Alumni and other friends of Abilene Christian University and fans of the Texas Rangers are in for a treat June 12 when ACU has its annual get-together at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, this time for a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks. ACU’s block of 850 seats in the All You Can Eat Porch is now sold out.
But before the game begins, ACU will lead off with president Dr. Phil Schubert (’91) throwing the ceremonial first pitch and country performing artist Aaron Watson (’00) – the university’s most recent Young Alumnus of the Year – singing the national anthem.
Both Schubert and Watson love baseball. Schubert has been active as a Little League coach and tried out for ACU’s team as a senior. He’s a regular at the Wildcats’ games each spring (or as often as a president’s schedule allows). Watson also had intentions of playing for ACU until his collegiate baseball career was derailed by an injury his junior year. He writes of his passion for the game in “The Day the Mick Died” on his blog, Barbed Wire Halo. Watson also coaches his son’s Little League team.
Aaron, we hear you grew up loving baseball; what’s the story behind you playing it at ACU?
I was throwing a baseball before I was old enough to walk. I played in high school and at New Mexico Junior College, then transferred in 1998 to play at ACU. But I hurt my back that fall, so an injury kept me from going forward with the team. I guess you could say I never gave Coach (Britt) Bonneau a chance to cut me.
Phil, we hear you grew up loving baseball; what’s the story behind you playing it at ACU?
One of the great things about baseball is that you don’t always have to be strong, fast or have great athletic ability to contribute. That’s why it was the sport for me! I started in T-ball and played through high school. I still remember the butterflies in my stomach before games, the excitement and energy during the game and the wad of bubble gum afterward. Those were great days and I’ve enjoyed reliving them with my 13-year-old son, Mason. ACU didn’t have a baseball program when I came to ACU as a freshman in 1987, as the program was discontinued in 1980 to comply with Title IX legislation and provide more opportunities for women’s sports to grow. So, it made for a pretty exciting day when we heard in early 1990 that baseball would return to the Hill that fall. I was a senior by then and decided I would try out, hoping to play for coach Bill Gilbreth (’70), who had pitched in the major leagues for the Detroit Tigers and California Angels. I made the team but it probably had more to do with my enthusiasm than my ability. We had a blast that fall getting ready for the season to begin in February but as the semester came to a close, it was clear I really didn’t need to be out there. I hung up my cleats, thanked coach for the opportunity and committed to continue my support for the team from the stands.
Aaron, what’s the best rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” you’ve ever heard?
I once heard Ted Nugent play it on an electric guitar and that was pretty cool. But I prefer hearing a female’s beautiful voice sing it. It’s such a sacred song, it deserves someone to do it in a super classy way. I’m not sure a man can do it a lot of justice, although as a boy I heard Kenny Rogers (the recording artist, not the pitcher) sing it one time and thought he did a great job.
It’s a song that should feel soulful, and I think people with a background singing blues have an advantage. I’ve been asked to sing it before at various places, but always declined because I didn’t feel comfortable or didn’t think I could do it justice. But I’m a very patriotic guy. My dad is a 100 percent disabled veteran from the Vietnam War, so it will be special for me to have this opportunity. And the timing is good from my perspective, because we’re releasing a single June 1 from our upcoming album, and 100 percent of the proceeds from the single are being donated to help disabled veterans. It’s associated with the Boot Campaign, which benefits the same brave men and women who have sacrificed to protect our freedom. I think I may throw Dr. Schubert a curve ball when we get there: he can sing and I’ll throw the pitch. Think that will work?
Phil, you’ve given a lot of baseball instruction through the years to Little League players. How much of it will you need to remind yourself June 12?
The advice that sticks out most is “Relax, have fun and just play. Quit thinking about it.” That seems pretty relevant for me at the moment.
Aaron, are you planning to sing a cappella or with a guitar?
I think I’ll sing it a cappella.
Phil, your father-in-law, Don Rhoden (’58), was a standout baseball player at ACU. What kind of advice has he or others given you?
Don has more athletic ability in his big toe than I have in my whole body. He’s been a huge part of Mason’s baseball experience. When I asked Don for his advice, his words were, “Don’t do it.” ACU baseball coach Britt Bonneau tried to make me feel better by explaining how the first pitch is rarely part of the TV broadcast, unless it goes badly. So he suggested throwing it as far up on the backstop as I could so that, in his words, “ACU would be all over ESPN.” Thanks, coach, but I think there are better ways to increase our visibility.
Aaron, what’s the largest crowd you’ve performed for, other than the June 12 Rangers’ game?
We’ve played music festivals with 30,000 and 40,000 people. Once you get above a certain size crowd, it looks like a big sea of people from my perspective on stage. I feel pretty much the same when singing for 1,000 or 5,000 people as for 30,000. At some point, the size of the crowd is just sensory overload anyway. I like to focus on people I can make eye contact with, and just go from there.
Phil, do you plan on doing a lot of practice, or just winging it?
How about if I answer that afterward?
Aaron, are you feeling any pressure yet?
I don’t know if I feel pressure; I’ve been singing in front of people for 10 years. I don’t get scared much but this one has me a little worried because so many of my friends from ACU will be there. And Nolan Ryan and Josh Hamilton.
Phil, are you feeling any pressure yet?
The day after I told my family I had been asked to throw the first pitch, we were watching the Rangers’ game on TV. About halfway through the first inning, they showed something that proved coach Bonneau’s point. Actor Gary Sinise (a main character in “CSI:NY” and “Forrest Gump”) was the guy on the mound before the game that night. His throw went no more than about 10 feet, bounced far to the left and the catcher had to act fast to save him further humiliation (although it became a bit of a YouTube sensation). Mason looked over at me and said, “Dad, you will NOT do that! Do you understand?” So much for filling my head with positive images, huh?
— Ron Hadfield
June 8, 2012