The beautiful magic of the best of low-level college baseball
By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer
This past weekend, I drove 32 hours round-trip to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to watch three days of low-level college baseball.
Now I’m back in my apartment in New York City trying to figure out why.
To the naked eye, Division III baseball is not good. To the trained eye, too. Pitchers throw softer, hitters hit the ball with less force, there are more errors, more baserunning mistakes and way, way, way more bunts.
In an average year, out of the approximately 12,000 baseballers who make D-III varsity rosters, only about 10 continue on to play affiliated minor league baseball. Unlike D-I and D-II, there is no scholarship money for student-athletes in D-III. The average school size is around 1,700, compared to the 9,000-student average at the D-I level.
But even though it lacks the high-end physicality and crispness of its D-I cousin, D-III ball is no joke, especially to those who play it. Teams practice six days a week, lift together at the crack of dawn and travel hours upon hours on buses to play doubleheaders in far-flung locations. Coaches recruit all across the country with the same level of fervor you’d see at a D-I school. And there are still dudes throwing 90, sluggers mashing titanic taters and guys who can absolutely pick it.
The competition is real. Of the 369 schools that participated in this year’s season, only eight made the Division-III World Series, which took place this past weekend in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
One of those eight schools, Washington University in St. Louis, is where I attended college and where I had an eventful baseball career as a frustratingly volatile reliever. It’s eye-rollingly cliché, but my time as a college athlete shaped the person and baseball dude I am today, so when the Bears won their regional on Memorial Day weekend to reach their first World Series in school history, it was less a question of if I’d be making the trip to Cedar Rapids and more a question of how.
Believe it or not, it’s really difficult to get to Cedar Rapids from New York City. If you feel like dropping 450 bucks on a week's notice, you can connect through Chicago or Dallas and fly into Eastern Iowa Airport just outside of town. You could also fly into Chicago for less coin, but then you have to rent a car — which has become stupid pricey in the post-pandemic travel boom — and drive four hours to Iowa.
Because I’m a nut and a cheapskate, I drove it, all 16 hours of it. I left uptown Manhattan at 6 a.m. ET Thursday, had a drink with a buddy at around 7 p.m. CT in Chicago, picked up two other alumni from Midway Airport at 10 p.m. and got to our AirBnB in Cedar Rapids at 2 a.m. I got gas at the Delaware Water Gap on the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border, peed somewhere on the side of I-80 in rural Pennsylvania and bought three burritos in Youngstown, Ohio, and ate them over the course of the day behind the wheel of my 2009 Hyundai Sonata. Fine dining, indeed.
To be clear, I wasn’t the only washed-up WashU alumnus making the trip to Iowa. I had 10 former teammates making the trek as well, flying in from places such as Seattle, Houston and Washington, D.C. That’s a lot of travel for the potential for our beloved Bears to go an underwhelming two and out in the double-elimination tournament.
Thankfully, that was not the case, and our efforts were rewarded with some of the most intense and gut-busting baseball I’ve ever seen.
The crowd for WashU’s opening game against Johns Hopkins at 10 a.m. Friday was almost exclusively parents. There aren’t many baseball fans in Cedar Rapids taking off work on a Friday morning to catch some D-III baseball action, so the 200 or so people in attendance were decked out in either Hopkins baby blue or WashU red.
Because this is D-III baseball, the first notable action happened about five minutes before first pitch, when the NCAA honored WashU’s Henry Singer for having the highest GPA (3.99 lol) at the World Series. Singer got a fancy trophy, and the WashU crowd went wild. If we didn’t win the championship or even the game, at least we had the biggest nerd in the house.
But to be honest with you, looking back, all the games were kind of one big blur punctuated by moments of clarity that stick in my brain like gum to the bottom of a desk. Moments such as WashU All-American Tim Van Kirk smacking a go-ahead, two-out double in a win against Johns Hopkins. I’ll remember the chaotic euphoria when all the Bears alumni rushed from the concourse down the steps to the dugout net after Bears shortstop Caleb Durbin crushed an 11th-inning, go-ahead tater in a game against St. Thomas.
And I’ll remember the devastation a half-inning later, when the Tommies, down to their last strike, tied things up with a double in the gap before walking it off in the 12th. I'll remember sitting in our seats with all the other alumni, shell-shocked, for a half-hour after the game ended.
Beyond those distinct plays and the actual outcomes (the Bears went 2-2, losing two heartbreakers to St. Thomas (who eventually lost in the championship series to Salisbury University), the hours spent at Veterans Memorial Stadium melt together like a chocolate-vanilla swirl under the summer sun.
The crowd at Cedar Rapids stands out above the melt. I’d say the average attendance at the ballyard hovered around 200 people, but 95% of those humans were part of the entourage for one of the eight teams. Ryan Loutos, WashU’s ace and a potential draft pick who throws in the low 90s, described it to me this way: "It’s like there’s no one in the stadium, but each dugout has 100 people in it. The roar behind you when something happened was incredible."
The ambient buzzing sound that you get from neutral bystanders having casual conversations at an MLB game does not exist at the D-III World Series. When a fly ball is in the air, there is total silence. The tension commands it. But when the ball finds a mitt or when a cleat touches home, the cacophonous explosions from the stands sound like Game 7 of the World Series.
As Johns Hopkins senior second baseman Matt Ritchie put it: "This is the last time a lot of these parents, after like a decade or more, will be able to watch their children play baseball."
That’s a valuable reminder that these games and this entire level exist for the players and the people who love them. There is no ad revenue, no TV rights, no merchandising deals. Unless someone makes a highlight-reel catch or there’s a particularly absurd on-field moment, the happenings of this game will not be recapped on national television or cable sports shows. Skip and Shannon will not be breaking down whether Salisbury University’s offense is the best in the nation or whether they think Adrian College has enough pitching depth to last the week.
And unlike Appleton, Wisconsin, the town that hosted the D-III World Series for almost 20 years before 2019 and treated it like a big event that mattered to locals, the city of Cedar Rapids had practically no idea the World Series was going on.
"Oh, very neat," the barista at the coffee shop replied to me when I explained that there was a championship afoot down the block. "Do you want that for here or to go?"
For most of the players, there is no larger goal, no grand motive at play. Most of these players work just as hard as the dudes in D-I or D-II, but they just happened to lose the genetic lottery. Because of that, no one besides a handful of lucky ducks is trying to play at the next level. No one is getting scholarship money. It’s a pursuit for the sake of the pursuit, a bunch of folks who just love this dumb sport and are crazy enough to do something about it.
It’s groups of friends playing baseball against other groups of friends until there’s one group of friends left to raise the trophy on a blisteringly hot June day in Iowa.
What makes this game and this level so unique is its timing, especially for the seniors. Graduation has happened, dorms are all packed up, jobs are waiting. The moment a season ends for a team, it’s the end of careers for all the seniors. Think about that for a moment. You lose yourself two playoff games at the D-III level, and the next day, you gotta find yourself a job. That’s what we call playing for your childhood.
Ritchie explained further. "You know that in a week’s time, you will never play baseball like this again, so it boils down to you having a hand in deciding when you have to stop playing," he said. "Because of that, the stakes are higher. You know that each playoff game, this could be the end. It’s like if I make an error in the second inning, my career could be over seven innings later. If you f--- up, you’re done forever."
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But what makes the high-stakes nature of the D-III World Series fascinating is where the stakes come from. The expectations don’t come from a rabid fan base like you might see at an SEC school or from ownership like you’d see in the major leagues. Rather, the expectations are internalized. They are self-imposed.
What motivates you to wake up at 5:20 a.m. five days a week to lift weights in the winter at the D-III level must come from within and from the teammates around you. Because it sure as hell ain’t coming from anyone else.
I suppose what drives people to play D-III ball in the first place is what drove me to drive myself across the country: purpose, meaning, community, pride. Not to get too overwrought here, but it gets at the heart of what people on this stupid globe are searching for every day. Low-level college baseball with too many bunts certainly isn’t the only meaningful way to fulfill the soul, but it is one of them.
So congrats to the national champion Salisbury Sea Gulls and their monocle-clad leadoff guy, Justin Meekins. Congrats to all the seniors across the nation who poured their hearts for four years into being part of something purposeful that will stick with them and continue to shape them for a long time.
And even though D-III baseball might not be "good," I think when you get to know it a little bit, it’s pretty damn great.
Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.