Between College Park, Maryland, and Bloomington, Indiana, lie 650 miles. The path to Champaign, Illinois, stretches 700 miles.
These are the long trips that await the Maryland baseball team over a two week-span ending May 7.
Players need to pass the time on these types of odysseys somehow. Whether riding a bus or a plane, one can spend only so many hours staring out the window, watching the scenery rush by.
Designated hitter Will Watson likes to sleep, catch up on homework or binge watch Planet Earth on Netflix. He said right fielder Marty Costes usually listens to music, while second baseman Nick Dunn “chills and drinks his Mountain Dew.”
No one but the coaches at the front of the bus thinks about baseball.
“You have to have fun,” Watson said. “You can’t just be thinking about baseball all the time. You have to get your time off, ease your mind off it.”
While Watson, Costes and Dunn have their own approaches, the number one pastime for most of the Terps is prolonged games of Mafia.
“We’ve played that for like, three hours at a time before you look up,” center fielder Zach Jancarski said.
Mafia assigns players secret roles that essentially boil down to a group of the innocent and a few villains. Both sides try to eliminate the members of the other team. The mafia silently decides to kill a target when all parties are required to keep their eyes closed; the whole group discusses the murder and votes on another player to eliminate after everyone “wakes up.”
In some ways, Mafia requires the same skills as poker: deceiving opponents and deciphering their tells to know who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
Jancarski, a self-confessed bad liar, named closer Ryan Selmer as one of the team’s best Mafia players. His personality perfectly suits the nature of the game.
“It’s the sneaky guys, the guys that don’t talk too much that are the good ones,” Jancarski said.
Third baseman AJ Lee and pitcher Jamal Wade join Selmer as the team’s best Mafia competitors, but Anthony Papio, an outfielder for the Terps the last five years, used to be the top dog.
The graduate assistant and current first base coach still jumps into Mafia games occasionally, but spends more time in the front of the bus preparing for upcoming contests with the other coaches.
Watson said the front of the bus carries a different vibe than the back, so most players are pretty territorial about their seats.
“They have a great time back there,” Watson, a front seat frequenter, said. “I can’t be that in that zone. They zone in on that game for like three hours straight. I don’t really understand how they do it.”
The Terrapins have a group of light-hearted personalities, which Jancarski especially appreciates in those moments cruising the highway.
“Our guys are actually the best I’ve been around at making long road trips fun,” Jancarski said. “If you’re stuck in a bus for six, seven hours, that doesn’t seem fun, but somehow these guys make it fun.”
It might seem like an ordinary concept. People look for entertainment on the road and few enjoy silent car rides. Jancarski swears the team’s chemistry and ability to have fun traveling translates to the field.
“I think that’s really what’s pushed us and made us a really good team this year,” Jancarski said. “You can put us in any situation and I feel like these guys are going to persevere regardless of what it is and make the most of it.”
The Terps sit atop the Big Ten standings, but they are perhaps just as well known for their lively dugout as they are for their playing ability. They scream catchphrases at their teammates in the middle of at-bats, referencing movies and music. They also credit a rally squirrel named Crumbs for their improbable comebacks. Crumbs inhabits the stadium and often digs through the players’ equipment looking for scraps of food.
Watson knows those quirks might give people the impression the Terps are goofing off all the time.
“But I mean that’s why I feel like we’re good,” Watson said. “That’s kind of our mentality, just play loose and have fun, and I think that translates on the bus as well. Everybody’s just having fun.”
As far as Jancarski can tell, that’s not the case for every team. A squad might mail it in if they fall behind 6-0, or a scuffling batter might grip the bat a little too tightly if he comes up in a pressure situation. But no matter how much a player or the team is struggling at any moment, the Terps find a way to stay relaxed.
That gives Maryland an edge.
“This game can be so demoralizing at times,” Jancarski said. “It’s tough to always stay positive, but our guys have been really, really good as far as keeping their spirits up … I think that’s going to help us kind of push past teams that might not be able to do that as well.”
As planes land, bus wheels slow to a halt and the Terps get their feet back on the ground, the team camaraderie spills into the hotel.
With usually three games planned in as many days, unscheduled down time comes only in short intervals before it’s back to preparing for the next matchup. In those fleeting moments of freedom, the players have little choice but to stick together.
“There isn’t a whole lot to do besides just hanging out with the guys in the rooms,” Watson said. “Everybody’s hanging out with each other 24/7.”
If a game gets rained out on the road, as was the case Friday in Indiana, players find themselves with a whole day to kill sitting inside the hotel.
“That kind of aggravates me, I hate sitting in one spot for a long amount of time,” Watson said, tossing a baseball back and forth between his hands. “I like to move around.”
Watson tried to catch up with his shows on Netflix in one rainout but said he fried his brain and resorted to walking around in search of a gas station just to bring some activity to his body.
Most of the time the best excuses for walking around come in the team’s group chat. The chat will light up when someone finds a Buffalo Wild Wings or a downtown area worth visiting.
Jancarski fondly remembers trying gator bites while exploring Baton Rouge in February with his roommate and Louisiana native Madison Nickens. The center fielder also looks forward to revisiting Chicago and Minnesota.
As for Watson, he wants to return to the location where the team landed for its series against Nebraska. The city at the top of his list hosts the College World Series every June.
“I want to go to Omaha, for sure,” he said. “We briefly drove around through it, so I really want to check that out at some point. Hopefully as a Terp. That’s the plan, that’s the goal.”