LOUISVILLE, Ky. - On a hot October day in the Dominican Republic, Louisville senior pitcher Kyle Funkhouser is on a bus ride.
After a few moments of palm trees, sandy grass fields, and streets lined with small, run-down houses, the bus veers down a narrow dirt road and comes to a halt. Funkhouser steps out of the bus to see a shabby baseball diamond, enclosed by a short wire fence. The grass is patchy. The dirt of the pitcher's mound is rugged and uneven. The ware of cleated and barefooted stomps have made the foul lines hardly visible.
This isn't the type of bus ride Funkhouser expected to be taking this year.
Flashback to the summer of 2015. It was on the same early-June night that an 11th inning homerun downed the Cardinals' quest for a third-consecutive trip to Omaha, Neb. for the College World Series that a childhood dream came true for the right-hander from Oak Forest, Ill. Sitting the decisive game three after having started the Cardinals' game one loss in the Super Regional, Funkhouser watched as the Cal State Fullerton homerun snuck just inside the leftfield foul pole at U of L's own Jim Patterson Stadium. After the game, Funkhouser was informed that he had been selected 35th overall by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2015 MLB Draft, which had been running concurrently to the game.
The selection made Funkhouser the highest-selected Cardinals baseball player in program history. Earning First Team all ACC honors and a Third Team All-America nod from Louisville Slugger as a junior, Funkhouser added to his lengthy list of decorations and accomplishments. A member of eight All-America teams in his three seasons at Louisville, he finished his junior season with a 26-9 record in 57 appearances, struck out 281 batters, and posted a 2.47 earned run average in 287.1 innings of work.
For many student-athletes in Funkhouser's position, the only bus rides ahead of them would be with their new teammates to professional ballparks, where the grass is immaculate, the mounds pristine, and foul lines constantly reinforced. But shortly after being drafted, Funkhouser made the decision to return to U of L for his final season of collegiate eligibility.
Though he came back to get his degree and refine his overall pitching, Funkhouser found additional purpose when he stepped off the bus and onto that beat-up diamond in the Dominican last October. As part of the Louisville baseball team's trip to the Dominican Republic, which coincided with the university's fall break, the team would lead a baseball camp for area youngsters in addition to playing a series of games against Dominican professionals. The camp turned out more than 70 baseball-loving children from the impoverished area. Interacting with the kids, who ranged in age from 8 to 18 years old, offered Funkhouser a new perspective, and placed in him a new heart for community service.
"Even before the (Dominican) trip, I had always liked volunteering and giving my time to help kids learn about baseball just in my neighborhood back home," Funkhouser said. "But going to (an impoverished country), you see that different people need different kinds of help."
Funkhouser notes that the camp demonstrated baseball's unique ability to transcend geographical borders as well as linguistic and socioeconomic boundaries. Though he had helped teach baseball countless times before, the sights and sounds of this experience offered something completely new.
"So many kids came out, and you could tell that they all loved the game and loved playing," Funkhouser remembers. "Some kids didn't even have any equipment. They just showed up because they wanted to play. A kid might not have shoes or a glove, but just wanted to be there. They would have three or four kids sharing one glove, sharing a hat, sharing bats."
"That's the one thing that I will never forget: how genuinely they cared about the game and about each other. Obviously, some of the kids didn't know each other, but they know the struggles they're going through, somebody else might be going through the same thing, or maybe worse. You can see pictures and hear stories, but it's one of those things where unless you experience it person-to-person, it's hard to really get a feel for what it's like."
The trip has inspired Funkhouser to make community service a large part of his life in the future. As a current collegiate athlete, all he can offer is time. But if the future sees Funkhouser suiting up as a Big League pitcher, that will change. The pitcher hopes his coming career will enable him to offer both teaching and financial aid to those in need. Specifically, he says he would like to re-visit the Dominican for an opportunity to reconnect with the campers he met months ago.
While the new desire to serve those in need was an unforeseen benefit of Funkhouser's return to campus, obtaining his degree in marketing was the main purpose. Fueled by the opportunity to make both his parents and himself proud when he walks across the graduation stage in May, the 2015 ACC All-Academic teamer will add yet another accomplishment to his resume.
As a student-athlete also on academic scholarship at U of L, it has been important to Funkhouser to display his academic focus. Maintaining better than a 3.0 grade point average throughout his three years, Funkhouser's degree will serve to validate four years of work both on and off the field.
"I've always tried to excel and push myself in the classroom," Funkhouser says. "My parents did a good job when I was young pushing me to get good grades and letting me know it could take me places in life. The baseball accolades are cool, but sometimes it's easier to me playing baseball than studying hard. I've been really happy to put in the hard work and watch this all come together."
Funkhouser has served the role as the Cardinals' star ace in a period of unprecedented success for the program. In his time with the team, the Cardinals have made two trips to the College World series, won three consecutive conference titles, and finished at least 30 games above .500 in each of his three seasons in the rotation. Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell says Funkhouser's decision to return showed not only leadership, but dedication to his education and his U of L teammates.
"Kyle's decision to return for his senior season was a personal one for him, but I do think it showed the belief he has in himself to improve as a player and a person, on and off the field," McDonnell said. "It showed a lot of belief in what he thinks this baseball team can accomplish in 2016."
Kyle and the Cardinals will throw out the first pitch of the 2016 season on Friday at 3 p.m., ET, when the team will welcome SIU Edwardsville for a three-game series. Though the months since June have been unpredictable for Kyle Funkhouser and the Louisville baseball team, this spring will at least have some familiarity.
No. 16 will be taking the pitcher's mound for the Cardinals, and those who follow the program have come to know what to expect when that happens.