The sun beats down on the grass as the pitcher winds up for his delivery. The cheers from both dugouts and the shouts from those gathered in the stands fill the early evening spring air.
It's the extra innings of the second game of a doubleheader, and the winning run is in scoring position. On the mound the pitcher checks the signs from the catcher, nods his head and then zips a ball toward home plate.
Just minutes earlier one of the home players had yelled out, "So who wants to be the hero?"
It appears this batter at the plate has decided it's his day to fill that role: The ball comes in and the batter promptly lines a single into center field, the winning run comes home and the home team bounds off the bench to celebrate one more notch in the win column.
Just another beautiful, and successful, day at the ballpark.
But no hon, this ain't dem O's--this is Hopkins baseball.
In a city where colleges are more known for their lacrosse prowess than for any other varsity sport, the Hopkins baseball team has quietly built upon a winning tradition that is culminating in a season to remember.
Off to its best start ever, the team is currently 29-2 and ranked fourth in the ABCA NCAA Division III poll. Not to mention that the Blue Jays have already won the University Athletic Association championship and appear to have a lock on a berth in the NCAA Division III World Series Tournament. But perhaps even more significant is the way it's winning; whether it be by blowing teams out or rallying in the late innings, this baseball team sure knows how to score lots of runs.
"We have a very good hitting team, perhaps the best hitting team that I have ever had," says head coach Bob Babb, now in his 19th season at Hopkins. "The kids have worked really hard at it. Our team this past off season worked harder than any baseball team I've had in all my years here."
All that work seems to have paid off as the Blue Jays, as of press time, sport a .382 team batting average and average slightly more than 10 runs per game, ranking it eighth in the nation in both categories and first in its own Centennial Conference.
But Babb is quick to add that the Blue Jays are no slouches in the pitching and defensive departments either. In fact, pitcher Todd Flannery is zeroing in on Mark Campbell's 1986 single-season record of 12 wins, and the team currently ranks seventh in the nation in earned run average.
However, for all this team's current success, the lack of press coverage and fan support makes it seem like the team's record is closer to 2-29, rather than the other way around.
Babb says the lack of press coverage can be partially attributed to that other baseball team in town.
"When people around here want to read about baseball, they want to read about the Orioles," says Babb, the winningest coach in school history with over 500 wins and a career .719 winning percentage.
Still, Babb thinks this team certainly deserves better.
"I think the press coverage we get is very frustrating and at times annoying. In baseball 29-2 is pretty unbelievable. It's hard to win that many games, even if you're better than every other team you play," Babb said in his low-key manner. "But by the same token, I'm not coaching for publicity and neither are the players [looking for it]. We're playing for the love of the game."
As for the lack of fan support, Babb says part of the problem is that with only a small number of area kids on the squad, "there isn't that hometown flavor to the baseball team" to bring people out. Second, springtime in Baltimore means more than just lush green lawns; it means lacrosse season.
"Lacrosse gets most of the attention at this school," says Scott Orlovsky, one the team's top pitchers. "People around here don't have much of an interest in the baseball team. We wish we had more support, especially since we're having such a great year."
In addition to the team's overall success, a number of the players are having exceptional years statistically speaking. Foremost on that list is John Christ, who is among the team leaders in every category, both pitching and hitting, and is on track to break a number of team records in the offensive categories. In fact, this East Amherst, N.Y., native is having the type of year that even the likes of Mays, Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. would envy.
Christ's stats include a .505 batting average, 10 home runs and 51 RBI's over the team's first 29 games. Playing baseball since the age of 5, Christ attributes his success and that of the team to hard work and determination.
"This year the guys want to play all out, and Coach Babb has brought back a work ethic of giving 110 percent every day," says Christ, a junior. "He also expects us to be on top of the mental aspects of the game. Playing for a [highly regarded academic] school like Hopkins, he feels we should mentally beat every team."
Although NCAA rules bar him from talking now with any professional teams, Christ says he's aware that certain scouts have come out to see the team play, a reality that is hard to ignore at times.
"I would like to just block it out," he says. "I've seen a few scouts with radar guns pointed at me when I'm on the mound. But you just have to ignore them and play the game." However, Christ admits it's his dream to play in the major leagues someday, a feat no other Hopkins player has accomplished.
"I would love to have the opportunity to play professional ball," Christ says. "I just want one shot. But right now my education comes first."
For those would-be viewers not familiar with college baseball, there are a few differences between it and the professional game. For example, the dimensions of the fields are slightly smaller, and the bats are made of aluminum, not wood. Also, the games of a doubleheader are seven innings as compared to nine in professional ball.
Those who appreciate the sights and sounds of the game will surely not be disappointed when they come out to Homewood Field to watch the Blue Jays at work. Whereas in the big leagues the sounds from the field are drowned out by the screaming fans and the stadium's sound system, in college ball you get to hear all the interplay that goes on between players and the coaching staff. It also adds a level of excitement to the game to watch home run balls fly onto University Parkway. (Yes, some car windows have been broken.)
But for fans like Angela Jenkins, a Hopkins senior who has attended many of the team's home contests, it's the "love of the game" that brings her out.
"And I know the team appreciates the support," Jenkins said at a recent game as she shouted words of encouragement to Orlovsky--or Warlock, as he is known to friends and teammates-- who was on the mound that day.
The regular season ends for the baseball team May 3 with a home game against York College. After that, if the team is selected, the Blue Jays have the NCAA Division III World Series to look forward to, a tournament the university has never won.
Coach Babb says he likes the team's chance of making and winning the tournament, but he's not counting his chickens yet.
Until then, Babb has just a few words for faculty, staff and students who have yet to come out and support the team.
"I would tell them that if they come out, they probably will be impressed with the level of baseball," Babb says. But even if they're not diehard baseball fans, he says, "on a warm day, when you're sitting so close to the game, it's a pretty nice way to spend a couple of hours."
And with only three home games remaining, time is running out to catch these high-flying Blue Jays in action.
The NCAA Division III World Series will begin May 14 in Scranton, Pa., at the field of the Philadelphia Phillies' AAA team.