This series of columns, titled The Journey, will highlight stories and memories from college baseball players across the United States.
Written by Colby Morris and Sam Graf, Middlebury College
One of the major differences between Division I and Division III baseball is the required time commitment. During the season, regardless of division, teams spend around 35 hours per week on baseball activities including travel, but out of season, we see a large difference in what is asked of us. While official team activities may not consume an equal portion of a student-athlete’s day in the lower division, many players take it upon themselves, either through necessity or love of the game, to work equally hard as teams in the top division of college baseball to satisfy the part of their identity that they associate with athletics. What is difficult for athletes at Middlebury College, a private liberal arts college in the academically oriented NESCAC conference, is that most students are expected to study abroad, either from social norms or academic requirements. For myself, a junior starting right-handed pitcher and captain on our baseball team, and our starting junior left fielder Sam Graf, we needed to find ways to continue our time commitment to our beloved sport while studying in different countries in the fall.
I studied this fall in London, England as a requirement for my chosen major, International Politics and Economics, and was pretty uncomfortable with the thought of getting both out of physical and baseball shape. Staying in physical shape was easy as I was able to join a local gym, although seeing the weights marked by kilograms instead of pounds took some getting used to. My college coach instructed me to begin my throwing program in the middle of October after enduring a tough season on my arm in 2017, accumulating over 100 innings through my college and summer baseball seasons. In preparation for studying abroad and throwing in an area where the most popular throwing sport is cricket, I brought along a bag of Driveline plyocare balls (essentially rubberized weighted baseballs). While I also had some baseballs and an extra glove to throw with my roommate, a high school baseball teammate, the majority of my throwing sessions would be conducted in a dog park near my ‘flat’ or apartment, off of a chain-link fence that surrounded a cement soccer field.
Without a regular throwing partner, the vast majority of these throwing sessions were conducted by throwing rubber baseballs off of the fence and dodging them after release to not get hit on the ricochet. The throwing program normally calls for doing the warm up, velocity work, which consisted of throwing the plyocare balls off of fences, and then continuing into long tossing and a normal throwing routine. I was able to accomplish the first part of that sequence easily, but instead of long tossing, I needed to use the 150-gram ball as a baseball (0.3 ounces heavier than a normal baseball), throwing it over 50 times off of the fence, running and retrieving it, in any given session.
When rain wouldn’t allow me to go outside I would prop my mattress up on my wall and do my normal plyocare routine, ignoring the complaints of excessive banging from my neighbors (the cold was no issue as it only got as low as 35 degrees and that feels warm to somebody who goes to school regularly in Vermont). When the park’s grass was too muddy to throw on, I would throw into the fence from the cement side, often dodging soccer balls shot by ten-year-old kids. My throwing schedule started at three days per week per the Driveline offseason throwing program, progressing to four days per week as the semester continued, and I usually got my sessions in during the mornings before class.
As is the norm with going abroad, my friends and I wanted to travel, but since we went on our trips over the weekends and the cheap airlines wouldn’t allow my bags to be weighed down by the plyocare balls, I needed to get my throwing in before travelling. Most of our flights were in the wee hours of the morning, so on travel days I would wake up before 6:00 AM to go throw in the pitch black of the dewy park. I would walk past meat trucks unloading at restaurants, taxi drivers sitting in their cars and reading the paper, and they would see a kid in a Middlebury Baseball sweatshirt, sweatpants, and used soccer cleats, carrying a drawstring bag of rubber baseballs and a beat up baseball glove.
I got some pretty weird comments throughout my hours spent in dog parks. People asked why I was throwing the cricket balls weirdly, or what sport I was playing, or if I was trying to break the fence, and I’d like to think I educated some of them on what baseball was, even though it didn’t look like I was playing the sport. Usually throwing is something I look forward to, but by the end of my time in London, I couldn’t wait to stop dodging the balls after I released them. I was able to throw a few times with an outfielder for Macalester College in Minnesota, Sam Goldberg, who went through a nearly identical semester to mine, but due to how far apart we lived in the city and the expensive prices on the tube, we were forced to simply talk to each other about how awful throwing alone off of fences without a target was, rather than playing catch with each other on a regular basis. Even though the experience was trying and made me evaluate how much I cared about baseball, the end result was that I still found a way to dedicate a similar amount of hours to baseball so far from where I play. And it should all be worth it when opening day rolls around.
My good friend and college teammate, Sam Graf, studied in Chile and had a hitter’s version of my story. Here is his take on what he did while studying in South America, far away from the baseball-crazed areas of the continent to the North…
While abroad, I didn’t have a baseball bat so I tried to get work in in more unorthodox ways. In addition to using plyocare balls and throwing a baseball into a mattress hung from a tree, I took dry swings using a variety of sticks that I found (Unfortunately, I couldn’t travel to Chile with actual weighted bats). The idea was to gain bat speed and to improve my swing pattern using weighted implements. I chose to use sticks from a variety of research I did that suggested weighted bats are beneficial to the swing. And despite my analytical and systematic discussion of the sticks, the picture shows how primitive and branch-like they actually were.
The goal behind weighted bats is to challenge the central nervous system (CNS). By swinging and hitting with different weights, the CNS is forced to accommodate new sensory information, and a new movement plan is created to accomplish this task (hitting a baseball), leading to growth in the swing. Ideally this transfers to the game level in the different pitches thrown at you; from different arm slots, in a different stadium, etc….it’s a lot to take in.
Studies suggest that weighted bat training is only beneficial at +/-20 percent of the in-game bat weight. It’s thought that this is because of the principle of specificity and overload, where specificity and overload are placed on opposite ends of a spectrum. Hitting a baseball (a specific task) is on one side with weightlifting (overload) is on the other. Both are extremely useful for hitting. Weighted bats offer a part both for overload and specificity. However, a more extreme bat (greater than +/- 20% in-game weight) is not specific enough to a real hitting weight, and so their effects don’t transfer well. It’s not that they’re useless, just that their transfer of training is not guaranteed.