For Dothan native and current Auburn University assistant baseball coach Gabe Gross, the sudden stoppage in baseball activity during the midst of a season because of the coronavirus had a familiar feel to him.
It was 21 years ago this fall, Gross, the son of a former Auburn football player (Lee Gross, 1972-74) and life-long Tiger fan, decided to give up his dream of playing football to concentrate on baseball. The decision came after the Tigers’ second game of the 1999 football season.
“For me personally, it was a little bit of comparing to me stopping to play football (at Auburn) as that happened in the middle of the season,” Gross said in a Dothan Eagle interview this past week. “One day, you have the uniform on and the next day you don’t. It was really, really hard and it is still one of the more difficult things I have done in my life.
“You have this season you prepared stretched in front of you then it is done. Of course, I stepped right into baseball at that point and that was the timing of that decision.
“This was a really close (feeling). It was really similar. It was just weird. It just stopped.”
Gross recalled that Auburn baseball had just finished playing Wofford at Hitchcock Field at Plainsman Park on Wednesday night March 11 when the coronavirus threat eventually forced the NCAA and SEC to cancel the rest of the season within 36 hours.
“It happened so fast,” Gross recalled. “We got through playing Wofford on a Wednesday and got word that we were probably going to have to play a lot of games with nobody in the stands or just maybe a handful of family members.
“By the time we showed up as a staff to get ready to practice the next day on Thursday, it was pretty clear that we were not going to be playing (for a while). By the time we started practice, they had cancelled the next three weeks.
“We had practice and by the time practice ended, we got together as a staff again and we were like, ‘I don’t think we are going to play anymore this year.’
“It was hard to take in at first that really and truly our season might have ended with that practice. The next day rolled around, it was over. I think technically the SEC didn’t cancel it until it was a little farther out, but that Thursday the NCAA cancelled the College World Series and it was hard to see how things were going to work with that already being cancelled.”
Gross concluded it all saying, “We played on a Wednesday, practiced on a Thursday and it was over before Friday could get there.”
He admitted the chain of events was “shocking,” but he quickly focused to Auburn players.
“You are hurting for your kids,” Gross said. “You have been preaching to them and they have been working so hard as you start preparing for the season for six months and it (the cancellation) happened in a hurry.”
With only one team in college baseball able to finish the season with a win in normal circumstances, the reality of a season-ending loss — either in a conference tournament, a NCAA regional tournament or in the College World Series — is always present for a player, almost an expectation of sorts.
But having a season end, not by a loss, but in an unexpected way away from the field was a shock to the system, said Gross.
The Tigers, like most every college baseball team, hadn’t even gotten through 1/3 of the season. In fact, Auburn, 13-5 at the time with 37 scheduled games left, hadn’t even played a SEC series yet.
“Our players still had so much more physically to give,” Gross said, indicating how players pace themselves for a full season. “We hadn’t even gotten to conference play and that is when it gets fun. That is what the season is about — the conference games.”
The former Auburn baseball All-American, speaking on Wednesday from his home in Auburn, said everybody in is family was doing well from a health standpoint.
“Bo and his family are good,” Gross said, referring to his older brother. “My mom and dad are good and we are good. Everybody in my family at the current moment is healthy and trying to find the best way to pass time.”
Gross has tried to stay busy to pass the time. He estimated being on the phone with fellow staff members, players and recruits for four-five hours a day and seeing some via video-conferences. Most of the calls are about seeing how the players are doing physically and mentally.
“I miss the one-on-one interaction in person, but at least it is able to happen over the phone (and video conferencing),” Gross said.
He has also done other things he would never do in the spring because of his baseball and family obligations.
“I just pinestrawed my yard,” Gross said. “I have cleaned the gutters out. I have washed decks. I have blown off decks. I have washed and clean boats. I have tried to play a little golf, which seems to be one of the things you can keep your social distance on and still do. I fished a little bit. I have tried to do a little bit of everything.”
The SEC and NCAA mandates of no practices or games, though, has provided some positive by-products for Gross, who played at Northview High School (1998 graduate), at Auburn (1998-2001) and later in the major leagues for seven seasons (2004-10).
“It made me appreciate it a little bit more,” Gross said of baseball. “Anytime you go without something that you really enjoy or love it makes you appreciate that item — the whole absence makes the heart grow fonder. I was commenting earlier how much I missed it, missed being a part of Auburn, the season and the competition.”
Gross, who also served as an Auburn graduate assistant baseball coach in 2012 and 2013, said the down time has also allowed him rare time to study himself as a coach. Since re-joining the staff prior to the 2018 season as hitting coach, Gross says he has been busy with one thing to another with recruiting, the fall season then the spring season.
“For me — and I try to make everything as positive as I can — it will be good in the long term because it has given me a chance to hit the pause button for the first time since I got back into coaching,” Gross said. “Now, I am able to look back at some of the things I was teaching and really have some time to make some changes and design some things a bit differently and try to get better as a coach.
“I have looked at some of our guys and their swings, but mainly it is more of reassessing the concepts I am teaching, how I am teaching it and how I can get better at teaching a certain technique or explaining the game a little bit better to our guys. Really every part of me as a coach, I am trying to reexamine it and see if I can do it better.”
While he has tried to stay busy, his mind still wants to be out on the baseball field.
“It has been weird, especially how beautiful this spring has been. It seems there ought to be baseball being played, but it is what it is.”