CARY, N.C. -- Although Truman fell out of the NCAA Division II baseball World Series on Tuesday, this is nevertheless the story of a sports miracle.
It wasn’t that long ago that a massive round of cutbacks slashed athletic scholarships at the school located in Kirksville, Missouri. The world dropped out from underneath head baseball coach Dan Davis. How could he possibly continue fielding a team, competitive or otherwise, if he wasn’t able to offer players scholarship assistance?
This wasn’t a program being gutted that had enjoyed a long and storied tradition of championship-caliber baseball. The cold, hard facts were these: Heading into 2015, the Bulldogs had not enjoyed a winning season since 1982 and only five since the school first fielded a baseball team in 1966.
Thirty-two years, and not a single winning season. Davis’ first two years on the job in 1997 and 1998, Truman went 8-27 and 9-23, respectively.
Honestly, from the outside looking in, it might very well have been easier for the school to simply quit fielding a baseball team altogether.“I was devastated,” Davis said. “I felt like we were making strides and turning the corner. My initial reaction was shock.”
Rather than giving in, Davis resolved to keep fighting the good fight. He wasn’t going to worry about what he didn’t have, and instead chose to concentrate on going to battle with what he did.
Donations from alumni and friends of the program have built up an athletics foundation at Truman, but even now, most players on the baseball team are there on little-to-no scholarship backing. The foundation is there, but Davis tries not to dip into it for anything other than absolute necessity.
Case in point: A big expenditure was the recent purchase of a mower for the team’s baseball field, as well as construction of a press box. One small building block at a time, one day at a time. That’s the Truman State way.
This is how far Truman’s baseball program has come. When this year’s seniors were freshmen way back when, Davis sat them all down for a chat.
Just stay together, he told them, and we can have a chance to do something really special.
Davis wasn’t lying.
“We felt like we had a pretty good group coming back with a little bit of talent,” Davis said. “We thought this might be a breakout year for us. We do things through hard work and belief in ourselves. We know that there are some naysayers out there. We don’t worry about that.
“The biggest thing for us is that we just had to have guys believe in us that are in the program and find out a way to get things done. It just continues to build and build and build.”
This is the truly miraculous part of the story.
After more than three decades of mediocrity and disappointment, Davis’ Bulldogs went 35-21 this season and made it here to the DII World Series. As a team press release pointed out earlier this week, it’s the stuff of which Disney movies are made.
It took Mercyhurst 11 innings to get past Truman here Sunday, while Cal Poly Pomona defeated the Bulldogs on Tuesday to end what has been the best year in the program’s history.
Movies don’t always have a happy ending, and while there wasn’t one for Truman, its miraculous impact remained the same.
“I’ll be honest with you, I cried like a baby when these guys won that last game [in the regional tournament],” he admitted. “I still get emotional about it. I’ve been here for nine years, and I know personally what kind of effort it took us to get to where we are.”
And then there are the players, who have bought into the Truman Way.
“For these guys, it’s something a little bit more special,” Davis continued. “They know they’re not on a lot of scholarship. Most of our guys are on zero scholarship. Some of our best players are on zero scholarship, or on very minimal scholarships. They know what it means.
“They see the other teams that have all the gear. They have everything. But at the end of the day, they know they have an opportunity to play a high level of baseball. They do a great job of being a great team and a family. They love each other.”
Don’t even think about comparing the Bulldogs’ story to that of David and Goliath, however; the little school that could going up against a perennial DII powerhouses. Davis doesn’t bristle at the suggestion, but he doesn’t accept the premise, either.
The Bulldogs batted under .300 as a team this year, have some speed but usually only steal when necessary and they don’t have a lot of power. Even Davis will admit that they don’t even do the in-and-out infield drill very well sometimes. They might throw the ball in the dirt … into the stands … wherever.
“We will not be intimidated,” Davis concluded. “I guarantee you that. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, what kind of stuff you get or how much scholarship money you’re on. If it was an individual sport, it might be a little different.
“But this is a team sport. Our guys play together. They play for each other and they play for the alumni that came before them. They’re trying to leave a legacy behind them. They’re trying to leave the program in a better spot than when they got here.”