Instead of the wintery mix of snow and ice that some expect in early February, 52 degrees of sun made Saturday, Feb. 6 a great day to practice baseball.
But it wouldn’t matter to senior Rick Nomura because playing baseball is what he does. On Monday, the one day a week the team has off from practice, Nomura can be found doing just that – practicing – hitting a baseball and listening to music. It’s therapeutic, he said.
He is originally from Hawaii, where he grew up on the field watching his dad coach baseball at the University of Hawaii and playing for fun. He started playing T-ball at 3 years old and continued to play baseball through high school before playing for a community college in Texas and eventually UofA.
So his decision to turn down playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers when they offered him $100,000 in addition to paying for school last year may seem puzzling. Traditionally, playing college baseball is often a stepping stone on the way to playing professionally.
“I think all the kids who come into this program have professional aspirations,” pitching coach Dave Jorn said.
And it shows. With 21 baseball drafts, UofA has had the second highest number of baseball drafts in the past three years, said Tony Vitello, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for the baseball team. That does not necessarily mean that UofA has had the second highest number of drafted players because players can be drafted more than once.
But another year playing at UofA seemed like time better spent to Nomura, he said.
“I just felt like I wasn’t physically and mentally ready to go through the professional process,” Nomura said.
Nomura sat in the stands of Baum Stadium after practice that Saturday and reflected on all his nights as a kid spent at the ballpark, the move to Texas to play college baseball, the day he looked down at his phone in class because there was an incoming call from Arkansas and excused himself with an, “I’ve got to take this,” to hear Vitello at the other end recruiting him and the proud look on his dad’s face when he told him he was going to play for the Razorbacks.
“Look at these guys,” he said, gesturing toward people tending to the field after practice. “They’re like the best. They keep the field so nice.”
At Alvin Community College, the players were responsible for taking care of their field, he said. The coaches at UofA emphasize the mental side of the game, he said. Baseball players have to have a calm mind so they can focus even when there’s a crazy crowd watching them.
Although some players who come in planning on going pro end up making that a reality, not all of them do.
“The ones we recruit all want to hear their name be called on draft day because they’re competitors and they see other guys they’ve competed against and done well against get drafted, but Coach Jorn’s been a scout before. He knows there’s no rhyme or reason to the draft. Different things happen for different reasons, so the best thing for these kids to do is focus on their own personal situation,” Vitello said. “The majority of them, if not nine out of 10 need to go to school because they need to mature as a player and, more importantly, as a person, but some of them will get wrapped up in the emotion of the whole deal.”
Freshmen baseball players Weston Rogers and Isaiah Campbell started playing T-ball when they were around 4 or 5 years old, and even though they each dabbled in other sports, they always came back to baseball. If all goes as planned, they will go pro, they said.
“My favorite teams are the Royals and the Cardinals, but really if any of them want me, I’m not going to complain,” Rogers said.
Even though they have played for most of their lives, coming into college baseball was challenging and they have improved since coming here, they said.
“In high school, you can get away with a few pitches that you probably shouldn’t have made, but here, if you throw those pitches, you’ll know it,” Rogers said.
Campbell is from Kansas and came to the UofA because it felt like home and he loved the coaching staff, he said.
“If you can’t command two pitches in a game, you’re not going to be effective at all,” Campbell said.
This is typical of freshmen, Vitello said.
“They come into a new setting and kind of get their doors blown off a little bit,” Vitello said.
Coaches typically see players make the biggest jump – physically and mentally – between their freshman and sophomore years, Vitello said.
“By sophomore year, you kind of know what you got,” he said.
Vitello used junior Zach Jackson as an example.
“Coach had his work cut out for him – skinny kid with elbows and knees flying all over the place as a freshman and then as a sophomore, he’s pitching in the biggest situation our team had the whole year last year,” he said.
Despite the infinite possibilities for where college baseball players can go in life, there is no denying that the goal is often pro baseball.
“Everyone here at Arkansas – we all want to go pro, so it’s kind of nice that you’re surrounded by guys who all have the same goal,” Nomura said. “Everyone wants to be a first rounder, so everyone’s taking extra swings, extra ground balls, throwing extra, lifting extra because it takes extra hard work to be successful. You can’t just go by life not doing the extra.”
Players who end up not playing professionally often go into related careers such as coaching, physical therapy, sports medicine or kinesiology, Jorn and Vitello said.
When he graduates next semester, Nomura plans to go into physical therapy and eventually coaching to give back to the baseball community, he said.
Learning about the body is interesting to him because he uses his body every day in athletics, he said.
“When Corey does treatment on us, I’m always curious about what’s going on. How does this connect to that? Why does that hurt? I just think that’s so interesting,” Nomura said.
Corey Wood is the baseball team’s assistant athletic trainer.
The team is a mixed bag of different majors and interests, Jorn said.
“Most of them are focused on their baseball career, but some are better academically than others and they’re more interested in a profession outside of baseball,” Jorn said.
Regardless, some of the lessons they learn on the field about discipline and hard work carry into whatever field they go into, Vitello said.
“(The players) spend more hours on the field than they do the classroom,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s the way it should be, but that’s the way it is.”
Regardless of what students’ plans are, the coaches work to develop their physical and mental skills so that they are prepared to compete, Jorn said.
“If they’re good performers at this level, then they’re going to get an opportunity to go into pro baseball,” Jorn said.