My Grandpa Would Have Loved Ragin’ Cajun Baseball
Fred Vanek was a foreman on the railroad. He raised a family of eight children on a farm inside a house he built with his own hands during the Great Depression. Somehow, he found the energy to play minor league baseball and be a provider for his wife and children.
He passed away in 1997 at the age of 85, when I was only seven years old. The time we spent together was brief, but what he taught me lasts to this day. It goes beyond him teaching me how to field a ground ball in the gravel driveway of the house he built for my grandmother with his bare hands. It goes beyond being trained to watch a pitch all the way in to the hands and never break eye contact when stepping into the batter's box. It's about respect for the game and the people that play it. Not only that, but the way the beautiful game of baseball should be played.
He was the reason I dove for fly balls and wore countless bruises from stopping balls in the infield. In his gravel driveway, a missed ground ball or a misjudged shorthop simply meant a long walk to retrieve it and a long throw back.
"Cut through the strike zone like you're chopping wood," was his batting advice. Pop-ups were like speaking out of turn at dinner.
Praise wasn't given for routine plays, but guidance was provided to those who weren't looking for coddling. Throwing the ball directly to the target and hearing it pop was enough for me.
After he passed away, I often pretended he had the best view imaginable for my games. I would look up to the clouds sometimes after making a play I felt was up to Grandpa standards: legging out an infield single, dropping down a bunt, keeping a single to a double by sacrificing the body, hitting the cutoff man...countless, thankless tasks that make up the game I learned to love.
To me, baseball was work. At the same time, work was fun. Work was rewarding. Work was the only way to win at the only game I cared about.
Whenever the game didn't ask me to slide or get dirty, I took it upon myself to run the bases and dive headfirst after an easy victory. If there was nobody around after school to play catch, I would throw the ball up in the air to myself, while trying to block out the sun.
TV ratings might say baseball is in the decline, but it was created long before television was even a thought: When water was drawn from a well. When your family or township had to dig that well without the aid of computers or advanced machinery. Tony Robichaux says he wants players that drink water from the hose. This year's team might have been able to dig their own well without being asked, which would make Fred Vanek proud.
My grandfather rests in peace...but only if there aren't radios in heaven. Otherwise, you can bet he would have his knob turned all the way up to hear how the Ragin' Cajuns' story plays out.
It would have been easy for this year's team to pack it in. Most of the hitting stats gone and the pitching equally decimated...who would imagine to put them back in a Super Regional again?
The people who see them practice. The men and women who are privy to the sweat and labor put into this collegiate baseball season. Unselfish play isn't even a thing to be celebrated anymore for the Ragin' Cajuns. It's become the norm. In the modern era of sports, unheralded workmanship often gets overlooked. Not anymore.
I said my Grandpa would love the Ragin' Cajuns. I wish I could take him to a game, but that is clearly not possible. Instead, I watch the games for him. I imagine my eyes are his. He can't speak to me, but moments in the game speak for themselves. The moments I feel like I've shared with him are starting to become immeasurable at M.L. Tigue Moore Field, so pardon me if you see some liquid pooling up in the corners of my eyes at Alex Box Stadium.
Fred Vanek never saw the Ragin' Cajuns play. Louisiana was miles away from his farm in Ashtabula, Ohio. The game of baseball changed more than words can describe in the last decades...so pardon me for embracing the history in its present form.
It's not every day you see baseball played like this.