Two weeks ago, A.J. Simcox prodded at the infield dirt with the toe of his cleat.
Unremittingly grooming the dusty surface, the Tennessee shortstop tried his hardest to ward off a bashful smirk.
It didn’t work.
“It really hit me right then,” he said. “Not sure why, but it did.”
Gazing into the Lindsey Nelson Stadium bleachers, the freshman caught the glossy eyes of several young fans hunkered down in their seats at UT’s Fan Appreciation Day.
It was Simcox’s first time patrolling the infield in front of fans, but far from his first in a Vols baseball uniform.
“Honestly, I still have a few of my little jerseys,” Simcox said. “I know my way around this place. The jerseys, the plate and all that.”
The first time Simcox buttoned up a jersey and darted to the plate on UT’s home turf, he was just 4 years old and serving as the team’s batboy.
But at 5 p.m. today, he won’t be dashing toward the batter’s box to retrieve an abandoned bat and scurry away.
Rather, he will depart the Tennessee dugout donning a much larger uniform. One with the number 10 stitched on back rather than “BB.”
When he strides to the plate this time, it will be to take swings in Tennessee’s
(1-3) home opener against No. 22 Arizona State (2-1).
He certainty knows the way.
“I’ve walked up to that plate thousands of times,” Simcox said. “But it’s going to be a real, true blessing this time. This time it’s real. It’ll be emotional. Though, once that first pitch is thrown, it’s game time.”
But during the team’s scrimmage two short weeks ago, it was only partially a game.
Sure, fans were in attendance, at-bats were had and a winner was crowned. But the score didn’t count, records weren’t at stake and his batting average wasn’t calculated.
Looking into the stands, Simcox couldn’t help but reflect.
“That’s when it all really sunk in,” he said. “I thought of everything all at once.”
He thought of 2007.
When the then-12-year-old sat in a snow-drenched dugout in Lexington, Ky., shivering inside a warm-up jacket at least three sizes too large.
The coat belonged to Cody Brown, a former Tennessee infielder.
That unusual April day, Brown belted two home runs against the Wildcats with Simcox swimming inside his attire.
From then on, every time Brown edged into the batter’s box, Simcox slipped into his jacket.
And not long after, the youngster would unzip the warm-up and dart to retrieve the bat Brown and others sluggers would toss aside.
“It never got old,” Simcox said.
Certainty, the Farragut High School graduate fetched his fair share of bats, water bottles and balls. But the 6-foot-3 Simcox said the experience was more than a childhood dream come true.
“Sure, I looked up to the players and dreamed to be in their shoes, but I think it did more than that. I think it helped me grow as a player,” Simcox said. “My dad tells me about times when he just knew I was watching the game. Honestly, it helped me so much.”
Simcox’s father, Larry, was a UT assistant coach for 17 years. In 1995-96, he served alongside then-assistant Dave Serrano, who is now UT’s coach.
“My dad sat there and taught me the game,” Simcox said. “I’ve bled orange from the start.”
While Simcox was never the batboy during Serrano’s first stint at Tennessee, Serrano says he still vividly remembers the youngster.
Looking toward the sky in reminiscing fashion, Serrano let out a faint chuckle.
“It’s funny to think about, you know?” Serrano said. “My son, Kyle, and A.J. were little buddies when A.J. was 2 and Kyle was 1. The times I saw him, I think he was still in diapers.”
And just like the still-crawling Simcox to which Serrano was first introduced, the second-year UT coach’s rebuilding plan is still in its infancy.
When Simcox was 4 years old, he dreamed to play for UT one day. Now, Serrano dreams to direct the Vols to a trip to the College World Series.
It just so happens that Simcox was the batboy when the Vols marched to Omaha, Neb., in 2001 and 2005.
Oddly enough, it was Arizona State that eliminated UT from the College World Series in 2005.
“A.J. wants to help this place win again,” Serrano said. “I sold it to him while I was recruiting him. The fact that he could be a part of rebuilding a program that he saw and his dad was a part of establishing. He wants to get us there again.”
Riley Blevins is a freelance contributor.