“There’s no off days when you’re married to the game.”— Dallas Braden.
The simplest, yet also the most strategic game that I have grown to love is baseball. From hitting my first home run to calling my first professional game, this sport has humbled me in ways that no one could ever possibly imagine.
Granted the fact that I started playing when I was five, it was not until I was around eleven years old, when I found my love for baseball. My mom was my inspiration for playing the game; Not only did she teach me the fundamentals to baseball, but she was also my coach and biggest fan throughout my seventeen years of action.
In 2006, my mother and I moved down to Ky. in when I was eleven because it was an easier commute to work for her, rather than driving forty-five minutes every day from a small city in the Dayton, Ohio area. I remember badgering my mom about quitting baseball because I was anxious about starting a new-life in an unfamiliar area. My mom never got upset at me for wanting to quit, but she always told me, “You will regret not playing one-day when you are older.” Mom wanted me to play for a recreational team in our area and stated, “If you are not having fun by the end of the season, then you can quit and you will not hear a word from me”, and oh boy am I glad that I listened to her. In that season with the Blessed Sacrament Eagles, I made numerous friends and found myself wanting to play baseball non-stop. I would sleep in my uniform so I could wake up early to go to the batting cages. Baseball did not feel like an unwanted itch and I knew then, that I found my love for baseball.
In 2008, I wanted to play competitive baseball again. It had been two years since I played competitive baseball, last with the Centerville Elks in 2005. Now, I still played with my friends on the Blessed Sacrament team, but I wanted more. To be honest, I just wanted to play baseball every single day rain-or-shine. Thankfully, my mom found a tryout for the Kentucky Kings, which was a Southwest Ohio League (SWOL) team. For those unfamiliar with the SWOL, it is the most competitive summer league in the Greater Cincinnati Area, with ages ranging from 8u-18u. I remember going to Sports of All Sorts in Florence, Ky. early to get some hacks in before the official tryout began. I could not hit the broad side of a barn, causing me to cry because I thought I was going to fail; I have never been cut from a team my entire life and the thought of that happening in the next thirty minutes-or-so was unbearable. My mom pulled me aside and told me, “Everything is going to be okay…just remember to squish the bug with your foot and the bat is just an extension of your hand.” Before I knew it, three coaches walked in along with a couple kids, as well as another kid who was trying out for the Ky. Kings as well. I went up to the coaches and shook their hands, greeting them and introducing myself, and all of a sudden it clicked in my mind that it was time to perform to the best of my abilities. Little did I know, that two of the three coaches there would help change my life forever, but that will be later on in the post.
Ryan Basford, the other kid trying out with me, was first to go in the batting cage. He did pretty good as he pieced up a couple balls, but I was ready for my turn. As soon as he hopped out, I jumped right-in, ready to show what I had to offer. All of a sudden, it was like I was a completely different hitter than I was thirty minutes prior, barreling every ball up the middle or to the upper-left part of the netting. As the tryout continued, I decided to take a chance at pitching, because I saw Ryan pitch beforehand, and I wanted to out-perform him, as well as showcasing my versatility. I continued my dominance on the bump from the batting cages, pin-pointing my fastball and curveball in all areas of the strike zone. After the tryout, I shook the coaches hands and thanked them for letting me try out, and in the next day or two, I found out that I made the team as well as Ryan, which was amazing.
Our jersey was a blue vest with white pants, pinstriped with blue piping, which was a clean look. My baseball number was eleven, which made me a happy kid. My role model before I moved down to Ky. was Chad Hayes. Chad played with my cousin Greg at Centerville High School, as both of them were ‘All Area Players’ in 2004. Chad wore number eleven and was always the nicest guy on the team. He would autograph my baseballs, give me high fives and just talk to me, which put him over-the-top in my books. Even though I stopped talking to him when I moved down to Ky., I never forgot where everything started and I am forever grateful for those moments.
Continuing, the Ky. Kings were damn good. We won a lot of games and tournaments, and we had fun while doing so. My most memorable play was at Huddy Park, known now as Softball City, in Taylor Mill, Ky. while at short stop. I remember getting an awful read at a line-drive hit just to my right, however, I was able to bare-hand the short hop, throwing a dart to first base getting the out. The kid who hit the ball tipped his cap to me and the parents erupted in cheers. Those were the moments I lived and breathed for my entire playing career.
After my first season with the Ky. Kings in 2008, we rebranded to the Northern Ky. Royals the following year, which unfortunately was the last year for the team. Reasons behind the team folding were due to kids starting to middle/high school ball, family obligations, and not to be conceded, but my fractured ankle, which caused me to miss the rest of the summer. Before the devastating injury, I was playing with the Northern Ky. Royals as well as the freshman team for my high school, the Beechwood Tigers. The Royals’ colors were blue and white, however, my high school’s colors were red and white. Obviously, I got all-red under armor cleats for Beechwood, but I also wore them when I played for the Royals, displaying an awful combination of red cleats with an all blue uniform. The parents seemed to love it though, as they started calling me, “Robby Red-Shoes.” I have to be honest, it grew on me after awhile.
That was the last year I spent playing for the Northern Ky. Royals, which was devastating to me. I had two father figures in the two years spent with the team. To this day, I still call them ‘Coach Mike’ and ‘Coach Vito’, which will never change. They always pushed me to be a better player as well as a better son. I was an odd player because I always performed better in high-pressure situations or when I was getting grilled for making a bonehead play or mistake. Most kids would cry or give up, but it gave me a new mission every time to be better and I am forever thankful for those two men who entered my life in an unexpected time.
In 2010, it was time to look for a new team. Coach Vito’s son, Tony, made the 14u Florence Freedom, and tossed the idea of me playing on the same team again with Tony. I liked the idea because I was a shy kid and Tony was my teammate on the Ky. Kings/Northern Ky. Royals the previous two years, so I obliged and found contact to tryout for the team.
Little did I know that it was going to be an individual tryout, but it was an awesome moment nonetheless. Unlike the Ky. Kings tryout, I was not nervous at all due to the production I displayed the previous two years. Clint Brown, former Owner of the Florence Freedom, approached me with a smile and a hand shake that I will never forget. He was one of the kindest individuals I had ever met. The 14u Freedom Coach, Mr. Brown, and myself proceeded to head down to the field, when Mr. Brown asked me, “What positions do you play young man?” Without hesitation, I said, “Everywhere, sir.” He laughed and told me to take the field at my most comfortable position. Therefore, I started at third base as the coach hit me hard ground balls, pop-ups, and slow rollers. I continued at the other eight positions and to be honest with you, I was so out of shape and gassed that I had to pretend to tie my shoe to catch my breath. As I was tying my shoe, Mr. Brown told me to come on in to the dugout, where he asked me on-the-spot if I would like to join the team. Again, without hesitation I accepted and shook his hand, thanking him for the opportunity. It was a fun summer playing for the 14u Florence Freedom. For those that do not know, the Florence Freedom is a minor league team in the Frontier League, and we got to wear the same jerseys that the professionals got to wear. The coolest part about the experience was that we got to play on the their field, which was an all-turf surface.
As I approached my Freshman year of high school, I decided to play for the 15u Bluegrass Lions the following summer. I thought this would be good idea to showcase my skills to Bob Meyerhoff, Varsity Head Coach at Beechwood, but oh boy was I wrong. That was the worst summer of baseball in my entire life. I thought about quitting every day, but I kept telling myself that I’ll get through it. I hardly played, and I was one of those types of players that performed best when given the chance to start more than one game every other week. Yet again, I would search for a new team for the following summer in 2012.
In the fall of 2011, the word on the street was that my best friend’s dad, Kevin Rengering, started the 17u Bluegrass Badgers team. He approached me about playing for the team and I said, “Yes, absolutely”, without hesitation. By joining this team, I skipped 16u and I was one of the youngest players on the team. Yes, this was an older group, however, I performed higher than my expectations, hitting a team-best .344/.449/.842 in twenty-nine games. I got to play third base, short stop, and I got to catch and pitch some too. As a team, we were not that great, but it made all of us better players by competing with 18u teams, which especially prepared me for my Junior year at Beechwood.
As the 2013 high school baseball season approached, I was in the best shape of my life. I was eager to carry my performance from sophomore year, where I tallied a .322 batting average with four home runs, to my first season under our new head coach, Bobby Mullins. Coach Mullins made his return to Beechwood after a short stint with St. Henry. I played for Bobby late eighth grade through the end of my freshman year on Beechwood’s Junior Varisty team. For some reason, Coach Mullins liked to play me at first base. It was unusual to me that he would rather put the 6-5/230 Brayden Combs at third base, but I obliged. Either way, I competed and we had the second best team in Beechwood’s history at the time, in my opinion, finishing with a 28-9 record.
After losing on a walk-off grand slam in the ninth region semi-finals from former Bluegrass Badgers teammate, Garrett Combs, the entire senior class was hungry for revenge. My senior year, in 2014, we were LOADED with talent from all classes.
I had a decent senior season, where I spent most of my time at first, occasionally at third. I had two defining moments throughout the season that humbled me. The first moment was against Newport Central Catholic in the ninth regional All “A” finals at UC Health Stadium in early April. NewCath won the All “A” state championship the previous year (2013) and they were a tough opponent. We lost earlier in the same day to Conner, 12-2, but all of our focus was on that game, because with a win we would have been one step closer to the State Championship. We were up, 6-2, on the defending All “A” state champions, however, they were threatening with the bases loaded with one out. I was at first base when Spencer Pangallo smashed a line drive to my right and it felt like the rest of the play was in slow motion. I dove to my right spearing the ball, immediately getting up to tag the first base runner out for the inning ending double play preventing the Thoroughbreds comeback. It was one of the most exciting plays I have ever made. We ended up winning that game, 6-2, and I always wonder would have happened if I did not make that play. Click here for the article.
A couple weeks later, we faced off against Bishop Brossart in the 9th/10th region sectional game, with the winner advancing to Whitaker Bank Ballpark the following weekend for a chance at the All “A” State Championship. Of course, Bishop Brossart sent out their ace and fellow teammate of mine, Nate Verst, to toe the slab. He dominated us for 6.1 innings as his team was two outs away from the victory with a convincing, 3-0, lead, until we started to piece some hits together in the bottom of the order. We plated a run to cut the lead, 3-1, as I stepped up to the plate with one out. Verst had a full-count on me and I knew he was going to throw me a curveball due to the fact I struggled with it earlier on in the at-bat. The pay-off pitch was in-fact a curveball that started at the letters, breaking down below my knees, but I was able to stay with it, smashing a ground ball up-the-middle, plating two runs to even the score at, 3-3. Ethan Stringer followed suit with a two-run home run to left field, but was eventually ruled out because he did not step on home plate. Therefore, we only scored one more run instead of two, however, we were able to hang on for the win, 4-3, to advance to the State Championship Elite Eight at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. That was the defining moment of my high school career, keeping our chances alive to win the All “A” State Championship after a clutch two-run, game tying single.
We were on a roll heading into Lexington, Ky. for the All “A” State Championship. We peaked in the state rankings coming as the eighth best team in the state. Hazard was our first opponent in the Quarterfinals, standing no chance at all as we beat them, 11-1. The following day, we squared off against another eastern Ky. school, Paintsville, in the semi-finals. Yet again, we were hot at the plate winning again, 11-1, as we advanced to the All “A” State Championship against Danville, which was the first time Beechwood has been to any type of State Championship since 2006. Similar to the NewCath game, we were up, 6-2, early but the exact opposite happened. We were unable to pitch out of jams, allowing Danville to tie the game, 6-6, in the bottom of the seventh inning. The game winning run was standing ninety-feet away third, but thankfully Stringer struck out the batter to send it into extras. We felt the pressure, but we scored three runs on timely hitting, solidifying our chances at winning the State Championship. We knew that anything could happen, but we were able to close the door, winning our first All “A” State Championship, 9-6, in Beechwood Tigers history.
My next journey led me to Pikeville, Ky., where I played four years of collegiate baseball for the University of Pikeville (2014-18). I was number fifteen for three years, which was my second favorite number. During my senior year, I wore number thirty-one. Throughout the course of four years, I played every position except first base. In my first at-bat freshman year, I hit my first collegiate home run and my last ever home run to left field, which was an adrenaline rush. I remember busting it out of the box because I thought the ball had a lot of top-spin off the bat. It was amazing to see my teammates crowd me at the plate, as well as my mom who gave me a hug after the game. When my college career ended, I thought that was going to be the last time I would be involved in a baseball game, but thankfully it was not at all.
Even though I am not playing anymore, I am still involved in the game I have grown to love and cherish from the broadcast booth. I am thankful to be a Broadcaster/Media Relations Intern with the Florence Freedom. I plan on being around the game for the rest of my life and being able to come to the ballpark for work is gratifying.
Be sure to follow me on Twitter! (@rob_rundle)