The following excerpt is from a story that originally ran in the spring 2022 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. – Ed.
When Brendan Harris ’02 arrived in New York City for opening day in April 2007, he was too afraid to use the gym.
At that time, Yankee Stadium had one facility for use by both the home and visiting teams, and Harris — in his first season starting in the majors for the Tampa Bay Rays — felt, well, out of his league. The entire stadium was designed to intimidate, with memorabilia of Yankee greats displayed on the path to the visitor clubhouse. Harris could handle posters of Babe Ruth, less so standing next to Derek Jeter on the bench press.
“I was so wired,” he says. “I couldn’t calm myself down.”
He almost felt lucky he didn’t have to play. The series ended early with a late April snowstorm, and Harris spent the plane ride home reflecting. Even his idols in Yankee Stadium were one day in his shoes, he thought, and they found a way to face the pressure. If he was serious about staying in the major leagues, he had to behave like a major leaguer.
“We go back there two more times this season,” he thought. “I’m going to have to get it together and be able to calm myself down and play on that field.”
By the time Harris returned, he had earned the Rays’ starting spot at shortstop and felt confident. He knew his process in batting practice, in the outfield and at the plate. He didn’t worry about the results. He wasn’t afraid to use the gym.
Harris learned how to adapt, in part, at William & Mary. There too, in his freshman year, he traveled far from home to make a career in baseball. There too, the season started under slight duress. The paint was still drying on the brand-new Plumeri Park by opening day, and the team had to start the season on the old field by Walter J. Zable Stadium. Change helped him manage adversity.
More than 20 years later, the question now is whether baseball itself can do the same. Harris’ two decades in the sport have straddled two eras, following the rapid shift toward gameplay based on advanced statistics. Many don’t enjoy the slower pace of play and strike-or-bust style that the “Moneyball” revolution has brought. In the last two decades, ratings have fallen in favor of other American sports like football and basketball. The 2022 season began with a contract dispute between Major League Baseball and the players’ union that led to the first lockout and canceled games since 1995.
In short, baseball is reinventing itself to find a more stable home in the wide world of sports. William & Mary alumni — from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, from owner to director of player development — are helping lead that process and rediscover what makes baseball baseball.
America’s pastime can’t take its popularity as a given anymore, but there are still signs of hope for the sport. MLB’s bases are loaded with a generation of young stars. In baseball and softball, youth involvement rose by almost 3 million from 2013 to 2018, according to research from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Almost two-thirds of those kids play consistently.
Meanwhile, the major and minor leagues are experimenting with rule changes — things like pitch clocks, automated “robot umpires” and larger bases — that executives hope will improve the on-field product. These experiments are important, but so are the fundamentals, says Joe Plumeri ’66, D.P.S. ’11, senior advisor to Kohlberg, Kravis Roberts & Co. L.P. (KKR); co-owner of the Trenton Thunder and former co-owner of the Jersey Shore BlueClaws, both minor league baseball teams; and the leading force behind Plumeri Park. Baseball’s future, in his view, requires reconnecting with its foundation: the relationship between the team and the fans. Building on that, says Plumeri, doesn’t just give people a reason to tune in to games and travel to ballparks. It also gives them a sense for how baseball is a part of their identity, even if they don’t know it.
“Anytime somebody talks, they talk baseball,” he says. “You have ‘three strikes and you’re out.’ You’re not going to get anything done unless ‘you take a swing.’ You do a good job and ‘you hit a home run.’”
“It’s very difficult to separate a discussion about life from a discussion about baseball,” Plumeri says. “And I don’t think that that should be lost on us.”
Read the full story and see additional images on the W&M Alumni Magazine website.