BRISTOL - Buddy Dewaine, Sam Loda and Matt Shane walked into Baum-Walker Stadium with the rest of their CCSU baseball teammates and were amazed by the atmosphere at the home of the NCAA Tournament’s Fayetteville Regional.
The Blue Devils were up against top-seeded regional host Arkansas on May 31, and were greeted by 10,000 screaming fans that lined George Cole Field.
Loda, the starting catcher, felt the screams engulf him while squatting behind the plate. Third baseman Dewaine, named to the tournament’s All-Regional team, left the city after the three-day tourney had wrapped - and after the Devils had bowed out with a 1-2 record and their program’s first NCAA tourney victory - wishing he could play in front of the stadium’s “Hog Pen” cheering section stashed in left-center field. For Shane, a relief pitcher, it was the peak of his career thus far, “easily the best baseball experience of my life.”
The electricity was the first impression each experienced, but it’s not what stayed with them the most.
The day after CCSU lost to the Razorbacks, 11-5, to fall to the loser’s bracket, the players returned to the stadium to watch Arkansas vs. TCU. The fans invited them to the Hog Pen and when Arkansas scored, let the Devil players wave the red and white Razorback flag, an unprecedented move.
“They said they never let another team do that with them before,” Loda said.
There were stories like that all weekend of the Arkansas fans’ generosity and open-doors welcoming policy - like when Dewaine suffered a slight wardrobe malfunction and needed to get his pants tailored before the game against the Razorbacks.
After calling around at a few fully booked shops, Dewaine landed a phone call with a “really nice lady” who initially said she, too, didn’t have room for the additional work and the call ended. Two minutes later, she called Dewaine back.
“‘Wait, you’re playing in the baseball game tomorrow? Against Arkansas?’” Dewaine recalled her saying, confirming her questions were accurate. “She said, ‘Yeah, OK. Come right now, and I can do them.’”
She tailored the pants for free.
It was like that all week.
“It was crazy for me to see how the people down south treat opposing teams,” Shane said. “Everyone was just so nice.”
Flash forward to mid-June, when Arkansas had advanced to the College World Series in Omaha. Loda watched the Razorbacks face Florida State and Texas Tech, and on national TV, an Arkansas fan was wearing a CCSU baseball t-shirt.
That stemmed from the regional weekend, when the Razorback fans cheered on the Blues Devils and “adopted us as their second-favorite team,” said Shane, greeting them with ovations and backing them when they beat Cal, 7-4, on June 1 and lost to TCU, 9-5, on June 2.
Even to this day, Dewaine says, the fans still tweet at him and others. Just another reason he hopes to go back again before he graduates.
“They’re just very involved with their school, whether it’s baseball, basketball or football,” Dewaine said. “They’re just always there. I wish it was more like that around here. We’re a little more spread out. We’ve got other things to do. We’ve got the Yankees. We’ve got the Red Sox. In Arkansas, that’s all they’ve got is Arkansas.”
Added Loda, “I think after getting there, it just makes me wanna work harder. I wanna get back there and play there again and I wanna try to win [a regional].”
Everything that happened in Fayetteville, everything that happened all year in a season that ended with a 31-23 record, helped shape them into better ball players, and now they bring that with them to Muzzy Field as three critical pieces for a Bristol Blues team that struggled before their arrival and has won three straight since for an 8-10 mark entering Monday night’s game.
“This past year, we went through a lot of ups and downs [at CCSU],” Dewaine said. “I think going through those as a team is very helpful because we were very down and we were very up, and we got to where we were just right in the middle.”
It’s that sort of steadiness they bring to Ronnie Palmer’s club. Their arrival to the team forced him to rewind to his first season as Bristol’s manager, when the Blues started 0-6. But when Mitch Guilmette and Tom Curtin got back from the 2017 Fort Worth Regional at TCU and change was immediate, with the Blues bouncing back to make the FCBL playoffs.
“There’s that air of confidence they bring because they had a tremendous season,” Palmer said of the three current Blue Devils. “They went down and played well in the regional and they come back and it’s just infectious. That’s what they bring. Those guys all know how to compete at a high level. And they say to the opponents, ‘We’re better than you. And we’re gonna show it.’”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org