The Fifth Lap
Last week, I found myself staring at a framed newspaper from the day after Rice baseball won its first NCAA College World Series title in 2003. Even though I've seen them over and over again, whether they're on the wall at Pub, or placed in Tudor, or on a banner along the inner loop, the images from that game still cause me to pause.
In some ways, it's strange the impact they have on me. I don't remember the game. At the time I didn't keep up with college baseball or Rice sports or really even know much about Rice in general.
Yet for me the pictures, the murals, the old newspapers, they all stand as testaments, powerful proofs of what can be achieved from inside the hedges. The challenges at Rice, athletically and otherwise, are unique. But so are the possibilities.
It's fitting that the same Stanford Cardinal ball club that Rice defeated to win its first championship will visit Reckling Park this weekend for the first pitch of the 10th anniversary season of that victory. Rice's successes and shortcomings in the decade between that championship and this weekend's series have simultaneously highlighted the strength of the program while putting into perspective how special that 2003 accomplishment really is.
Since winning the championship, Rice has extended its streak of winning the conference regular season and/or tournament title to 17 years (leading to this year's Phil Jacksonesque posters of Coach Wayne Graham and all his rings). They've also now reached the NCAA tournament on 18 consecutive occasions, giving them the fourth longest active streak behind only Cal State Fullerton (21), Florida State (35), and the University of Miami (40). And since 2003 Rice has been featured in Omaha three additional times, in 2006, 2007, and 2008.
The magic of that 2003 victory, however, is in some ways magnified by what hasn't been accomplished since.
Rice has not made a College World Series final since 2003. In both 2006 and 2007, the team came within one victory of that platform before being eliminated by consecutive losses.
Moreover, the Class of 2012 became the first class since 1996 to finish tier undergraduate careers without seeing the Owls play in Omaha, despite the team twice entering the tournament as a top08 national seed (rewarding them with home field advantage throughout the tournament) and featuring arguably the best player in Rice history in Anthony Rendon.
These recent statistics are not criticisms. They should not be seen as failures or letdowns. They are simply reminders of how impressive the program's accomplishments taken together over the last two decades really are. And lest we take for granted the accomplishment of making the NCAA tournament in and of itself, it should be noted that before beginning this streak in 1995, Rice had never qualified before.
Rice baseball isn't just consistently one of the best teams on campus - it is one of the best programs in the nation across all sports.
Not only is it one of the best programs in the nation, it also provides a home-game experience that is not only unique and excellent, but also is a potential piece of a great Rice experience. Enjoying baseball requires slowing down, and a chance to slow down is often what this campus sorely needs.
At Reckling Park, you can spend an evening out on the outfield hill enjoying the sunset, watching little kids play and young alums have bottle rolling competitions. Or you can soak in the afternoon sun from the stands listening to the rhythm of each pitch reaching the catcher's glove broken by the staccato sound of hits off an aluminum bat.
And somehow in this slowed down state moments still become incredibly exciting, painfully heartbreaking, and occasionally even inspiring. There are acrobatic catches, sudden home-run shots, and phony fly-balls that get your hopes up off the bat before drifting harmlessly to an outfielder.
There are those game-on-the-line moments with two men on and two men out settled by the ritual challenge between the pitcher and his ball and the batter with his bat.
It's a different kind of sporting experience, but it's one that begs to be taken advantage of.
So this weekend series against Stanford shouldn't be the only trip to Reckling Park. Instead, it should be a regular piece of this spring. Rice baseball can be a relaxing Saturday afternoon, a mid-week multi-inning study break, or a reason to procrastinate a little longer before starting Sunday's work.
Plus, it's impossible to know when the boys with the R on their cap will give us, and the students who come after us, pictures to pause and marvel at once again.
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