There is one divide that defines collegiate sports for many fans and athletes in the state of Michigan.
The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry.
Allegiances are strong and passions run high. As a result, it’s not often that athletes cross the battle lines and transfer from one school to the other. But this season one player has taken this lightly traveled path, as the Michigan baseball team welcomes graduate outfielder, and Michigan State alum, Joe Stewart onto its roster as a graduate transfer student.
And he’s excited to have such a unique opportunity.
“I’m a Michigan kid, I grew up here,” Stewart said. “I have a unique opportunity that a lot of people don’t have, to get to play at both of the big universities in Michigan.”
This opportunity came as the result of an unexpected choice that many college baseball players find themselves facing.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stewart was presented with an interesting possibility. Following the limiting of the 2020 and 2021 baseball seasons due to COVID-19 concerns, the NCAA granted all active players an extra year of eligibility. The policy allowed many players to hang around the college scene and try exploring new horizons while continuing in the sport they love.
“I didn’t initially plan to play another season,” Stewart said. “I still enjoyed playing … I felt I still had something left in there.”
So Stewart exercised the option of entering the graduate transfer portal to play one more season, and Michigan coach Erik Bakich gave him a call.
“From talking to him and knowing some guys that have come through this program, (I knew) it was an awesome opportunity for me,” Stewart said.
And the Wolverine staff was thrilled to add Stewart to the roster.
Graduate transfers can be a valuable asset to a program due to their experience and outsiders’ perspective, which allows them to offer a fresh point of view. That insight can be useful.
“Being in the Big Ten, I know what this conference looks like and what it takes to be successful (here),” Stewart said. “I’m not necessarily as much the vocal leader, but (I’m) trying to show the younger guys, lead by example, do the right thing and what that looks like.”
Coach Bakich for one, appreciates having a player like Stewart to fill that role.
“I really like grad transfers,” Bakich said. “They’ve been instant leaders … experience wins at the college level, and they bring a lot to the table.”
While it used to be relatively difficult to line up grad transfer students in college baseball, COVID-19 eligibility has made it fairly easy for Michigan to increase their number on its roster. The program has also pulled infielder Matt Frey and outfielder Alex Fedje-Johnson — both from Davidson College, whose head coach played under Bakich at Vanderbilt — out of the transfer portal for this season to help enhance its lineup.
“(Grad transfers) have a bit of a chip on their shoulder,” Bakich said. “They really have something to prove and want to be great.”
Being the most experienced members of the team, one of Bakich’s main goals for the graduate students are to impart both wisdom and the right attitude upon their new teammates, and Stewart seems to be the right man for the job.
In his senior season at Michigan State, Stewart was named the team’s most improved player, and he has continued to display the work ethic and improvements that earned him that title.
“Joe Stewart comes to mind,” Bakich said when asked which players turned heads in preseason practices. “He’s probably the most improved player from when he first got here … he stands out, I think he’s got a chance to have a special year.”
Since then, Stewart has lived up to that praise with his performance on the field.
In addition to leading the team by example off the field, he has achieved the results that his approach can yield. A fixture in the lineup, Stewart has hit the ball hard, and with discipline. He is also working to continue the defensive improvements he saw last season in East Lansing, hoping to serve as a defensive rock in center field.
“On the field (I’ll) see what I can do to help out in the outfield,” Stewart said. “Continue to build on that defensive side of my game … and be a guy that can drive some balls into the gap … whatever I can do to get this team to be successful.”
Stewart has been a large part of the Wolverines’ offensive explosion in recent weeks, and Stewart is enjoying this special chance from a whole new angle.
“There is much more appreciation for still being able to play,” Stewart said. “I’ve gotten this revived chance this year to come over and help this team. … It’s been fun, I think I definitely appreciate the little things a lot more.”
Nevertheless, while he has been enjoying his time at Michigan, he still hasn’t forgotten his old friends in East Lansing.
“That’s a game that will be circled on my calendar,” Stewart said. “(I have) a lot of friends over there. … It’s gonna be really fun to compete with those guys. … I’m looking forward to it.”
Stewart’s familiarity and good relationship with the Spartans will undoubtedly bring a fresh twist to the mid-April rivalry bouts between the two teams.
Stewart’s career in college baseball reflects the connections to both schools that many in Michigan possess. Just like his attitude towards baseball helps encourage his teammates to perform on the field, his attitude towards the rivalry also shows how these connections can often bring people together and offer the chance for new experiences.
And Stewart is enthusiastic to experience it.
“Love Michigan State and all those guys,” Stewart said. “But it was awesome to get this opportunity to come here for my last year.”