For the first time since 2015, the Arkansas Razorback baseball team will be taking their show on the road to Stillwater, Oklahoma. After ending the season on what resembled a couple of busted, flat tires, the Hogs are looking for new life outside the friendly confines of Baum-Walker Stadium. As the #2 seed in the Stillwater Regional, Arkansas matches up with the Grand Canyon Antelopes, the runaway regular season champs of the Western Athletic Conference.
After being a lock top 8 national seed for most of the season, the untimely poor play down the stretch coupled with a cupcake non-conference season was too much to overcome in terms of being a seed and at minimum, a first round host. From the non-conference schedule, only Stanford (host and national #2), Louisiana (#3 in College Station), Southeastern (#4 seed at Auburn) and Missouri State (#4 seed in Stillwater) made the tournament. The NCAA Selection Committee put an obvious emphasis on the non-conference scheduling, regardless of how tough your league was. Lesson learned.
Grand Canyon awaits the Hogs but for the first time in quite a while, there is more fan and media concern about the Razorbacks themselves than the opponent. Arkansas baseball’s definition of success has set a high, high standard inside and outside the program. Razorback baseball, by the virtue of its decades-long tradition, is expected to win big annually. For the most part, that’s what the 2022 version did until this recent swoon that has brought the critics out of the woodwork.
It’s clear the players already know they aren’t playing their best baseball. Anyone watching the game, that doesn’t have their face buried in their phone rattling off an unwarranted hot take nobody requested, can see the consternation on the player’s faces with the lack of personal success and subsequent team success.
The “Ten Percent” and Arkansas Baseball
Maybe the issue with the Hogs isn’t the hitting coach or the pitching coach or the recruiting or whatever else? Could it be possible that the player’s mental health is impacting on field performance? Surely not with these big, tough ballplayers? Think again.
The surly element of the Razorback fan base has gotten quite a bit of attention recently with little, if any, regard for the mental well being of the players they shred over social media. Armed with an extremely unforgiving, short memory and/or an unrealistic view on how baseball works (although I am sure many in this crowd are experts in other sports and hammer Musselman or Pittman when the Hogs lose), this element has now found its way into the Razorback baseball clubhouse. Coach Dave Van Horn even mentioned this “ten percent” collection of unhappy fans in a recent press conference.
I am guessing that more than ten percent aren’t overly enthusiastic about the Hogs’ recent play but they don’t go blowing up the team, coaches, assist via public social media comments or direct messaging players with spewing unacceptable, vile rhetoric. That is unfortunately our society nowadays, as evidenced by the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial shenanigans.
Why do these people think that it’s OK to attack someone they don’t know, never met and have zero equivalent experiences?
Michael Turner Tumult
Especially someone in the media. I refrain from mentioning his name or who he works for in an attempt to prevent any more attention to his unprofessional and wholly unqualified take on star catcher Michael Turner’s postgame comments following the Hogs’ quick exit from the SEC Tournament. Calling a college athlete a “stupid ass”, “loser”, “disgrace” is remarkably inappropriate. Turner, and everyone else on the roster, are college kids. Making some grades, staying out of trouble, working their tails off nearly year around and winning a bunch of ball games. A whole bunch.
Granted, the spotlight burns a little brighter at Arkansas than it does at Turner’s previous school, Kent State. He chose the Razorbacks over just about every program in the country that needed a catcher for 2022 in part because of the fan support. And he’s lived up to the hype. But I don’t get the feeling he expressed those issues just because he plays on a bigger stage now. This is an issue current and former players are dealing with and it’s not as simple as not getting on social media after a tough game. Far too many folks, especially younger ones, live a good portion of their lives on those little screens. And these are young people being trolled by grown adults.
By all accounts, Turner is an excellent teammate, leader, hard worker and he’s had a solid season. As of today, he’s hitting .298 with 7 HRs and 37 RBIs while fielding .994 as the everyday catcher (only three errors). For comparison sake, Razorback great Casey Opitz, hit .257 with 2 HRs and 18 RBIs while fielding .990 (six errors) last season. They aren’t comparable players in terms of style of play or leadership style but both are effective in their own way. Which is how it should be. Dave Van Horn didn’t recruit Turner to be the next Opitz. He was recruited to be Michael Turner while filling a big void in the lineup. He’s done so with the bat and the glove.
Former players who don’t even know Turner have come to his and every former and future Razorback’s defense over the inappropriate comments. Former pitcher Ryan Costeiu, who like Turner only spent one season in the program, echoed Turner’s comments about a portion of the fan base and his experiences. Costeiu stated, “As a player I received multiple messages on multiple occasions via social media suggesting that I should be dead or receive bodily harm based on my performance.” Former outfielder Eric Cole also chimed in on what he went through after being involved in the misplayed foul popup against Oregon State in 2018.
Turner himself retweeted a fan’s commentary that really hit the nail on the head about the line that “fans” are crossing.
A Big Issue In College Sports
Lost in the who’s right and who’s wrong in the over-the-top fan base criticism and/or Turner’s comments is what has been deemed a mental health crisis in college athletics. Not because Turner makes public reference to harsh critics but the five suicides in the spring season of 2022 alone. Think about that for a minute. Five young, healthy, active, high achievers took their own lives due to vulnerabilities with their mental well being.
No one outside of the coaches, family and/or teammates really knows how much a fan base played a role in the previously mentioned suicides, and I don’t dare offer my opinion on the subject. But those outside the sport, those who have never played high level collect athletics while juggling school, social and everything else do not and will not ever understand the level of mental pressure that comes along with being a college athlete. The internal anxiety for most is extremely high as their given sport is often their identity. And has been since a very young age. That stress escalates at the higher levels where someone on the roster or the next recruiting class is ready to take your spot. Then factor in playing to climb up the MLB draft board or the realization that the next game may be your last. It can get heavy.
Some athletes handle pressure better than others. Some unfortunately succumb to it which may be with failing grades, poor performance on the field, relationship troubles, quitting the sport they love or worse. ESPN recently produced a short video with Razorback softball star Hannah Gammill speaking about the topic:
This is a big enough issue where the University of Arkansas, and a handful of other schools, have staff within the athletic department to help student athletes with their mental well being.
I can speak from the player point of view given my career with the Razorbacks as a pitcher in the early 1990s. That was well before social media and the big fan base but, still, a time not without pressure. Razorback baseball was a powerhouse back then too as we had been to Omaha in 1985, 1987 and my redshirt freshman year in 1989. We won the SWC Championship in 1990 and were one of eight national seeds in the old format and failed to reach Omaha, losing to Fordham. Yes, Fordham. Then we switched to the SEC in 1992 with less than acceptable results by Razorback baseball standards.
Would my scholarship be renewed (baseball is year to year)? Where do I find any innings in this really talented pitching staff? How do I handle a finance-banking degree despite never being in town for class in the spring? What kind of social life can I have while all my friends from high school are partying it up on the weekends? The pitching coach who recruited me left; will the new guy be a good fit? Why aren’t we winning like previous teams?
Those are some of the things I personally juggled. Not to the point where I wanted to walk away or something else, but these were still issues to tackle. A handful of talented, high-level D1 teammates did walk away. Baseball stopped being a game.
Before you say college athletes have it all, understand there is a lot going on in the head of an 18-23 year old without a sport in the mix. Playing college sports is demanding, mentally and physically, as it is. Throw in out of bounds “fan” commentary and it can become too much making the days playing a “kid’s game” not very enjoyable.
Universities, big and small, and the players addressing the issue head on deserve a big tip of the cap. With mental health being a taboo subject for so long, these efforts will hopefully catch some before this moves from crisis to epidemic.
What’s Fair Game?
Are college athletes susceptible to critiques on their performance on the field? Sure. Should they be analyzed for what they say in a press conference? Absolutely. Those are key elements in sports journalism with players and definitely coaches aware that comes with the territory. Especially at a powerhouse, name-brand program like the Arkansas Razorbacks.
But outlandish name calling and labeling a college athlete over statements that are obviously weighing heavy within the Razorback clubhouse? No, not ever is that OK. Not even for a wishful shock jock hot take. This afternoon radio host is apparently known for his “rants” and repetitive negative opinions on all things Razorback. That’s his shtick: I get it. But a line was crossed in regards to Turner.
Fans are doing the same through social media channels. How do you claim to be a fan with these constant tirades? You aren’t a Razorback fan, you are a Razorback complainer. And this isn’t unique to Arkansas. Every big time sports program has the same fringey element that just bathes in negativity.
I’d say go follow another team but this type of fan would be disappointed again as no team plays for national championships every season. Razorback fans should feel fortunate to pull for a team that is in the championship hunt regularly. And there is no guarantee that continues.
Consequently, the aforementioned radio host’s employer suspended him from being on air and deemed the comments “went too far and did not meet our companies’ standard for quality content.” Former Razorback outfielder Joe Serrano vowed that his eight Supercuts franchise stores in Northwest Arkansas wouldn’t advertise with this particular station until the offending host was dismissed.
Calling for his job? Not sure. That’s up to the guy who runs the radio station. Public apology (which was issued) and putting on catcher’s gear to catch Jaxson Wiggins or trying to hit off Brady Tygart? Absolutely. A minuscule percentage of the naysayers have walked a mile in Turner’s or any other player’s shoes who gets the overly harsh treatment by supposed fans.
Be Careful What You Wish For With Arkansas Baseball
Remarkably, there have even been some rumblings calling for a change at the top. Simply ludicrous. Unless something completely out of left field (pun intended) happens, Dave Van Horn has earned the right to keep that job as long as he wants it. National championship or not, he will know when it’s time to bow out. And rest assured it won’t because of keyboard coaches and their input from the comforts of their couch.
Look at South Carolina after Ray Tanner left to become the school’s athletic director. Two national championships, two runner-ups and six appearances in Omaha during his 16 years and now the Gamecocks can’t make the NCAA tournament with a guy everyone thought was a home run hire. Same goes for Clemson who has gone from Omaha regular to irrelevant and are again in the market for a new coach.
So for those wanting to run Dave Van Horn off because he can’t “win the big game” or he’s not in touch with today’s player…be careful what you ask for.
While the Razorback baseball team might be broken down on the shoulder with the flashers on, they are not in the ditch. There wasn’t a baseball team in the country that didn’t have an off weekend. Even everyone’s darling, Tennessee. Those guys dropped two out of three to just a merely OK Kentucky team back in early May. But as talented as Tennessee is this year, they corrected the ship pretty quick and rolled the rest of the way.
The Razorbacks’ season-long lack of timely hitting and increasingly shaky starting pitching was exposed in the last few weeks of the regular season. Throw in some uncharacteristic shoddy defense and you get the struggles the coaches, players, media and fan base has all witnessed. It’s hard to pinpoint what, exactly, has gone wrong and that’s frustrating to all involved.
Despite this perceived free fall by the Razorback baseball team, there are several national analysts with the Razorbacks as their dark horse pick for Omaha. In the much talked about losses of late, if you throw out the 18-5 anomaly at Alabama, the Hogs average run differential in ten other recent losses was 2.1. That entails very close games against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Auburn, Florida and Missouri State – all NCAA tournament teams including three national seeds. Alabama failed to make the field but was unquestionably red-hot when the Hogs ran into them for a four-game stretch.
Clean up the fielding, execute a pitch or two here or there and a toss in a dab of clutch hitting and the Hogs are in business. They are that close. And Stillwater is a winnable regional. Oklahoma State is very good but also faltered down the stretch going 5-7 to end the regular season. Grand Canyon will be formidable with some West Coast run and bunt baseball not often seen in the SEC. And the Hogs know all about Missouri State after that rather flat performance a few of weeks ago in Fayetteville.
This time away from competition should help these Hogs. I am not sure they can play much worse than the Bama series and the two and through showing at Hoover. So nowhere to go but up. I do expect improved play this weekend. Enough to win the regional? Time will tell as every team in the regional can win games while in Stillwater.
But a big key to this weekend’s performance will be if they are mentally ready to roll. That will be apparent if we as fans are able to see more smiles, more swagger, more energy that’s been missing in recent weeks. Just go play ball. Make baseball fun again!
And for the irate portion of the fanbase that just can’t stay off their keyboards…give the kids a break. I promise you can be a passionate fan without crossing the line. Recruiting, on field performance, off the field accomplishments will all be better for it. The program requires those things to sustain the level of success we as fans have become accustomed to. So unless your goal is to sabotage the program with your rampant negativity, get behind the boys, the coaches and root hard for the Hogs.
Because there is zero chance what’s going on with some of you is helping Van Horn and the gang from getting this train back on the tracks.
Win or lose this weekend, let’s turn the page on the small contingency focused on extreme negativity and get back to enjoying Arkansas baseball for what it is. A consistent, national power featuring a hall of fame head coach, unbelievable facilities, a remarkable fan base and top of the line recruiting year after year.
The Omahogs’ time is coming. I wouldn’t give up your seat on the bandwagon just yet.
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