FORT MYERS, Fla.—Seventh inning. One out. Senior night for the Bishop Verot baseball team against Whitesville Trinity from Kentucky.
Jaret Rusnell steps to the mound the most nervous he’s ever been. He’s the closer on this night, April 7, and it’s the second to last regular season home game for the Vikings seniors, who a year ago reached the Class 4A title game at JetBlue Park.
This year is different. Bishop Verot is just 9-14 entering the game. Vikings coach David Nelson says to himself, “We need to win this one for the seniors,” and now he’s putting the team’s manager on the mound for his first career appearance, in his first career game, in a very big moment for the team.
The last time Rusnell pitched was in the eighth grade. So yes, he’s nervous.
First pitch fastball. Right down the middle. Strike.
As a freshman, Rusnell entered Bishop Verot without much fanfare. He didn’t play any other sports. But he sure loved the game.
He tried out for the team his freshman year, but Nelson cut him, telling him he wasn’t good enough for the varsity, or even JV.
Rusnell, a quiet and reserved teenager, was devastated.
“It showed me that I wasn’t ready to play at the high school level,” he said.
He didn’t pick up a glove or a bat for the next two years.
Second pitch fastball. Hitter sends a ground ball to third base. Second out.
Three seniors approached Nelson in the fall. Trevor Cramer, Michael Richey and Devyn White had become friends with Rusnell over the years. As seniors they began to sense their friend would be missing out if he never experienced a year in the dugout.
They asked Nelson if Rusnell could be the team manager. Problem was, as the coach put it, “We already have a team manager.”
Joe Rossi, a talented hurdler for the Vikings track team, had been with the club for years. Nelson didn’t want to yank the job out from under him, but then Rossi had an out (track) and it freed up.
Still, Nelson said, Rusnell would have to approach him on his own if he wanted the job.
And then he did, right before Christmas break. He went into his office. Asked him point blank.
Nelson didn’t give him any promises.
Third pitch curveball. Hitter smacks the pitch foul.
The arrival of January meant the hardest part of the season for most baseball players. Conditioning.
Here comes Rusnell.
The senior had gained some weight since his freshman year, so Nelson didn’t think much of him. But the funny thing was, Rusnell wasn’t there to take notes. He wanted to run.
“Guys condition,” Nelson said. “They run hard. Blood, sweat and tears. The guys really push the limits.”
The first time Rusnell ran a mile, Nelson said, he timed in about 13 minutes. He continued. Six days a week. On the track, Rusnell sweated his fears out.
Nearly every day, he ran a mile. Times went down, from 13 minutes to 12. Twelve to 10. He hit 9 minutes. The week before baseball tryouts, he ran an 8:30 mile.
“Coming from where he was, to lower that time in a matter of weeks, it was a huge accomplishment for him,” Nelson said.
Tryouts arrived. Rusnell wanted to give it one last try. Forty-four players arrived for 20 varsity spots. The senior went to the outfield.
It didn’t happen. Nelson cut him again.
He asked the senior if he still wanted the manager position. Rusnell, in a little bit of a white lie, said he wanted it all along.
Fourth pitch curveball. It slips out of Rusnell’s hand, going behind the batter. Richey, the catcher, saves the throw.
As the season began, Rusnell hit the road with the Vikings. He assured himself he was there for a reason.
“I just wanted to be a part of the family,” he said.
On game days, he would keep the book, logging singles, doubles, RBIs and runs. But it was more than that.
During pre-game, Nelson would ask him to set up the baseballs for infield-outfield. In practice, Rusnell would bring out machinery. He would catch for Nelson on infield reps. After practice, when the running commenced, he would be out there.
Nelson respected that. Even though Rusnell didn’t make the team, he still wanted to be included in every single moment. Just in case, Rusnell filled out his physical forms before the season, like any player would.
Midway through the season, he asked assistant coach Rich Nizza, on a whim, whether Nelson would ever let him play. Nizza asked, “What would you do?” Rusnell replied, “I would pitch.”
Nizza brought that conversation up to Nelson not soon afterward, shocking Nelson. He didn’t really think of it again, until of course, he did.
Fifth pitch fastball. Batter lines a hard hit ground ball to third base. The Vikings gobble it up and fire it to first, sealing the final out and the win.
Now or never. It was Monday, April 4, three days before senior night. He approached Nelson after practice.
“Do you think I could play maybe?”
“Jaret, what would you do,” Nelson said. “He says, ‘I can pitch.’”
No answer. Nelson would have to talk to athletic director John Gulley. All the paperwork was in. Gulley told Nelson, jokingly, “You should put him on the mound.”
Tuesday, Nelson tells Rusnell it’s possible. Would he play? Still no answer.
Wednesday, Nelson tells Rusnell to find equipment. The senior borrows pants from his friend, Richey, and finds his cleats from the eighth grade, one-and-a-half sizes too small. He wears them anyway.
Thursday, Rusnell sees a jersey lying on the bench before the game. He goes for it. Nelson says, “Not yet.”
Bishop Verot players charge the mound. The crowd explodes. Rusnell gets mobbed. It’s the biggest moment in his life and you can sense it. The grin on his face is painted on his face the entire night.
The players head to the corner of the outfield waiting for a pre-game talk. There, Nelson finally breaks down.
“I start reviewing basically the last six months of what Jaret was trying to do and what his plan was,” Nelson said.
“Got cut his freshman year, he gained a ton of weight and he never came out for baseball. He conditioned. And now that he’s lost 40 pounds, he wants to do this. So, I presented him with the No. 18 jersey.”
It’s hard to explain just what you feel in a moment so big, but Rusnell remembers feeling like anything was possible, that he earned that moment.
Days later, there still wasn’t much to say. He didn’t have to.
Rusnell goes to put the jersey back on the bench, back with the other jerseys. Back to being manager. Nelson tells him to keep it.
The Vikings were leading 6-0 into the top of the sixth, but then Trinity scores three runs in the bottom of the inning, putting everything on the line.
Nelson wasn’t sure what to do. “I knew we had to win this game,” he said. “I knew this was a moment the seniors would remember for the rest of their lives.”
His answer came in the top of the inning. Karma? The Vikings find a lift, scoring four runs. Richey, the guy who advocated for Rusnell to be on the team, walks and scores a run.
The Vikings go into the seventh leading 10-3. Rusnell warms up in the bullpen.
Nelson tells himself, as a coach, there are choices you’ll never forget. This is one of them.
Go in, kid. It’s your moment.
“In 30 years, what will I remember, I’ll remember the look on that kid’s face,” He said. “He had this smile on his face. It would be everlasting.”