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Woodrey: Scenes From Alumni Weekend

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On June 20, 2016, UC Santa Barbara defeated the Miami Hurricanes 5-3 in an elimination game in the College World Series. My baseball career had ended, and I would have to adjust to life after the game. Now it’s February of 2017, and opening day of the new season is one week away. I am heading home for the annual University of Miami Alumni Weekend. I grabbed my school-issued Miami duffle bag and readied to hit the road. It brought back memories:

My first road trip as a ‘Cane was to the University of Florida to participate in one of the best college baseball rivalries. A South Florida native, I grew up around this rivalry. I patiently waited year after year of my childhood, always hoping to one day be involved in it. Now the day had finally come. I grabbed my school-issued Miami duffle bag and readied to hit the road. I will never forget the excitement I felt as I boarded the bus – my dreams were becoming a reality.

I arrived at the stadium earlier than most, and my first objective was to step out onto the field once more. I gazed in awe of the empty stadium under a sunny cloudless sky. This time of year in Coral Gables brings out all the colors and smells synonymous with baseball: the fresh-cut green grass, the smooth orange clay, the endless blue sky. I grew nostalgic:

It was weeks before the start of the Hurricanes’ 2010 baseball season, and I was just a sophomore in high school. Friends of mine were beginning to verbally commit to colleges, and I was eager to get recruited, same as them. The ‘Canes were hosting a two-day weekend camp and I was hopeful to get noticed. As the car pulled up, I stared in disbelief at the sight of the stadium. I signed in, grabbed my gear, and walked out onto the field. It was 70 degrees and a brisk breeze blew the smell of fresh-cut grass. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky nor a doubt in my mind – I wanted to be a Miami Hurricane. 

After I soaked in the views of the stadium, I headed into the locker room. The 2017 team laughed and joked amongst the ranks of alumni of all sorts. I caught up with old friends, and made new ones as well. The alumni game had brought in former players from dozens of different teams. I spoke with members of national championship teams from the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. I spoke with current and retired professional players, successful businessmen, coaches, husbands and fathers. I spoke with a former player celebrating his 90th birthday that very day. I also spoke with one that just turned 21, and many others in between. On the surface, there weren’t many similarities between all these alumni, but the love we have for the University of Miami baseball united us all. The countless hours spent laughing and joking with my best friends presented yet another wistful moment:

I had committed to become a ‘Cane following that camp my sophomore year. Two years later, I had signed my National Letter of Intent and it was the weekend of my official visit. I entered the locker room, which was recently remodeled, and felt right at home. I spoke with current ‘Canes and other future teammates that were eager to graduate and get to college. There were players from all over Florida, several from Georgia and even one from California. On the surface there weren’t many similarities between us, but the love we had for University of Miami baseball united us all.

The locker room cleared and it was nearly time for the game to begin. I was slated to throw the second inning, despite never planning on participating in the game. I hurried to get dressed, grabbed a glove and laced up my cleats once more.

Opening weekend my freshman year we took on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The lineup and rotation were posted, and it looked like I might get to pitch in my first weekend as a college player. I gathered my nerves, laced my cleats up and ran out onto the field.

When I got to the dugout, I soaked up the crowd. Hundreds of fans packed the stadium eager to get their first glimpse of the 2017 team. The 1st inning flew by, and I headed down to the bullpen to warm up. I had only thrown a baseball twice since Omaha, so I grew nervous thinking of how badly this scene could pan out. After the third out, I took my time walking out to the mound. I toed the rubber, smiled at my brothers in both dugouts, and tossed in my first warm up pitch. In my playing days, I never liked looking at the crowd. I fed off adrenaline, but never wanted it to consume me. This time though, I wanted to feel the rush that I had missed so much.

The first game of a doubleheader vs. Rutgers had burned our closer for the rest of the series, and the second game was coming to an end. We were in command of a small lead, and the situation called for me to come in and close it out. I headed down to the bullpen to warm up. The inning ended and I took my time out to the mound. I toed the rubber, closed my eyes, took a deep breath and zoned in on the catcher. I had been warned by players before me to not get caught up in the crowd; it will only increase the nerves. 

College World Series: Arkansas-Miami - Thomas WoodreyMiami’s Thomas Woodrey pitching at the College World Series (Shotgun Spratling)

I felt loose on the mound. It’s a weird feeling playing carefree, but it definitely brings you back to your youth. It reminds you how amazing the game was when you first fell in love with it.  A 20-plus pitch inning — that would have once felt like an eternity — seemed to end as suddenly as it began. I headed off the mound and was greeted by an alumni dugout eager to congratulate me. For the first time in eight months, I had done the thing I always loved most.

As the inning began, my body was completely out of my control. My mechanics felt off, my heart was racing and I could see the steam under the brim of my hat. It was as if I had never pitched before. A 20-plus pitch inning — which felt like an eternity — finally concluded. I was awarded the save, and my dugout cleared to congratulate me. For the first time in my life, I was doing what I had always dreamed of.

The rest of the game I spent studying the 2017 team. I spent hours wrapping my mind around how numb I once was to how great of a program I was able to be a part of. I watched current players hit home runs, steal bases, record strikeouts and make web gem plays. I am so proud to have once been viewed in this same lens by the alumni before me. The game concluded in the current team’s favor — the alumni fell 9-2. The team showed great promise for the 2017 year, welcoming back many key contributors and adding some fresh talent, just what every alum loves to see.

My first alumni game as a freshman member of the team, I looked in awe of how many former players returned. It blew me away that so many people still viewed themselves as part of this university. I imagined that with all the pride they felt for Miami Baseball, they were thrilled that our team beat them handily. I spent hours wondering if I would ever feel that pride and passion for my former teams.

When the game ended I said my goodbyes and prepared to hit the road. I had to walk out to the edge of the field one last time to see it under the lights. I’ll look forward to this weekend for years to come. I finally understand what it is that brought back alumni year after year. It took me eight months to realize: I am part of a brotherhood for the rest of my life. Nobody can ever take away from me the memories and relationships I made as a college athlete. For that, I thank the game of baseball.

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