Baseball and America have grown up together.
Over time, the sport has had to deal with similar historical, social and economic issues many Americans have faced. Whether it was the right to work, gambling, civil rights, big business or drug use, baseball became a microcosm of American life.
Over the past couple years, Cal Poly’s men’s baseball team has undergone it’s own social progression of sorts: last year, head coach Larry Lee implemented a new policy whereby players are prohibited from drinking alcohol during baseball season.
The change came after the 2008 season in which the Mustangs finished under .500 for the first time in years. Lee said he thought about what was going on off the field as well as on it to make his decision.
“I had to do something stringent to change the culture of our program,” he said.
During games, Lee wants to know his team is giving every ounce of energy and effort. Alcohol hinders their chances of having a mental edge.
“I know that if the players do what is right and put in the time and effort, commit themselves to be the best they can possibly be mentally they feel that they deserve to have success,” Lee said. “When they don’t put in the time and effort mentally they will question themselves as athletes.”
Lee approaches baseball with this all or nothing attitude, the dry season being no exception. For him, playing baseball is about respect; respect for the game as well as your opponent. Part of this mentality is in his upbringing as the son of Cal Poly Athletics Hall of Fame coach Tom Lee — a legend in his time.
Prior to coming to Cal Poly, Lee was the head coach of Cuesta College’s baseball team. During his 16 years at Cuesta, coach Lee recorded 460 wins.
Lee said he hopes to bring in the student-athlete who represents the university in a positive light. Not just on the field, but in the classroom and in the community. Prior to 2009, Lee said his team wasn’t representing the community as role models.
“The ultimate goal is to get these young adults to become quality citizens,” Lee said. “This is a time in their life where they can go down a couple of different paths, I feel it’s my responsibility to help choose the right path.”
Senior pitcher DJ Mauldin has been progressing both mentally and physically for five years on the team. As a whole, baseball isn’t as physically demanding as other sports. Mauldin said baseball is as much about the mental game as anything else. With the dry season, the team is now on the same page with a common aim.
“This was the first time I felt that we ever did anything in order to win, not to put up numbers, gain velocity, raise our draft status, but to actually succeed at our job winning college baseball games,” he said.
Senior catcher Ross Brayton said the dry season helps build teamwork.
“As a team we play 100 percent,” Brayton said. “We’re mentally focused throughout the game, not feeling sluggish and have all our energy.”
Still, for Mauldin and some of his peers the dry season isn’t easy. For many, partying and drinking can be a large part of the college experience. Eliminating alcohol forces some athletes to change their weekend outlook and find new things to do. Mauldin has also noticed that it has been easier to keep his grades up too.
“In the classroom I went from just trying to be eligible to working towards a 3.0. I don’t remember ever having this much energy, and I work hard in the off season for both myself and my teammates, and can honestly say I gave everything to last season,” Mauldin said.
Lee does not police the policy itself. Instead, the honesty has to come from the players.
“The players usually find out before coach Lee if you go out,” Brayton said. “So if they see someone on the team there not afraid to say hey we saw this guy out.”
After a win, the team celebrates by getting ready for the next game Lee said.
“We never dwell on wins, we enjoy ourselves on the way home, but start to prepare for tomorrow,” Lee said.
Cal Poly’s rivals have their own opinion of the new policy. Rather than thinking it could give them a competitive edge, Nino Giarratano, head baseball coach for the University of San Francisco, said he hasn’t implemented a policy to discourage his team from drinking.
To get ready for the season, he engages his team in mental work such as yoga and breathing exercises as well as physical activity.
Although San Francisco hasn’t had any alcohol related problems, Giarratano said the dry season was a courageous step by the Mustangs.
“I applaud the Cal Poly coach and team for doing something of this magnitude,” Giarratano said.
As the team shifts their focus from implanting change to building a tradition to be proud of, Lee said he imagines he will continue with the dry season for the rest of his coaching career.
“I think that it’s been a real positive approach and when your players are old and mature enough they will appreciate it all,” Lee said.