Spring training at 8,000 feet
You might think baseball in Aspen is an oxymoron. After all, success in the sport depends largely on one thing: crossing home plate. In Aspen, locating home plate in the springtime requires a sturdy snow shovel, a lot of time and patience, and a tremendous amount of luck. Maybe even a diviner. “This is baseball life in Aspen,” says Aspen High head coach Rick Ryan. “It’s like ice-fishing in Hawaii. You look crazy doing it.”Indeed, baseball here is a sport ripped out of context: no grass between your toes, no dust in your nostrils, no dandelion seeds stuck to your cap. In fact, a recent survey suggests the only ball of similitude that is locally recognized is the one composed of snow and targeted at a friend’s head. It is no surprise, then, why spring training at 8,000 feet occurs in a gymnasium for the Aspen High boys baseball squad. Snow, as it turns out, is the team’s biggest obstacle.
“There are only so many things we can do to simulate baseball in a gym,” laments Ryan. “We always start slow and come on at the end of the season because we are finally getting outside reps. It’s no fluke. You can’t simulate depth, distance and height in a gym. If baseball were played inside, we’d be state champs.” Even still, practicing indoors is nothing new to Aspen ballplayers. It is a tradition as deep as spring snowbanks and as old as the program itself, and knowing it gives the team faith in its ability to overcome such hardship. That is why at the first practice of the year, coach Ryan hands each player a pop quiz about the history of baseball at their school.”The kids really like the test because they learn a lot about our baseball history here. They learn that we have gone to state several times despite practice conditions, and that Aspen was the first school in the ‘Northwest League’ to adopt baseball back in 1972, which is pretty ironic,” says Ryan.Ironic, too, that Aspen continues to compete yearly despite its complete lack of the home-field advantage. Senior captain Pat Faurer, an all-league third baseman who hit .568 last year, believes the team’s itinerant season actually increases their cohesiveness as a unit.
“Not having as big of a fan base makes us tighter as a team. We don’t mind where we play or who’s watching us. It doesn’t matter. We’re just excited to be outside playing baseball.” It is this enthusiasm and passion for the game itself that has coach Ryan excited about his team’s potential. “This group works hard. They work hard and they are committed. I have always preached to them that the first two steps to being successful are working hard and committing to your sport. Those are things we can control. Ability and luck are something you can only hope to have,” he says.And with six skilled seniors and several underclassmen with varsity experience, Aspen baseball might just be a full force to be reckoned with this spring. Senior ace Matt Fox – who went 2-1 with a 3.46 ERA to close the 2004 season – will hold forth on the mound for the Skiers, as will junior Kevin Coulombe. The skiers will rely on seniors Will Moore and Brock Strasbourger to provide leadership in the infield, which will receive help from veteran sophomores Andy MacCracken and Matt Beirne. Likewise, the Skiers will look to sophomores Stephen Buzbee – who had 15 stolen bases in 2004 – and Andy Conarroe to step up and provide strength in the outfield as well as in the batting order.
Most important, though, is the baseball-hungry nature of the squad that has coach Ryan reeling.”This group loves the game. I have had teams with better talent, but they didn’t have the passion these guys do. That’s what drives a coach – a kid that cares,” Ryan says.One thing’s for certain: you won’t find a kid who doesn’t care this year. These kids are more excited than ever to practice slides on a rubber floor and forsake the out-of-doors for a few cuts in the gymnasium where they spent recesses as middle schoolers. Perhaps “For Love of the Game” isn’t just the title of a Hollywood blockbuster, after all. Perhaps love for baseball is not bound up in cultural memory. Perhaps it’s not a product of an earlier age or a warmer climate. Perhaps it’s not a pulse that has become faint and undetectable in our Rocky Mountain lives. Perhaps it’s something that is still known and cherished. An understanding, a feeling that is constantly rekindled by the spirit of tradition, the changing seasons, and the hope of finally finding home.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps those who ice-fish in Hawaii look crazy for one pure and simple reason: because they are.The AHS team plays its first games Friday and Saturday in the Paonia tournament. Games on Friday are at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. The final game is at 3 p.m. on Saturday.Luke Farrell, AHS ’99, is a former captain of the Aspen nine who recently graduated from Middlebury College. He is the assistant varsity coach.
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