The Michigan baseball team spiced things up from the conventional peanuts and Cracker Jacks, kicking off its season with a “Meet the Wolverines Night,” yesterday. The event consisted of a clown, free food, decorative balloons and young fans enthusiastically running from player to player to receive autographs.
“The meet and greet is about promoting and celebrating our great tradition in baseball,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “We have a nice festive time in preparation for the season and hopefully get people excited to come out and watch the boys play.”
As the team’s veterans, junior Ryan LaMarre and senior co-captains Mike Dufek and Chris Berset have experienced several meet and greets over their years as Wolverines.
“This event shows that the season is right around the corner,” LaMarre said. “It gets the fans ready to go, and it lets the young guys who haven’t done this before get their feet wet and sign some autographs.”
The players may be enjoying their stardom now, but they have yet to swing a bat in competition. Michigan’s season opener is in just over a week against Jacksonville State in the Texas Tech Tournament. The Wolverines will then continue their play on the road for more than a month.
Michigan will face opponents Louisville, St. Johns and South Florida at neutral venues, slightly easing the challenge of playing away from home. But a number of games will be held at the opponents’ stadiums, toughening the competition. This should be expected by players as they represent Michigan — a state known for snow-filled winters.
“It’s hard to win on the road, first of all,” Maloney said. “Then you factor in the statistic that the top 75 teams in the NCAA win 79 percent of the time at their home venue. So for our kids to travel, we’re going to have to be road warriors.”
Regardless of any on-the-road apprehension along the way, Michigan’s ultimate goal is to make it to Omaha and compete for a national championship in June.
But the team must first redeem itself after a disappointing finish last year.
Michigan placed seventh in the Big Ten at the end of the 2009 season. While this could hardly be considered a disastrous finish, it knocked the Wolverines off their three-year pedestal as Big Ten champions.
“We kind of got a little bit spoiled there,” Maloney said. “But we want to get back, we want another taste of it. We have a very, very difficult schedule — the toughest by far in the history of Michigan baseball. But the good thing is, you learn things together, you battle through it together, and you grow as a team together.”
Pitching has been a key area of concern for Michigan in the offseason with the departure of ace Chris Fetter, but the team has a solid combination of speed and power.
“We need to be more consistent all-around,” LaMarre said. “Last year we had our pitching show up one night, our hitting show up another, our defense another. So, I think we are looking to put it all together and really show up every day.”
Michigan also has several freshmen that will immediately enter the starting lineup, including shortstop Derek Dennis and outfielders Patrick Biondi and Ben Ballantine. Dennis was selected in the 10th round of the 2009 MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He tuned down a professional contract signing bonus to be Michigan’s shortstop this season.
“Dennis is a guy that was highly acclaimed out of high school,” Maloney said. “He is what football would call a five-star player. He turned down $700,000 to come to Michigan. So he is out there, very on the national scene. He is the guy everybody else wished they would have.”
Dennis could have been signing autographs in Tampa as a professional athlete. Instead, he chose to represent Michigan, bear the inclement weather and sign team posters at a Wolverine meet and greet.