College Baseball: Funny thing happened on way to CWS

For the small-ball-inclined UC Irvine baseball team, dropping bunts that creep halfway down the baseline is an important part of a winning formula that has helped the Anteaters reach the College World Series.

But a closer look into the psyche of this overachieving team, reveals that at least equally important to that success are the events that unfold hours before the game, considerably farther down the foul line.

Just as it did in its inaugural 2007 run to Omaha, where UCI (40-23) takes on Texas (43-19) in the opening game on Saturday at noon Pacific Time at TD Ameritrade Stadium, UCI players perform comedic skits that entertain and enliven the entire roster.

Junior outfielder Ryan Cooper and sophomore infielder-outfielder Grant Palmer are the main catalysts behind the skits, which typically involve poking fun at the coaches or the players. Most often, the diamond theatrics end in uproarious laughter, or even a spontaneous verbal release that accompanies a mass slam dance.

"We try to make every single skit as good as possible, as energetic, funny and entertaining as possible," said Cooper, who along with Palmer conceive and perform nearly every skit.

"It's the kind of thing that has almost been passed on," said Palmer, the current starting second baseman who has 13 runs batted in, 58 hits and 28 runs heading into Omaha. "It's a thing we love to do. Me and Ryan kind of took the bull by the horns this year and it has been great for our team. It keeps everyone loose and laughing at each other. We've even done some skits that make fun of [himself and Cooper]. There are some high-pressure situations that we are getting ready to go into and to get a laugh here and there keeps it fun and keeps it loose."

Cooper said he is aware of the legacy of the 2007 skits, performed by a group led by outfielder Ollie Linton that called itself "The Company."

"We all knew they did the skits in 2007 and that's kind of what gave the team a little bit of its character," said Cooper, a reserve who has 11 RBIs in 46 games this season, including 19 starts. "We didn't do them my freshman year [2012], then last year, Andy Lines, a fifth-year senior kind of brought the idea back. Normally, before that, we would start with a joke of the day and a player would come out and tell a joke.

"Lines would coordinate them last year, but me and Grant decided we were going to step up to the plate this year," Cooper said.

These skits, are unique and typically generated in about an hour, said Cooper and Palmer, who both have a talent for impressions and shamelessly commit to their performances.

"We try to be creative and the sky is the limit," Palmer said. "I think some of the favorites this year are the ones in which we imitate coach [Bob Macaluso, whose New England accent lends itself to comedic portrayal]. He's an easy target."

Cooper — who said sophomore Jonathan Herkins, junior Kris Paulino, freshman Evan Cassolato and junior Justin Castro, all outfielders, are also frequent contributors — noted it is difficult to pick a favorite skit.

"We're talking 50-plus skits," Cooper said. "There are some I remember and most of them go well. But there are always a couple that don't go the way you plan them to and I think those are really the ones that become most memorable."

The pregame performances typically carry over to an infectious dugout spirit that pervades throughout the game for a roster that has been cited as particularly close-knit.

"If we're in the dugout or on the field together, we're going to be going crazy," Cooper said. "This is one team that is not too cool for school. We don't feel like we need to be walking around like we are some big league club, or like we have done this before. We're not trying to be someone we're not. We have fun every single game we are out here. Why would we not be going nuts and soaking this all in? It's great and I think that's why we're doing so well. We're playing loose and the energy helps us."

Assistant Coach Ben Orloff, a former UCI All-American shortstop who was a key member of the 2007 team that finished fourth in the College World Series, said that exuberance is a big plus for this year's 'Eaters.

"The energy this team has and brings every day is remarkable, special, and different," Orloff said. "It's a big part of why we are good. It's hard to show up every day with energy and try to be good. These guys have done it."

Junior third baseman Taylor Sparks said that willingness to have fun helps this team compete at a high level.

"We're not a team that has unbelievable talent up and down the lineup, so we have to come out firing right away," Sparks said. "We're trying to keep everybody fired up and trying to create our own momentum. The skits and all the shenanigans we do in the dugout and before the game, only pump us up for the game and get us more prepared to compete. Some teams do some rally routine in the seventh inning and stuff like that, but I feel like we keep it going from pitch one to the last pitch."

The Anteaters and their fans are certainly hoping the show goes on.

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