The upside for Brett Bateman being a Minnesota Gopher is that he quickly became one of their best ballplayers. The downside is that he joined them just when the program suddenly hit a low ebb.
“Our record has not exactly been what we hoped for,” acknowledged the 2020 Mounds View graduate, “what with Covid, and not executing on the mound, and at the plate, like we should. But overall, it’s been a great experience.”
The Gopher center fielder and leadoff hitter posted a .312 average as a sophomore, second-high on the team. A 5-foot-10, 170-pound left-hander, he led the Gophers with 67 hits and 39 runs (tied), stole 21 bases, made 123 putouts and four assists against just four errors, and was the only player to start all 52 games.
However, the Gophers, long one of the U of M’s best sports programs, went 16-36, on the heels of a 6-31 ledger in 2021, when Bateman was a backup and hit .250 in 26 games.
Those were the only two losing seasons in legendary coach John Anderson’s 38 years at the helm. Anderson has a 604-400 record in the Big Ten (.601) and 1347-963 overall (.584), with 11 regular season conference titles and 19 NCAA appearances, most recently 2018.
Bateman, currently hitting .330 with the Willmar Stingers in the collegiate summer Northwoods League, is hopeful things will get back to normal with the Gophers, or close to it, in 2022-23.
“I think we can be a dark horse next year,” he said. “We have a lot of young talent that will get opportunities on the field and some juniors and seniors who hopefully will step up in big spots.”
Two of the Gophers' top three starting pitchers got drafted and another transferred — “our Friday, Saturday and Sunday guys,” Bateman said — but he is excited that the staff will add a solid chucker transferring from New Mexico, and will regain a flame-thrower who missed 2022 with a Tommy-John injury. “And we have some great young arms coming in,” he said.
The players revere John Anderson, whom they call “14,” his number. “He’s one of the great minds in college coaching,” Bateman said.
“Fourteen is a guy who heavily cares about you, about your character off the field, and your academics. He really gets to know you. He’s more like a mentor than a coach. A father figure.”
Asked about highlights so far, Bateman cited two team experiences. The Gophers had a walk-off win over Purdue his freshman year on Senior Day. “That was so great for the seniors,” he said. A winter get-away trip to Florida, one of the rites of D-I college ball, this February, for eight non-conference games, was uplifting. “We didn’t get to do that last year because of Covid. We really bonded as a team down there,” he said.
A perusal of the team’s box scores for 2022 shows some highlights on the field. Bateman had a pair of three-hit games in Florida, in a 3-1 win over Northeastern and a 14-8 loss to Indiana State. Back home soon after, he was 3-for-4 with an RBI and two runs in an 8-1 win over Kansas at U.S. Bank Stadium. He notched two hits, two walks, two steals and four runs in an 11-4 win over Western Illinois. In the the Big Ten, Bateman sparkled in a pair of three-game series, going 6-for-13 against Penn State and 6-for-15 with three RBI’s against Northwestern, with the Gophers 1-2 in each.
The Gophers were once an NCAA baseball power, racking up national championships in three straight election years, 1956, 1960, and 1964, and coming close again in 1968, under coach Dick Siebert.
That was long ago. The power has shifted southward in the modern game, particularly the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences, who have, between them, produced nine of the last 12 champions, including Mississippi this year.
“They obviously have much longer seasons. They can start much earlier, and it shows. They have great weather, ” said Bateman, who followed the College World Series on ESPN closely. “It’s just like with hockey up north. Guys can play hockey lot more up north and all the great teams are from up here.”
Bateman, who committed to the Gophers following a good showing at their development camp after his junior year, calls it a dream come true to play for them.
“It’s in my Minnesota blood,” said Bateman, who’s majoring in journalism. “I went to regional the Gophers hosted (in 2018 when they played UCLA and Canisius. The atmosphere was electric.”
Right after the Gopher season ended, he packed his bags for Willmar, where the players are hosted by local families. They play 62 games in 66 days in the Northwoods League, which has 23 teams in four divisions. “It’s intense, like a major league schedule,” he said.
Summer ball in Willmar is going well for Bateman, who’s batting .330 with 42 runs and 28 stolen bases in 54 games. The Stingers are 48-10 overall, won their five-team division (there are 21 teams) and are currently in playoffs.