March 16, 2012
It was Opening Day 2012 at Plainsman Park. The smell of freshly cut grass lingered in the air. The infield dirt was smooth. The bases were as white as freshly fallen snow. The whip of the conference flags could be heard faintly in the distance.
As the fans piled into the stands just moments before the first pitch to take in the sights and sounds of a new season, the student managers of the Auburn baseball team were hard at work finishing preparations that had begun hours before the gates opened.
The managers arrive at the field four hours before the game starts and get started on a series of tasks and chores to make sure everything is ready and in prime condition by the time the umpire yells "Play ball!"
"When we all get there, we'll start by taking off the tarps," said Jack Hoehl, one of the team's student managers, now in his fourth season. "We'll fix the mound and plate. Tyler (Bradshaw) will put the flags up in the outfield. Me, Nate (Ledbetter) and Matt (Mulhern) will take care of the mound and the plate. The other guys will start setting up the screens for (batting practice). ... I'll go in and start setting up for the motivational video. Once the food gets there, we'll put the food in the lockers."
The extensive list goes on and on.
For the fans, the young men doing the work are nameless faces, boys clad in orange and blue Under Armour, just not quite good enough to play.
But for student managers like Hoehl, Nathan Ledbetter and Justin Veazey, it's a job they're not only proud to have, but thankful for, as well. It's a job that keeps them close to the game they've always loved. It's the next best thing to playing it themselves.
Veazey's path to Auburn was different than the others. In just his second semester as a student manager, Veazey transferred to Auburn after playing baseball at Wallace Community College in Selma, and attended a walk-on tryout for the Tigers. It was there he discovered he could have a spot on the team in a different role.
"I talked to (Director of Baseball Operations Scott Duval
) after I didn't make it," Veazey said. "Pretty much from that, I started doing this."
Hoehl came to Auburn from Issaquah, Wash., about 25 minutes from downtown Seattle. After narrowing down his college search to Auburn and Oregon, he chose the former because he "figured we'd have a better shot at winning a national championship."
With a keen eye for sports and a love for baseball, Hoehl traveled to the South in search of a way to stay around the game while he was in school - or any game, for that matter.
"I always loved the game, (but) wasn't quite good enough to play, and I wanted to do something in sports," Hoehl said. "It's a good way to kind of network and meet people that can hopefully place you in higher-up jobs. Scott Duval has done a really good job of helping me out along the way."
Ledbetter's journey to the Plains was less dramatic, but the Duluth, Ga., native was no stranger to Auburn. His father graduated from Auburn in 1981 and then went on to earn his master's degree in 1987.
Having played baseball in high school and spending his senior year as a manager, it was only fitting he would have the same opportunity at Auburn when he began school in the fall of 2008.
"My coach knew I had always wanted to go to Auburn," Ledbetter said. "He called Scott Duval and talked to him about all that I would need to do to continue the job in college. During my spring break of senior year of high school, my dad and I came down to Auburn on a Wednesday and met with (Duval). He showed us around and told me I could have the job if I wanted it. ... I did my first job as a manager at Auburn that summer working one of the summer camps that they needed some extra help with."
For the group tasked with doing the behind the scenes dirty work, it's what the fans don't see the managers do that makes the job seem thankless at times.
"Jack will be there till 11:30, 12:00 at night making signs for the weekend," Ledbetter said. "We're there while the other team practices. Last year, I did laundry and was pulling all-nighters every Friday. I feel like a lot of people don't understand and a lot of people think that we just show up at game time and put water out, and that's it. Jack does signs, videos, scouting reports. I've helped out with scouting reports. Veazey's caught every single pitcher that we have multiple times."
While not always evident, there are players reaping the benefits of the managers' hard work who know the time and effort their peers put in and appreciate it when they come to the ballpark each day.
"The managers are great, they do so much work behind the scenes that a lot of the things they do goes unnoticed or taken for granted," said Jon Luke Jacobs, a senior on Auburn's pitching staff. "Things like setting up the field for practice, catching bullpens, and generally helping out any way they can makes practice and games go smoothly. I know they are the first ones at the field and usually the last ones to leave. Just being around and being available to help any way they can makes our lives much easier. I know that all the coaches and the guys on the team really appreciate all they do."
There is abundant agreement among the work horses that, like most jobs, there are times the long hours and tireless work make them think the job just isn't worth it. However, there are moments that make each of them remember why they love their jobs, even on the days they feel ready to throw in the towel.
"The best thing for me is when something happens and you directly affect a player or the outcome somehow," Hoehl said. "For me, it's with the motivational videos and stuff.
"I remember Georgia last year was one of my moments that it was kind of a miracle thing. ... We felt like we had a special moment that was about to happen trying to get into the SEC Tournament in general. We did something along those lines and showed a lot of great moments from underdogs that had happened, and that night we had a walk-off against Georgia to win."
Ledbetter said it's moments like the win at Georgia and so many others that give the managers not only a feeling of pride, but unique memories that they can keep with them long after they've hung up their own sets of cleats.
"I think the most rewarding thing is stuff like sitting on the couch in the locker room just telling stories," Ledbetter said. "Just like eight guys from the past four years just sitting there telling something that happened on a road trip, or remember when someone fell down trying to catch a foul ball, or (Cullen) Wacker makes a diving catch in left field at Arizona.
"That's something that we have. Like 2010, we worked so hard all year. They were great guys. We got every lucky break we could have asked for. ... When we won the West, we're sitting on the bus blaring rap music. Larry, our bus driver, was just doing laps around the square in Oxford, (Miss.), blowing the horn. In 20 years when we see each other again, we'll be talking about the same things like that."
by Mae Margaret Davis, Auburn Media Relations
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