Trib staff writer gets up-close look at Pitt's baseball facilities

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 10:39 p.m.

I became a professional baseball player Wednesday afternoon, though whatever you'd call my effort looked nothing like that.

Technically, though, Trib Total Media did pay me to cover the Pitt baseball program's experience-it-from-the-inside media practice at Charles L. Cost Field, and it was glorious.

Initial reaction No. 1: Pitt's sprawling baseball facility, located just a few hundred yards from old, decrepit Trees Field, is unbelievably nice, perfect for the Panthers' move into the ACC.

You can see the city skyline from the third base. There's an all-turf field — the team MVP half the time with this climate — not to mention a gorgeous press box, a spacious dugout area, swanky offices, the whole 60 feet, 6 inches.

Initial reaction No. 2: Though I try to lift and run regularly, doing the same things I did as a college baseball player, the things these guys make look so easy, now cause me considerable pain.

Enough to make a Johnson & Johnson's stock spike.

Enough to make the Affordable Care Act less affordable.

Before practice, after signing a medical waiver, I'm told to grab a jersey, one of several placed on the dugout bench. I grab No. 6. The jersey is so thick that I start to think of George Costanza suggesting cotton uniforms. I think they're actually fire-resistant.

We run through a “dynamic” stretching program, which is code for “something you'll never be able to do.” Or “the part I'll leave out when I tell my wife what I did at work today.”

One example: take your left leg, pull it up so your heel is over your right knee, then squat. Another: swing your foot forward and kick your outstretched hand.

The Pitt players helping us swore they did this every day.

After warming up our arms, we started with a pitching contest. Three pitches, hard as you can, gun's on.

As a pitcher in college, this was my moment. If I did nothing else right, I had to get this.

First pitch was a strike, 71 mph, about a 12 mph dip in velocity. Second pitch was still a strike but slower. Third a bit wild.

“C'mon, you gotta finish it,” one of Pitt's players surrounding the pitching mound — nice and high, something pitchers undoubtedly love — yelled, referencing the imaginary 1-2 count.

Though I lacked a put-away pitch for, oh, about my entire career, I go for it.

Think fastball for a second, then I throw catcher Manny Pazos a curveball, one I snapped off like I didn't care if my elbow went with it.

Bends in for strike three.

Players applaud. I feel like a hero for a minute. Until ...

We break into two groups for fielding drills. Stationed at short, I'm fielding grounders shot out of what's essentially a fancy pitching machine. I learn the Panthers use this machine often during 1-6 p.m. voluntarily practices six days a week.

With the turf field, I'm thinking this thing will come out a lot faster than it actually does. I boot it.

While doing these drills, especially turning double plays — a 3-year-old on a unicycle would've beaten most out — you take for granted how silky-smooth Pitt's players are.

Hands are flying. Feet are swiping at second base. Every millisecond is accounted for. It's a thing of beauty that you appreciate infinitely more up close.

Next, fly balls.

Assistant coach Shane Liska, who led us through practice, struggles to calibrate the machine, shooting one up the first-base line, another practically to the warning track.

“Figure it out,” one player jokes, insisting the Panthers like to keep a light-hearted atmosphere. Guess with a school-record 42 wins last season there's plenty of reason to smile.

Finally, we hit. Nick Valek, the team's student manager, throws. Valek tried out for Pitt but didn't make it. Next best thing, he figured, was doing this. Now he's on the road, around the team — like me, living a dream.

It's only batting practice, I tell myself, the perfect place to take a big, healthy cut.

I miss the first pitch. Then the second. After a foul tip on the third, I make contact.

It's a gigantic breath of fresh air to me, yet the routine fly ball I hit looks nothing like the three consecutive homers right fielder Casey Roche stroked just minutes before.

Guess that's why Roche, the Panthers' best player and an All-American last season, might one day actually be getting paid to play baseball.

Instead of whatever it was Pitt let me do for an afternoon.

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