Bright sunshine covers the baseball field with a warm yellow glow. Puffy white cumulus clouds are visible against a clear blue sky. A warm breeze stirs the air while birds chirp overhead.
In places like Florida and Texas, college baseball teams can enjoy weather like this during the months of February and March. But in Ann Arbor — and the rest of the Midwest — this classic “baseball weather” is nowhere to be found. Instead, snow, ice and arctic temperatures dominate the winter and early-spring landscape.
While its southern and western opponents have daily outdoor practices early in the season, the Michigan baseball team is virtually confined to its indoor practice facility at Oosterban Fieldhouse. Eleven games into their 2005 campaign, the Wolverines have yet to have an outdoor practice on their home field.
“It is definitely more difficult (to not practice outdoors),” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “That’s why you don’t see many northern teams in the top-25. (When we’re playing outside for the first time), southern and western teams have already played outside for over a month.”
Even though Oosterban Fieldhouse is designed as a practice facility for the football team, Michigan manages to make the most of its practice time. Four batting cages are set up in the building, allowing pitchers and batters to faceoff in simulated games. To create a game-like atmosphere, balls and strikes are called. But something is missing.
“It’s tough to tell how far the ball would go (on a field),” senior pitcher Jim Brauer said.
Other aspects of baseball can be adequately simulated indoors — outfielders can work on long throws, and the artificial turf allows a full infield to practice. But certain aspects of the game are impossible to recreate without going outside. Outfielders, for example, go months without seeing the ball fly off the bat.
“I’m an outfielder, so the fly balls are a huge thing,” junior Mike Schmidt said. “It’s a huge adjustment the first couple of days (outside).”
In addition, certain game situations are impossible to recreate in practice without having intrasquad scrimmages on a real baseball field.
“You can’t practice all facets of baserunning,” Maloney said. “You can practice non-situtational things, but you can’t do it in terms of an actual game. And an area like that can cost you in the games.”
Despite the drawbacks of being a cold-weather baseball team, Michigan has cruised through its early-season schedule, going 8-3 in games in Florida and Texas. Even more impressively, the Wolverines have put up an excellent 4-2 record against “warm-weather” teams, including wins over then-No. 8 Georgia and then-No. 10 North Carolina.
“I’m just proud of our kids,” Maloney said. “We were able to play against some teams that were definitely further ahead of us as far as being outside for a longer period of time.”
Regardless of its early-season success, Michigan hopes that warm, sunny days will arrive in Ann Arbor soon. With the team’s home opener at Ray Fisher Stadium less than two weeks away, spring can’t come soon enough.
“Believe me, we’re looking forward to getting out on the field and playing,” Maloney said.