On a frigid winter day earlier this month, the Wilpon Complex came back to life after nearly eight months of dormancy.
Through the steadily falling snow, the Michigan baseball team dashed back and forth between its locker room and the Oosterbaan Field House where it was holding a scrimmage.
It was northern baseball at its finest. But in a sport dominated by teams from the South and West, it’s rare for a team running inside to practice to be nationally ranked at all, let alone No. 1 — where the Wolverines were ranked last week.
Indeed, in the 40 years before Michigan’s run last season, teams from north of the 40th parallel only qualified for the College World Series 27 times out of a potential 328. Many recruits from baseball hotbeds are hesitant to leave their home regions and take the risk of playing in the cold.
Freshman third baseman Ted Burton, who hails from Huntington Beach, Calif., wasn’t one of them.
“I wanted something new, and I wanted to step out of that California bubble that I have been part of my whole life,” Burton said. “I was looking for a different kind of people or even just a different experience and different setting, so I could see something new that not everyone gets to see.”
Michigan coach Erik Bakich, a California native himself, has an interesting tendency when talking about his players. He often goes out of his way to note that a player is from his home state.
“Our California guys have always been able to get a lot of reps in,” he commented earlier this month when talking about Michigan’s characteristically chilly winter weather.
Bakich has been effective in drawing non-northern players like Burton to Ann Arbor. Eight members of the Wolverines’ roster are from the Golden State, more than any other except for Michigan. He’s passionate about breaking the mold.
“It’s not just Michigan baseball but cold weather baseball, northern baseball in general where sometimes the perception is your program has been hidden under a rock or just hasn’t been relevant,” Bakich said. “It can be relevant … Sometimes you just need something magical to happen.”
Burton, for his part, has bought into Bakich’s mindset. It’s evident in the way he avoids talking about himself and always defers to the team’s needs — a common trait for this group of players.
“I just want to be someone who will compete, play for the team and find a way to win, whether that’s laying down a bunt or putting a ball in for extra-base hits,” Burton said. “I’ll just do whatever is necessary to put us on top in the end.”
It was notable he specifically pointed to notching extra-base hits for his team, since doing so has been a challenge for the Wolverines this season. In its 8-5 win over Cal Poly on February 15 — a matchup the team will relive this weekend — Michigan didn’t have a single extra-base hit.
In light of that, Burton noted the team needs to be more aggressive with its hitting. That means making contact with good pitches with less than two strikes and remaining effective with two strikes. At times, the Wolverines’ batters have struggled by letting those early pitches go to waste and then having to find any way possible to get the ball in play.
Once again, he was of the same mind as his coach. Bakich diagnosed the problem similarly after last weekend’s series loss. The two have worked quite well together since Burton arrived in Ann Arbor.
“He’s a great person … and he’s taught us a lot of life lessons along the way that I don’t think many people can,” Burton said. “He’s turning young boys into men.
“On the field he knows what he’s doing and you know damn well he’s going to bring out the best in you.”
Burton’s performance so far indicates he intends to be a presence at the plate. He knocked his first collegiate career home run in Saturday’s 14-2 win over the Huskies.
On the infield, too, he has proven to be reliable. He’s worked well with the defense’s anchor, junior shortstop Jack Blomgren, as well as sophomore second baseman Riley Bertram to give the pitching staff adequate backup.
Burton will have a chance to build on his strong start as the Wolverines head west to his home state for the next eight games. He sees the trip as just another chance to prove himself and validate his choice to play for Michigan.
“I’m excited and I’ll be seeing some old friends,” Burton said, “but I’m ready to compete and show them what Northern baseball is all about.”