped upside down. The conversation would continue for another 5 minutes or so with the topics ranging from how I shouldn’t get discouraged, how I should keep working because there could be a spot for me next year, how they would always be available if I needed help along the way, but, to be completely honest, that entire part of the conversation was just muffled background noise. Everything just slipped away after he said I didn’t make the team. It felt like I had fallen straight through the middle of the cloud that I had been riding on and was just tumbling in a free fall through the air until I hit the sidewalk right outside of the front doors to Bierman. Returning to reality, the weather outside felt like it had gotten ten degrees cooler and the sun had decided to slide behind some dark clouds that would bring a cold, light rain down on me as a wandered back towards the dorms. I felt like a lost soul searching for meaning. When I was about halfway done with the walk, I stopped and sat on a nearby bench in the rain and stared off into space. No more than an hour earlier, I had been confidently walking through campus with ideas and plans of grandeur after achieving my childhood dream. Now I was just sitting on a bench in the rain, feeling lost with no idea where to go from here.

I would spend the next two months living in this morbid haze of daily life. I would wake up late with no interest in leaving my bed. I would sit in class and stare off into space as I contemplated what I was even doing here, or if I even had interest in getting out of the ambitionless rut that I was stuck in. Very quickly, my grades began to slip as I seemed only willing enough to give, at most, a half-hearted effort in my classes. It felt like the light that had been shining so bright inside of me as I entered college had not only been extinguished, but it was smashed and it wasn’t turning on again. To save you the despair and drag of having to read about the wasted two months of my life that this black hole sucked out of me, I will skip ahead to the end of my first college semester and winter break, where my seemingly non-existent academic performance landed me directly in front of my academic advisor (not to mention, academic probation). My advisor would be quick to lay down the hammer, saying that I was in a very big academic hole. If I couldn’t get my grades up by next semester, I would be kicked out of school. This talk would at least be enough to get me to return to figuring out where I go from here (a question that I had asked myself after tryouts but never actually had the enthusiasm to answer). I briefly thought about transferring somewhere that I could step right in and play just to get back out there. This helped me realize that if that was going to be an option then I needed to get my head back into the books and get my grades back up. A slow process of cleaning up the pieces of the light that had been smashed inside me would lead to having the motivation to sit down and face the tough decisions that lay ahead. I would spend hours trying to convince myself that transferring was the best course of action so that I could keep playing baseball, but where would I transfer? Which schools would offer me the best from both an academic and athletic standpoint? These questions would ultimately lead me to probably the most difficult question that I would have to try and answer. If I transfer, am I giving up on my dream of playing baseball for the Gophers, or am I just finding a new, more attainable, dream to pursue?

And then it happened. I woke up one morning and something felt different. For the first time since hearing that I didn’t make the Gophers, I jumped straight out of bed and didn’t hit the snooze button. I had an energy that I hadn’t had in months, and I proceeded to lace up my running shoes, which had a nice layer of dust on top. I didn’t care that it was the middle of January, or that it was around zero degrees outside. I put on an extra layer and I just cleared my head and ran as far as my legs would take me. After cutting through the icy winds for about 30 minutes, I finally stopped to feel the icy air burn the inside of my lungs as I just stood on the sidewalk hobbled, with my hands on my knees and large, quick clouds of breath fuming from my mouth. To any passerby, I would have had the bent over look of a defeated man that was ready to quit, and I wouldn’t have blamed them since this was a position that I had become very comfortable with over the last few months. However, as I opened my eyes and gazed up at the intimating hill that separated my exhausted body from the warm comfort of my house, I came to the realization that any dream truly worth achieving is worth giving everything that I’ve got to fight for. At that moment, the light that had been extinguished mere months before was finally back, and it was back with a vengeance burning brighter than ever.

What’s to Come

Another common theme that you will see throughout my posts is the inclusion of a quote that played an important part in my journey. I would use these quotes as a mantra for added motivation to get me through the times that would truly test my resolve. At this moment in my journey, I found solace in a rather unexpected character from one of my favorite movie series, Rocky Balboa.

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!”

It was at that moment, as I stood hunched over catching my breath at the bottom of that villainous hill, separating me from the first true feeling of accomplishment that I would have in months, that I made the decision that I would not quit on my dream. It was at that moment that I promised myself that I would not give up until I stood out on that mound for the first time wearing Maroon and Gold.