Harvard's early spring baseball practice is something like a circus -- a lengthy, five ring circus with assorted sideshows. Down in Carey Cage, Coach Norm Shepard runs the squad through bunting drills with Iron Mike pitching machines, sliding practice in the Cage's dusty pits and hit-'em field-'em drills on the packed down gravel.
The fielders bemoan the weird bounces from grounders skidding along the infield and the batters complain that they can't see the dirty spheres when they come whirling out of the pitchers' grubby sleeves, but this year the team to a man exudes a tough confidence that transcends the gloom of the Cage.
Just before he stepped into one of the netted-off batting cages, Captain Joe O'-Donnell stopped to talk about the team's chances in the tough Eastern league. The catcher-turned first baseman admitted that there just isn't much proven varsity talent on the roster -- but he said there were three or four players who could get their share of hits.
Dan Hootstein -- fourth draft pick of the Atlanta Braves last June -- has hit over .300 for the last two seasons. If he reaches his personal goal of better than .350 this spring, the major league clubs will come racing to Kirkland H-24.
After Hootstein the biggest threat in the lineup may be junior Carter Lord -- star end on the Ivy League football co-champions. Last year as a pinchhitter, Lord slugged two homers and scored a solid .278 average.
And then there is O'Donnell himself. The husky senior slumped off last year after a great .300 plus sophomore season in league play, but there are plenty of hits left in his meaty fists.
Perhaps the best example of the new "hungry" look on the Harvard team is senior second baseman Nelly Houston. The former Rhode Island schoolboy star has played regularly for two years, but last summer on Cape Cod broke his leg in six places on a blown double play.
Although he still limps noticeably, Houston maintains he will be ready to go when the League games start a week from Saturday. He got some therapy from miracle-worker trainer Jack Fadden during the winter and managed a couple of stinging hits at yesterday's practice.
But beyond these four, now that academic probation has claimed last year's shortstop Jeff Grate -- "you can't imagine how much that hurts." O'Donnell said -- there is no experienced hitting talent.
But help may be on the way. One observer was startled yesterday when he first walked into the Cage, and looked in on a bunting session -- and there without a helmet or pads was Vic Gatto.