From entrance signs honoring the likes of Fred Lynn, Mark McGwire and Randy Johnson to the 12 national championship banners hanging so proudly as you step just a few feet inside the stadium to the Prior Plaza wall — which has 184 hanging plaques to commemorate every All-American and every major leaguer who has ever worn the cardinal and gold — it’s hard not to be reminded of the storied past that lies inside Dedeaux Field.
On Friday night, for the 39th time in the venue’s prestigious existence, the gates will once again open for local patrons and fans -— young and old. The lights will flicker on ever so slowly and a new season will be ushered in with the hopes of a long-awaited journey back to Omaha.
But the 2012 USC baseball team won’t be anything like the one that graced the field last year.
There are some familiar names, such as seniors Andrew Triggs (starting pitcher), Kevin Roundtree (catcher), Alex Sherrod (outfielder) and Brandon Garcia (pitcher/utility).
There are players on the rise, such as junior Adam Landecker (infielder), sophomore James Roberts (shortstop) and freshman Dante Flores (infield).
But on the surface, not a single player currently on second-year manager Frank Cruz’s roster looks to be the next immediate member of any Major League Baseball club or All-American team.
So how does a lackluster team try to restore the fading memories and once valued history of such a proud program after six seasons of dormancy?
Every player who toes the first base line before Friday’s game against Jacksonville understands what it means to don the USC emblem. They also know, however, that this is not their father’s — or even their grandfather’s — Trojan baseball program.
Since the Ian Kennedy-led squad that made the Super Regionals in 2005, the Trojans have not advanced to postseason play. They haven’t had a winning season and haven’t finished higher than fifth in the conference.
Once thought to be the dominant program in collegiate baseball, USC is not even among the elite in its own conference, as Stanford, ASU, Oregon State and UCLA have since become the only true World Series contenders from the Pac-12.
As bad as things have been in recent years, the baseball program at least had the luxury of showcasing one or two Major League-ready talents, whether it was Brad Boxberger, Grant Green, Anthony Vasquez or Ricky Oropesa.
Frankly, this team has more star power on its bench with former All-Americans Eric Munson and Gabe Alvarez on the coaching staff than they will on the field.
On talent alone, this might be the biggest question mark of a team the Trojans have fielded over the past seven years.
But this team also has something going for it that the previous futile squads didn’t have: They don’t have to compete with anyone but themselves.
“It’s not really about the past for us,” Roberts said. “We are not concerned with getting back to a place where other people outside of this program want us to be. It’s about right now with this team.”
Right now the conference views them as bottom feeders — a collection of seniors not good enough to be slotted as early round picks after their junior season, a bunch of young guys not talented enough to hack it at superior regional schools, a program where several top recruits typically bolt at the first chance to sign a major league contract.
Maybe this perception is accurate and then again maybe it’s not. Regardless, heading into a year in which there will be a complete reliance on the sum of its parts might just be the best recipe for success.
Without a star or any sort of widespread attention coming from outside the clubhouse, this team will be able to grow together in a distraction-free environment. They will, maybe for the first time since 2005, have a chance to come together as a team rather than as a collection of players driven by false expectations.
“Our chemistry is great right now heading into Friday,” Roberts said. “Everyone gets along and everyone is buying into Coach Cruz’s philosophy of making the guy next to them better. We have a good mix of older and younger guys, and so far, we mesh really well together.”
Being close, on and off the field, doesn’t necessarily translate to wins or regional appearances, but it’s definitely a great sign of the surprises this team may have in store for the non-believers or the disinterested.
When you look at it, the 2012 season is really a no-lose proposition for this year’s team. If they lose, no one will bat an eye. But if they somehow start to win and reinvigorate a sense of pride and dignity in a program that has lost its way in recent years, well, that could be a story that deserves a comfortable place on the walls of Dedeaux Field.
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