It started as trash talking between friends. Now there’s food on the line.
In the game based ultimately on statistics and individual competitiveness, two Michigan baseball players have decided to use hunger as motivation to challenge themselves.
The participants: Fifth-year senior catcher Jeff Kunkel and senior third baseman A.J. Scheidt.
The contest: Be the first player to reach 100 career RBIs.
The stakes: The loser pays for dinner at a location of the winner’s choice.
“This is our way of being competitive with each other,” Kunkel said. “We’re always hitting together and doing stuff together, and one guy starts talking big, and he has to prove it.”
Kunkel and Scheidt, who are co-captains and close friends, came up with the idea one day while joking around after practice. The 100 RBI challenge is just the first of their mano y mano season-long competition, with dinners also going to the leader in other major statistical categories at the end of the season. But the friendly banter has become serious lately, with Scheidt closing in on the career century mark and a meal at the expense of his comrade.
Kunkel, who had a career total of 84 RBIs coming into the season, has driven in just two runs through 13 games this season. Scheidt now has a career mark of 98 RBIs after tallying four RBIs in Michigan’s last game, against Wagner.
“(The competition) is going to be fun to follow,” Scheidt said. “Neither one of us is too stat-crazy, but it is just kind of fun to do, and something to look at. The 100 RBI (competition) will be fun given that we are hitting in similar areas of the order.”
The player with the most hits would be expected to win the RBI competition. But because of their frequent proximity in the batting order, base running has made an impact on their RBI totals, also.
“I kind of joke because sometimes I’ll hit in front of him, and sometimes I’ll hit behind him,” Scheidt said. “He’s a little bit slower than I am, so sometimes he gets stuck on the base paths when I get a hit.”
During the chase of the 100 RBI goal, other players have noticed the pair’s heightened intensity as well. Sophomore outfielder Doug Pickens – currently tied for the team lead with 13 RBIs in 2006 – did not initially know about his teammates’ statistical contests, but now realizes the benefits.
“I definitely think (the competition) helps them,” Pickens said. “It drives them to really focus when a man is on (base), and when we have a man in scoring position. Maybe it gives them a little bit more incentive. Winning games should be enough incentive, but this might tighten their focus a little bit more.”
Using their rivalry to up the ante, Kunkel and Scheidt will look to turn their competitiveness into wins for the Wolverines. Both were named to the preseason All-Big Ten team, and Kunkel was named to the 2006 Louisville Slugger preseason All-American second team by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. On a team with just nine seniors, their experience and leadership will be crucial.
Even though a free dinner is incentive enough, the basic idea of the contests are to help one another increase their skills throughout the season.
“This will be their third straight year of being pretty much everyday starters,” head coach Rich Maloney said. “So it’s nice to have (competition). I think pushing each other is a very important thing. I’d like to see more of it on our team, where some guys have enough confidence in themselves that they want to challenge somebody else.”
With the first competition likely to end in the next few games, and with bragging rights and a complimentary dinner up for grabs, it’s inevitable that what began as trash talking will continue as trash talking.
“I think I definitely have got the clear advantage on RBIs,” Scheidt said. “I think in most stat categories, I pretty much have him (beat). He might get me in (batting) average, but I still don’t think so.”
Said Kunkel: “Right now he’s swinging a little better than I am, but it’s a long season. . Of course (I think I’m going to win).”