The Rice Owls begin the 2017 baseball season in Austin Friday. It’s the start of a four-game series against the UT Longhorns, who this year are coached by former Rice assistant David Pierce. Though the Longhorns are coming off of a down year, they are still a tough opponent for Rice. But that’s never bothered Wayne Graham or the Owls. In many ways, it’s just another Opening Day.
“Opening Day, in and of itself, is exciting, then when you play UT — you try to approach it like another ballgame and have fun doing it,” shortstop Ford Proctor told the Press. “We’ll be prepared and we’ll be ready to go.”
As has become the custom for Rice, the team appears in most of the college baseball ranking services coming into the season, sitting around the mid-20 range. And as has become the custom for the Owls, the team is dealing with injuries to starting pitchers Willy Amador (broken nose) and Glenn Otto (shoulder). But Rice always finds a way to stitch together a solid pitching staff, which this year will be led by Dane Myers, who spent most of last year at third base.
Graham promises his team will be better defensively and will offer more power from the bats than has been shown by the Owls in recent years. That’s primarily due to the addition of Darryn Sheppard, a former Baylor player who graduated last year but still has a year of eligibility left and will play some outfield, first base and DH for Rice while he works on a graduate degree.
“There’s a tick in power that comes from our guys getting stronger and getting Sheppard in here,” Graham said in an interview with the Press. “And there are a couple of freshmen who are strong. So we have possibilities.”
The Owls had a brief glimpse of what perhaps this season might be back in November on a trip to Cuba. The team was supposed to play several games against teams in the Cuba League, do some sightseeing and learn a bit about Cuban culture. But they were mainly there to play baseball.
That’s what happened on Friday, November 26, 2016, at Estadio 26 de Julio in Artemisa, Cuba. The Owls, behind the dominating pitching of Dane Myers, shut down the Cuban League’s Artemisa club for a 4-0 win. Myers pitched six innings, striking out five while surrendering just two hits and a pair of walks. Myers also went two-for-four at the plate and scored one of the runs. Shortstop Ford Proctor was the offensive star of the game for Rice, getting three hits in four at bats while scoring once and getting the game’s only RBI.
But that ended up being the only baseball game the Owls played while in Cuba because late on that Friday night, Fidel Castro died, which sent the tiny island nation into mourning. The rest of the games were canceled along with various cultural events, leaving the Owls and the team’s supporters there with the team scrambling to fill the time.
"We were excited from the get-go to go to Cuba, and the whole trip we were anticipating playing baseball and learning about the culture, and then Castro died, and baseball kind of took a halt because of it," Proctor said. "In its place, we got to experience a lot more culture instead, and we kind of filled the time that would've been baseball with the historical stuff that we got to see.”
Graham, who played some games in Cuba while in the minor leagues, wanted his guys to play ball and experience the culture while visiting Cuba. And his team impressed him immensely in the one game that it got to play, but it was the learning experience it ended up offering that impressed him more.
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“I taught nine years of history, four history classes a day in high school, and yet I learned from that trip. I did,” Graham said. “When you get there and you start looking into it, yeah, I think it was a great learning experience for these guys. Particularly because that kind of excited their interest in everything when Castro died — learning what’s the big deal and this and that. So they kind of investigated why Castro did what he did and why he was able to get it done. They learned a great deal from it. They empathized with the people who — they’re relatively happy considering that they don’t have hardly anything, and I think that taught [my players] a lesson about how much they have yet here’s these people who don’t have a lot and they manage to be happy.”
Proctor says his eyes were opened by the devotion that Cubans have to the sport of baseball. It’s not just a sport for the players. It’s an obsession.
“It was cool for all of us to see how they approach the game, and how all of the people in the stands have such a passion for the game,” Proctor said. “They play the game with such intensity. That’s their national sport. They love the game and they have fun playing it.”
So how did this all translate for Rice this season? Proctor claims Cuba brought the team closer together. And perhaps the fun and passion of the Cuban players will come out in Rice’s play. But despite everything else, it’s still probably a safe bet to say that the Owls will head off to the NCAA Regionals when the season ends because that’s what Rice baseball does.