WVU Baseball Provided Burst Of Pride In Tough Mountaineer Year
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It has not been a very good year for West Virginia University sports:
The football team went only 8-5.
The football team lost its third straight bowl game and fifth in its bowl appearances.
The football team lost its head coach.
The men’s basketball lost 21 games.
The last loss was to Coastal Carolina in something called the College Basketball Invitational.
The women’s basketball team was passed over by the NCAA Tournament.
The rifle team did not add to its 19 NCAA Rifle national championships, even though for the first time ever it got to host the event.
That is why the school — and, yes, the state — needed so badly the feel-good story that was brought to them by the baseball team’s run to an NCAA regional berth, one that the first time since 1955 was hosted in Morgantown.
Yes, the most disheartening and disastrous of endings when eliminated by Texas A&M brought tears to players and fans alike, fans who took it as just another example of persecution complex that has grown over the years.
But what it couldn’t do was take away the hope and excitement this baseball team created and that the fans — no matter how rabid or how casual a fan they might be — bought into.
It was result of a careful building plan by coach Randy Mazey and the school’s administration but, more than that, it was proof once again just how true the one-time DuPont commercial slogan — “Better things for better living through chemistry” — really is.
What we had here was this rare chemistry within the Mountaineer locker room on a team made of lovable characters on a mission and between that team and its community, which may have started off small but grew as the season progressed into a statewide love affair.
This was a team built from the coal fields of West Virginia on up.
Their star player began the season an unknown, a mountain of a Mountaineer who stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 260 pounds. Through sweat and hard work, through belief in himself and driven by passion, he rose to such heights that he wound up just the other day being the No. 11 pick in major league baseball’s draft.
Alek Manoah was always an open book on the mound, wearing his heart on his sleeve and facing every problem the way West Virginians face them, head on and without taking a step back.
But this was more than Manoah. This was a team that was as West Virginian as a pepperoni roll, with a centerfielder who made plays that bordered on the spectacular and was willing to run face first into the wall trying to make another.
It was a team that had a flair for drama, complete with Darius Hill’s walk off home run on his Senior Day, and with a catcher out of Round Rock, Texas, that no one wanted out of high school who also wound up going in the MLB draft.
That it was a baseball team that brought sunshine into the shadows that had been cast over the athletic program this year was fitting for, in reality, baseball has a strong influence on the culture of West Virginia.
True, it is known as a state where football is king and its best known athletes were basketball stars Jerry West and Hot Rod Hundley, but in the coal towns in the old days when the mines were humming, baseball was a community centerpiece.
The website coalheritage.wv.gov offers up a piece by Gene Worthington that captures just how important the sport was to West Virginia.
“In the coalfields,” it begins, “baseball was truly America’s game. Baseball games created a community spirit, bringing together black and white, immigrant and native born. It was on the playing fields that the immigrants who came to mine coal truly be a part of America. In fact, historian Stuart McGee points out that the significance of the sport can be demonstrated by the physical placement of the ball field. In an area where precious little flat land existed, that flat land was where the ball field was located.”
Games were played on Sundays and entire mining town would gather for them.
“What started out as coal mine versus coal mine soon spread to other leagues,” Worthington wrote. “Towns would form county leagues. Paul J. Nyden noted, in an article in Goldenseal Magazine, that by the 1930’s Raleigh County had a County A League, a County B league, a United mine workers league, and a loosely organized league of all black teams. Leagues were formed in other counties such as Fayette. The vast majority of the players in these leagues were coal miners.”
And what transpired with this year’s WVU team was simply an extension of what baseball did for the miners of old, bringing pride and a sense of belonging to the population.