Across the NCAA, seniors were left asking “What if?” in March when the coronavirus pandemic canceled the remaining winter and spring sporting events. Here are the stories that show the sudden, complicated, controversial and emotional ending athletes have been coming to grips with over the past couple months.
For Louisiana Tech outfielder Parker Bates, the last 14 months of his 22-year-old life have been horrifying, heartbreaking and yet somehow still hopeful. A natural disaster. A global pandemic. A pair of potential championship baseball seasons shuttered. A future left in the hands of strangers sitting in offices nearly 800 miles away.
A series of life-altering experiences that ultimately can be summed up in three phone calls.
The first call
Bates was awakened in the predawn hours of Thursday, April 25, 2019, in a Lake Charles, Louisiana hotel, where the Diamond Dogs had just bunked down for the night after a disappointing midweek loss to McNeese State. Then there was another call. And another. His phone would not stop buzzing.
“Every phone call and text said the same thing,” Bates recalls. “The baseball stadium had been completely destroyed.”
At 1:40 a.m. an EF-3 tornado, with winds in the 135-165 mph range, tore through Ruston, Louisiana, killing a wife and her teenage son and narrowly missing a row of dormitories filled with sleeping students as it sliced through the Louisiana Tech campus. It cut across the athletic complex, causing severe damage to the soccer field, tennis courts and, chillingly, the softball stadium only a few hours after it had hosted a home game. The twister also bulldozed its way through the baseball stadium, J.C. Love Field, aka The Love Shack. It knocked a third of the concrete grandstand roof down into the seats below, then ripped the entire outfield fence out of the ground and tossed it aside before leaping into the softball stadium next door.
Had the team stuck with its original plan, they would have made the three-hour drive from Lake Charles after the McNeese State loss and would have been arriving to the ballpark at almost the precise time that the tornado did. Instead, head coach Lance Burroughs had elected to stay on the road before heading out for a weekend series against Rice in Houston.
“Even now it doesn’t seem real, what everyone was saying and crying over the phone,” Bates says of the scene.
His friends were calling and residents were scrambling to look for victims. Among the impromptu disaster relief workers were his non-traveling baseball teammates and La Tech alum Karl Malone.
“When we returned to campus that Sunday night, to see it in person, it still doesn’t seem real,” Bates added. “But it was. It is. But we have made it work since. We have never forgotten that people died that night. We just lost a baseball stadium.”
Our student-athletes and student body are safe, which is our main concern.
We are still in shock over the devastation to our city and our campus.
Thank you to everyone for the thoughts and prayers. We are still assessing the damage our facilities, but we CAN and WILL rebuild. pic.twitter.com/PMzwXqe7dk
— LA Tech Sports (@LATechSports) April 25, 2019
The Bulldogs finished out the 2019 season practicing at nearby Ruston High School and moved their remaining home games to the University of Louisiana-Monroe, 30 miles to the west. The night of the storm they were 28-13. After the storm they lost five in a row and stumbled to a 34-24 final record before being bounced from the Conference USA tournament in two games. A 12-1 dismantling of No. 15 LSU in Baton Rouge on May 1 had shown the world how good this team could have been, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
Bates was a junior at the time, the year when most college baseball players with professional aspirations leave school to pursue their big league dreams. But he and his upperclassmen teammates pledged to return for 2020, determined to make up for their lost 2019 season, no matter the circumstances. With The Love Shack written off as a total loss and the school’s repair plans being run through a complex obstacle course of state government approvals and federal emergency relief budgets, those circumstances were no different this season than they had been at the end the last.
“We practiced and had some home games at Ruston High, but when they were in season and needed the field, we had to practice during the day when they are in school,” Bates explains. “We had conference games scheduled at ULM and in Jackson [Mississippi], which is a lot further, two and a half hours away, and we practiced in Jackson, too. But as frustrating as it has been, we knew what it would be going into the year. It’s actually been a bonding experience for us, so much time on the bus going back and forth, especially for the seniors and especially when we got off to a pretty good start.”
It was better than pretty good. The Diamond Dogs started the 2020 season with five straight wins and reached a record of 11-6, a perfect 5-0 in their home games played at Ruston High. Bates came out raking like few in the 126-year history of Bulldogs ever have, hitting .422 with four doubles, 28 RBIs and 11 walks in 80 trips to the plate. His eight homers had already matched his single-season best effort, barely a month into the year. He led all Conference USA players in home runs, RBIs, hits (27) and slugging percentage (.891). He started the year going 5-for-9 with six RBIs in the season’s opening two-game series, was named Louisiana Player of the Month for February, and started March by tying a school record with six runs scored in one game. D1Baseball.com ranked him as the nation’s top-hitting senior.
On Tuesday, March 10, Parker Bates dismantled Southeastern Louisiana with a 4-for-5 night at the plate, scoring three runs and driving in another four. Up next was the Conference USA opener, against Middle Tennessee and scheduled for Friday, March 13, a “home game” in Jackson, Mississippi.
“We’d had just enough ups and downs in the games we’d played to know who we were as a team and we had a rhythm when it came to moving around to different home stadiums,” Bates recalls of his team as they approached conference play. “We were ready to make a run.”
The second call
Every college athlete who was on any roster of any kind on March 12, 2020, will spend the rest of their lives telling stories of the chaos that descended upon their lives that week and that day in particular. For Parker Bates, it started with a phone call announcing a team meeting.
“Coach [Lane] Burroughs told us that the season was being suspended because of the coronavirus,” he remembers now. Middle Tennessee, already en route to Jackson, had been called and told to turn their bus around and return to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “But at the time, that was it. We knew that Conference USA had just canceled the basketball tournaments that weekend, but the way we left it was, we’re not playing this weekend, but be ready to work out Monday and we’d see when the season would resume.”
At 4:16 p.m. ET that afternoon, the tweet went out from the NCAA that all spring sports and championships were being canceled. The headliner was the shuttering of March Madness, but the college baseball community immediately realized what the rest of the sports world did not.
“I think my reaction was the same as everyone else,” says Bates. “Our season was just getting started. If you made it to the NCAA baseball tournament, you were playing in June and if you made it to Omaha [for the College World Series] you could be playing nearly to July. Were they really canceling everything that far out?”
They were, though many still held out hope that baseball and softball might be salvaged. Bates and his Bulldogs teammates stayed in Ruston, as did most of the student body, as classes moved online the following week while dorms remained open. But soon the campus was closed and everyone who could go home was told to do so. For Bates, that meant going back to Tyler, Texas, 170 miles west of Ruston. Soon afterward, the crushing reality of no NCAA postseason had set in, and the last glimmer of hope that the regular-season suspension might be lifted was snuffed out.
“I just work out as much as possible and try not to drive my parents crazy,” Bates explained, laughing, from the home of said parents, between running wind sprints in the backyard, doing pullups in his bedroom, and sneaking in batting practice at a nearby cage.
He said he was in constant contact with his teammates, especially his five fellow seniors. The group had pledged to keep each other’s spirits up, keep their motivation stoked, and keep their collective fingers crossed about the future.
“We talked about our workouts and we talk about what the NCAA might do,” he said.
They all held out hope that the NCAA might grant an extra year of eligibility to spring athletes. As the end of March approached, those virtual meetings were taking place through the Indianapolis HQ.
“If we were done as teammates, then we knew we would always have the connection of everything that happened to us during our four years together,” Bates said of the impending ruling. “But we sure wanted another shot at finishing our unfinished business.”
The third call
It was around dinner time on Monday, March 30, when the phone of Parker Bates rang again. The NCAA Division I Council had ruled that each student-athlete’s five-year eligibility “clock” had been extended by a year, stating, “This decision was especially important for student-athletes who had reached the end of their five-year clock in 2020 and saw their seasons end abruptly.”
The phones of the other Louisiana Tech seniors — infielder Hunter Wells, outfielder Manny Garcia, and pitchers Tyler Follis, Kyle Griffen and Bryce Fagan — also rang. From Texas to Mississippi and Louisiana to Puerto Rico, the players and their families let out cheers of relief and held FaceTime celebrations together.
“My first thought was that I was truly happy for every senior athlete out there, in every spring sport all over the country, everyone who had their last season, probably their last season on any team ever, cut short just as it was getting started,” Bates said of his reaction to the NCAA ruling. “But then I immediately thought about us six seniors. I can’t even imagine what opening day is going to be like for us next year.”
There are still obstacles to clear before the Bulldogs suit up for that game in mid-February 2021. While the NCAA opened the door for spring athletes to return, it is up to the schools to sort out the finances and roster slots of an added class of players, which is already a tricky proposition under normal circumstances in the quirky 11.7-scholarship world of college baseball. There is also the added wrinkle of the MLB First-Year Player Draft, scheduled for June 10-11, but scaled down to only five rounds this year due to the pandemic. Given his monstrous 2020 numbers, there is a chance Bates might have his named called during that draft, or immediately afterward when the free-agent signings begin.
But it will be nearly impossible to keep Bates from returning in his Louisiana Tech uniform 10 months from now. He’ll once again be patrolling the outfield, this time in a brand-new reconstruction of The Love Shack, while awaiting the beats of the B-52s blasting off the buildings around the ballpark, as tradition holds whenever the Bulldogs win at home.
“I remember back in the fall of 2019, being at the announcement of the new ballpark and they were showing all the pictures of what the new Love Shack was going to look like,” Bates says. “But the whole presentation was ‘in 2021’ this-and-that. I was excited for my younger teammates, but I knew it wouldn’t be ready for us seniors and I hated knowing that we were never going to get to play there.”
As Bates continues to talk, the ballplayer gets so excited he sounds like he might leap through the phone. “Everything has a silver lining. Even a tornado and a pandemic. Maybe when people see us back on the field, our real home field, it will help them realize that.”