As I stood nearby clad in my swamp camouflage uniform, Otey logo hat and cleats, members of the Arkansas Travelers went through a series of warmup exercises. It was a scene I have become familiar with being a sportswriter for 16 years. I was taking it in until I heard Travs strength and conditioning coach Joe Griffin yell, “You want a day in the life, get out here.” It was my “welcome-to-the-minor-leagues moment” while I spent a day with the team for an article I wrote for Sync magazine. And while Griffin was half kidding, I got my 39-year-old butt out there and stretched, jogged, threw and swung with the rest of the Travs players. Thanks to Griffin, manager Phillip Wellman, clubhouse manager Geoff Freedman and all of the other players and staff, I was a member of the team for one glorious day. As we were changing into street clothes after the game, the reality sank in that my pro baseball days were over. As I took my time getting dressed, the energetic catcher, Jett Bandy, who was two lockers down, asked, “Hey Olson, what was your favorite part of today?” I said, “Batting practice,” but really there were too many things to mention. Here is a list (in no particular order) of the best parts of what my wife, Sheena, is calling “Nate’s Baseball Fantasy Camp.”
1. Batting practice: I quit playing high school baseball my junior year during the summer of 1991. The only other times I’ve swung a bat have been in men’s slow-pitch softball and when I took BP with Travs season ticket holders five years ago. I made arrangements to take a few lessons with Jay Sawatski at ProFromance Baseball and Softball Academy, but a power outage at the facility forced a cancellation. So, I stepped to the plate with a big pile of rust on my bat. As has always been my preswing routine, I wound the bat up a couple of times and moved my front foot forward in anticipation of the pitch. Wellman threw it down the middle, and I grounded the ball to the right side. As my teammate Drew Heid informed me, the routine is to take five cuts three different times and take turns amongst the group. I lost track of cuts on the first rotation and probably took about eight cuts, making contact each time. Finally, hitting coach Tom Tornincasa barked, “I don’t care if you are a reporter, you can’t stay in the cage all day.” Point taken. The next round, I took five hacks and made contact on all, fouling one off. That prompted the shaggers in the outfield to chuckle a bit. On the next pitch I drove the ball into left field. Heid yelled “suck it!” to my critics. I drilled another line drive to left, and Heid, who let me use one of his bats, greeted me as I left the cage with, “Two base knocks, that’s not bad at all.” On the final round, I swung and missed, the only time that happened, but hit the ball squarely four more times. Feeling the ball meet the sweet spot of the bat is one of the greatest feelings in the world and an experience I’ve been deprived of for far too long. I wanted to take 40 cuts, but I will cherish the 17 I took for the rest of my life. “I have to say, we weren’t expecting much,” Wellman said as I returned some balls I collected to the giant basket he picked from. “You exceeded our expectations.” Other players echoed the same sentiment in the clubhouse. Most of them thought I was gonna miss more than I connected. Sadly, I probably hit better at 39 than I did as a 5-10, 165-pound 17-year-old, but I will take it.
2. The uniform: One of the best parts of playing sports as a kid is picking out your jersey number and slipping on the uniform for the fist time. When you play high school sports, there is a sense of pride. Not everyone in the school gets to wear one. So, when Freedman took me into the equipment room to pick out my Travs undershirt, camouflage batting practice shirt, pants and game jersey, I felt 12 again. When I put it on, I felt a joy that is only equal to Christmas morning. While I may not really be a ballplayer, the uniform made me feel like one.
3. Signing autographs: It felt weird, but Heid encouraged me to sign. “You’re part of the team today.” So, I signed a few baseballs before the game and then after, near the dugout, and by the entrance to the clubhouse. When I saw those young boys with their hands outstretched with baseballs and pens, I thought about myself when I was 10. How I stood patiently by the left field railing at Sec Taylor Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa, waiting for members of the Class AAA Iowa Cubs to come over. I had no idea who most of them were, but it was such a thrill to meet them. The kids I signed for had no idea that signing their baseball was more of a thrill for me than it was them.
4. The locker placard: Nate Olson #36. Every time I returned to my locker, I took a long look at that paper placard that was neatly placed in a holder by Freedman. He didn’t have to do that, but it was a reminder for, at least that day, I belonged in the clubhouse. When I left that night, I slid it out of the holder and placed it in my satchel. It will soon be framed and hung in my office as a way to remember the day.
5. Playing catch: I got a little “catch” in before batting practice, but the biggest thrill was on the game field just about 10 minutes before first pitch. I had just jogged a little bit down the left field line and then retreated to the dugout to get my glove when I saw some players warming up. Adam Melker invited me to join him and Kyle Hudson. This wasn’t your backyard toss, either. Melker kept backing up and backing up. The ball zoomed in to me, and I snagged ’em with my dad’s old glove he bought to play softball with in 1968. My goal was not to one-hop many throws to Melker, and I was successful. Earlier in the day Heid praised my arm strength when I was gunning balls in from the outfield during batting practice. I’m glad my arm isn’t completely worn out. The pregame catch was just one more thing to make me feel like one of the guys, and luckily I was able to avoid embarrassment.
6. The dugout: All-you-can-chew gum and sunflower seeds and Gatorade, plus great conversations and hijinx. Only in baseball can you talk nonstop while the game is being played. I also enjoyed it when a couple of players came over to me to give me a random fist bump. I took it all in, and it made for some great color in my story.
7. Postgame handshake: Everybody was all smiles after the Travs met on the field to celebrate the end of a three-game losing skid. There were two lines and everyone shook hands, including Wellman, who cracked a big smile when I shook his hand. Winning feels good no matter how big, or small, of a part you play in it. Period.
8. Teammates: All the players were positive and good-natured. The longer I was there, the more interested they were to get to know me. I had several good one-on-one conversations, some about baseball and others about life in general. And Heid and Melker, who was in the locker next to me, were particularly welcoming as was the gregarious Bandy and top prospect Kaleb Cowart, who I interviewed while he was on the training table. I also enjoyed talking (well, kind of talking) to pitcher Orangel Arenas, the Venezuelan pitcher with a heavy accent. He sat next to me in the dugout and snatched my notebook away from me, then looked at me perplexed when couldn’t decipher any of my scrawls. We both laughed. Then as the game wound down, he noticed my dad’s glove had a loose lace and restrung it for me. I also enjoyed meeting fellow Iowa native Jimmy Swift. I appreciated several of the players who shook hands with me on the way out of the clubhouse. Everyone was great and made me feel very comfortable.
Bandy had a great idea as I was about to leave. “You should have spent the whole week with us, to get the real experience.” He’s right, but I’ll have to settle for a little over eight hours, which I will remember for ever.