There’s a small flaw in baseball, the game that has been called America’s pastime. “You can’t play pickup baseball,” says Jack Reaney ’22.
It’s easy to grab a friend or two to play pickup basketball. If you want to golf solo, have at it. Players can technically do the same thing with baseball, but on a diamond the size of a small farm field it requires a lot of creativity, like imagining “ghost runners” on the bases to allow successful batters to go hit again. Not to mention lots of stamina — fielding a routine fly ball to center can require an impressive wind sprint from the pitcher’s mound.
Denison has a varsity baseball team — a good one — so that’s one option for would-be players. But as Reaney notes, the team’s growing success is making it increasingly harder for players to walk on to the competitive roster. (Note: As we went to press, the men had just won their fourth straight NCAC tournament championship.) It leaves some baseball lovers without an outlet aside from playing catch, taking practice swings in a batting cage, or tracking down 17 friends.
So during the 2021-22 school year, a small group of dedicated Denison players made their own space for baseball, starting their own club team. The effort was spearheaded by a few leaders, including Reaney, then a senior; Matt Lehmann ’25, a first-year who had tried out for the varsity team; and Andrew Fluri ’23, now a senior captain. Lehmann had connections with others who weren’t able to make the varsity team but still had the baseball itch.
This is the first club baseball team Lynsey Whisner, director of club sports, can remember in her years at Denison. In her experience, a club like this is unusual at a university this size. She’s watched the team thrive — driven, she says, by “that mindset that they’re not going to let it fail.”
“Those students that grew up always being part of a team and want that competition, they have that piece here without really having to be a part of a varsity team,” Whisner says. “So that’s what we try to provide.”
“Seeing the joy that baseball can provide, I think felt really gratifying … it’s a really incredible team sport.”
The new club team welcomed not only seasoned players coming off high school careers, but anyone interested in joining. It also broke traditional gender barriers, welcoming a few female students — “really good players,” Reaney says.
Bringing together polished high school players and others with far less experience, Reaney says, and “getting them all on the same field, and seeing the joy that baseball can provide, I think felt really gratifying … it’s a really incredible team sport.” The scrappy team played anyone they could find, including a men’s league in Columbus, where team leaders recall getting shellacked by a team including former minor leaguers. But it didn’t matter. They were back out on the field.
“I just really wanted to play baseball again after I was cut,” Lehmann says, “and so it gives me an opportunity to continue playing, continue pitching, and playing the sport I love.” The team also forms a community on campus. “We hang out a lot outside of baseball,” Lehmann says.
He enjoys being able to play without the pressure of impressing college recruiters.
“It’s not super competitive like it was in high school and whatnot,” he says. “Just doing it for fun.”
Always enough for a team
It takes commitment to form a club team, from the startup paperwork to details such as organizing the schedule, transportation, and lodging on road trips. As current club president, Lehmann handles much of the behind-the-scenes work with the help of co-captains. There are plenty of people on campus who want to play, Lehmann says, with about 30 students currently involved and a core of about 10 to 15 who participate regularly. They always have enough to field a full team.
They’ve been a team that will take on anyone, even if the final score is a little lopsided. Early on, they played club teams such as Xavier and Ohio State. Now part of the National Club Baseball Association, the team’s division includes larger schools like Youngstown State and Kent State. In its first spring series this season, Lehmann says, the team took two games out of three from Cleveland State — a school seven times Denison’s size.
“They are definitely very motivated. They’re very determined,” Whisner says. “The success of a team is really determined by the leaders of the club.” Some club sports have endured at Denison – Whisner points to the ice hockey and rugby teams, which go back decades. Those who founded the baseball team dream of duplicating that success.
“I hope it goes for years,” Reaney says.