OMAHA, Neb. — After the first home run of the College World Series sailed over the left-field fence, Hunter Wilson, a backup infielder for Arkansas, stepped out of the Razorbacks’ dugout brandishing a colorful reward for the teammate who hit it.
Knowing what was coming, designated hitter Luke Bonfield, who had hit the blast, crossed the plate and removed his batting helmet. As Bonfield approached the dugout at TD Ameritrade Park, Wilson plopped a cap shaped like a hog’s head, with a toothy snout for a bill, on Bonfield’s head. The “hog hat” would be his until the next Razorback homered.
Home runs are making a comeback in college baseball, reversing a trend that began in 2011 with BBCOR bat standards, which deadened metal bats to reduce exit velocity with a goal of protecting pitchers from injury. A flatter-seamed ball that flew farther, introduced in 2015, helped. Home runs have risen from 0.39 per game in 2014 to 0.75 last year, according to the NCAA. (The frequency slipped slightly in the first half of this season, to 0.65, possibly a result of poor weather.)
With the increase in home runs, teams are getting creative in the ways in which they celebrate long balls. High-fives and helmet rubs aren’t nearly creative enough, especially when a funky rite or a cool-looking talisman may land your team on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” Players concoct these traditions on their own, with little or no input from their coaches.
Some teams present items symbolizing strength, like Minnesota’s sledgehammer, or school spirit, like the Arkansas hog hat. Others employ elaborate or goofy rituals. Many were on display in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament, and a few continued on to the College World Series this week.
Florida, the defending national champion, showcases one of the oddest. In the postseason, any Gator who homers throws a water balloon at Tom Cameron, an intern in the athletics training department assigned to the team. This is — ahem — a watered-down version of last year’s postseason celebration, in which players dumped a bucket of water on a trainer. Cameron lined up for his soggy fate last Sunday night when Nelson Maldonado cracked Florida’s 16th homer in eight postseason games, in a 6-3 series-opening loss to Texas Tech.
“This year, they decided to do water balloons because it’s easier logistically, and I got to be the recipient of all the home runs that got hit,” Cameron said. “It’s a little fun thing that gets guys fired up even more in the dugout.”
Cameron usually wears a catcher’s mask for protection. That proved wise at the Gainesville Regional this month when Jonathan India and Wil Dalton pelted Cameron simultaneously after back-to-back homers against Jacksonville, Florida. “One got me in the face and one got me in the chest,” Cameron said. “That’s the worst I’ve gotten so far.” After Austin Langworthy’s 11th-inning homer beat Alabama’s Auburn in a superregional, the ensuing balloon left a chest bruise, Cameron said.
Dalton said he tried to be gentle. “You want to throw it pretty good, but you don’t just smoke it,” he said. “That guy works on me whenever I’m hurt, so I’ve at least got to be a little generous about that.”
Some of the props come with entertaining back stories. Minnesota, which lost to Oregon State in the school’s first superregional appearance, traces its sledgehammer ritual to a gag Christmas gift.
The Gophers’ hitting coach, Pat Casey, nicknamed third baseman Micah Coffey M.C. Hammer based on his initials. In a December 2016 Secret Santa exchange, his teammate Jacob Herbers, riffing on Coffey’s nickname, bought a sledgehammer at Home Depot, gift-wrapped it and gave it to him. Since 2017 it has been Minnesota’s home run talisman, presented in front of the dugout.
Tennessee Tech, also eliminated in a superregional, opted for a wrestling-style championship belt, appropriate for the NCAA home run champions. The Golden Eagles hit 135 in 65 games, tops in Division I. North Carolina brought a similar-looking belt to the College World Series, though theirs honors players hit by pitches. (Third baseman Kyle Datres, hit 12 times, claimed ownership entering the Series.)
At Houston last season, slugger Joe Davis thought his team needed a symbol. His brother John, a welder, fashioned a 17-pound aluminum and copper replica of the hammer that Thor, the Marvel Comics superhero, carried. The player who homered would raise the hammer and then keep it until the next player homered. This season, Davis had a team-leading 13 homers for Houston, which qualified for the NCAA tournament but lost in the Chapel Hill Regional.
Texas Tech prefers a talisman-free ritual with a subtle nod to its 2016 College World Series team. The player who homers taps the helmets of the base runners with his own helmet, then salutes the Texas Tech bullpen and the fans behind the Red Raiders’ dugout. Teammates throw cups of water, a callback to 2016, when players pantomimed planting and watering seeds when they reached second base. That season’s “Water the Tree” slogan symbolized patience and growth over a long season.
Then there are the Razorbacks. Last season, Arkansas slugged 83 home runs to lead the Southeastern Conference, and a productive fall season suggested the Razorbacks might improve on that this year. They have; Bonfield’s was the team’s 95th.
“The night before the first game, we were trying to figure out something to do, something original,” second baseman Carson Shaddy said. “Our video guy” — Zach Barr, the team’s director of video and scouting — “came up with the idea to put on the traditional hog hat that everybody in Arkansas wears at sporting events and whatnot. Everybody clearly loved it, and we put stickers on it every time we hit a home run.”
But there is one drawback, Shaddy said. A few days ago, in a TD Ameritrade clubhouse, Shaddy removed his cap to reveal a red splotch on the right side of his forehead just below the hairline. Seems Wilson applied the hog hat a little too enthusiastically a few days earlier, when Shaddy homered in the 14-4 superregional rout of South Carolina that sent Arkansas to the Series.
“He likes to splat it on hard and rub some skin,” Shaddy said, smiling. “It’s a little battle scar. He’s gotten me a time or two.”