There are two sets of “New Kids on the Block” — the ’80s boy band, featuring Jonathan, Jordan, Joey, Donnie and Danny, and BYU’s “Freshman Five” of Luke, Chad, Ben, Easton and Parker. One group sings from the past while the other has a beat on the future.
“It’s the kind of experience that you can’t get in practice. The only place you can get it is in games. It is unfortunate that some of our guys are out, but it’s invaluable for these guys who are in.” — BYU baseball coach Trent Pratt
There are two more glowing differences. First, the five-person band delivers the same hits every night, while the five BYU boys fight for consistency. Second, the New Kids are no longer kids. Each musician is old enough to have their own children in college.
As for BYU, the kids are kids, and they are growing up on stage at Miller Park where the Cougars (14-20) host Utah (13-21-1) Tuesday (6 p.m. MDT, BYUtv).
“It’s the kind of experience that you can’t get in practice. The only place you can get it is in games,” said BYU coach Trent Pratt. “It is unfortunate that some of our guys are out, but it’s invaluable for these guys who are in.”
Injuries and opportunities have transformed half of Pratt’s starting lineup to five newcomers who last competed in high school. The adjustment to the college game hasn’t been easy, but, like a band of determined musicians, each one has found ways to contribute.
Luke Anderson, second base
With returning starter Ozzie Pratt nursing a sore arm, Luke Anderson was moved from a part-time outfielder to a full-time resident at second base.
“I don’t have much experience at second base,” Anderson said. “I’ve had to learn to control my emotions. If I make a bad play, I just have to let it go and move on to the next one.”
The former Utah Gatorade Player of the Year from Snow Canyon High in Santa Clara, Utah, turned a game-saving double play to beat Utah Tech last week.
Three days earlier, against San Francisco, Anderson hit his first collegiate home run.
“When I hit it, I didn’t know if I got all of it, so I took off running and as soon as I saw it go over it was the best feeling ever,” Anderson said. “It was just incredible.”
Anderson followed up his first home run with two more to become the 11th player in BYU history to hit three home runs in the same game. As a new kid on the block, contributing to the team’s success is a motivator to do more. He is hitting .360, including a home run and a double in Saturday’s 5-4 victory at Santa Clara.
“It feels like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I’ve always wanted to play college baseball so coming in as a freshman means a lot,” Anderson said. “College baseball is nothing like high school. It’s a completely different ballgame. Everyone is good.”
Chad Call, shortstop
With returning starter Brock Watkins out with a hamstring injury, Chad Call was installed at shortstop, and he is making the most of the opportunity.
“I think it’s huge. It’s difficult to get on the field as a freshman,” said the Mission Viejo, California, product. “When you are out there you learn so much so fast because everything is so new. You get to think less and play more.”
Shortstop is the quarterback of the infield and requires constant attention and for Call it has been an education.
“You have to stay locked in on every pitch,” he said. “You never know where the ball is going to go.”
Call’s father, Burt, appeared in 10 games as a freshman to begin his successful BYU career in 1985. The younger Call, who served a Latter-day Saint church mission to Arkansas before enrolling in school, already has 17 starts and is adjusting to college pitching, batting .143 with 11 runs batted in.
“He reminds me to relax and says all of the good stuff is coming,” Call said of his dad’s advice. “I think we are starting to see that.”
BYU is 5-2 over the last seven games, including back-to-back WCC series victories against San Francisco and Santa Clara to keep them in the mix for the conference tournament.
Parker Goff, catcher
With returning starter Collin Reuter lost for the season due to shoulder surgery, Parker Goff, a freshman from Herriman, was summoned to appear behind the plate on March 21 and he has been catching there ever since.
“He was ready to play. It’s not easy to sit there and watch. In practice he kept working and getting better, we thought, ‘Let’s give him a chance,’” said Pratt, a former college catcher at Auburn and Arizona State. “He’s blocking the ball great, catching good and he’s been a tough out at the plate, which has been a nice surprise.”
Goff had to wait 20 games before getting his first collegiate at-bat on March 21 in the second inning against Utah Valley.
“I was walking up to the on-deck circle thinking I hadn’t seen a live pitcher in a game for a long time. I figured I should probably take the first pitch,” Goff said. “But then I thought, ‘They don’t have any scouting on me, so they’ll probably throw me a fast ball.’”
The former Riverton High star guessed right. Utah Valley pitcher Colton Kennedy threw a fastball.
“I saw the ball come out of his hand. I knew it was a strike and I was going to hit it,” said Goff, who sent a shot deep to center field, but he worried it wouldn’t go much further than the center fielder’s glove. “I was running to first base and looked up and it kept carrying and landed on the other side of the fence.”
Lost in the moment, Goff sprinted to second base and was making a fast dash to third when he realized he was skipping the home run trot that he had always dreamed of — so he slowed down.
“It was just a cool experience to see everyone in the dugout screaming and going crazy,” he said. “I feel like whether we are playing or sitting in the clubhouse, no one is really looked at as a freshman. We are just part of the team. Me catching and having a leadership responsibility that comes with the position has helped me grow my relationships with my teammates.”
Goff, who is hitting .314, hails from a family of lifelong Utah fans, except for his grandparents, who bleed blue.
“My family is awesome. They are my biggest supporters. My dad is willing to put on a BYU hat and BYU shirt and come to the games to support me,” Goff said. “I decided to play at BYU because I love the environment on campus and my coaches. I thought it was a better option for me and my family has responded great. I think they have grown to become Cougar fans.”
Easton Jones, third base
With returning starter Austin Deming sidelined for two weeks with a leg injury, Easton Jones was thrown into the fire at third base, known in baseball terms as “the hot corner” where reaction time is greatly reduced.
“In high school if feels like you have more time over there at third base, but in college, you have to get rid of the ball faster,” said Jones, a former star at American Fork High. “Everything speeds up in college.”
Jones started 10 games at third base until Deming, his mentor, returned from injury last week. He has also logged time at second base and designated hitter.
“It’s been awesome,” Jones said of his first-year contributions. “I’m learning how to slow the game down as a freshman and it helps knowing that I belong with these guys, and I can play with them.”
Jones is hitting .242 with a home run, triple and seven doubles.
“In college, the pitchers have better stuff,” he said. “They command their pitches better. You get less pitches to hit in an at-bat than you do in high school.”
Ben Hansen, pitcher
With returning starter Jack Sterner sidelined with a foot injury, freshman Ben Hansen joined the three-man pitching rotation.
This 6-foot-6 right hander from Pleasanton, California, stands tall on the mound and garners confidence from the Dominican Republic flag displayed on his glove.
“I love how they play. They play like they aren’t afraid of anything,” said Hansen, who served a church mission to the Dominican Republic. “I’m still not quite to where I was before I left, but I’m working hard to get it back to be as good as I can. I missed (baseball) so much, especially being in the Dominican where I was surrounded by it for two years. It was constantly on my mind.”
Hansen is 0-1 in five starts with a team leading 4.09 earned run average. He allowed four runs on five hits in five innings on Saturday before turning the game over to the bullpen.
“He just competes,” said Pratt. “He’s keeping us in games and giving us a chance to win.”
Hansen is gifted with more than just curve balls. While on his mission, he learned to speak Spanish, Haitian Creole and French and he relies on them when needed — even on the mound.
“Chad Call speaks Spanish too, and sometimes we go back and forth to confuse the base runner,” Hansen said with a laugh. “He will give the pickoff signs in Spanish and the runner has no idea what’s going on.”
During a recent start against San Francisco, Hansen, his catcher, third baseman, shortstop and second basemen were all freshmen with sophomore Cooper Vest holding down left field.
“I think our group all came in with a desire to work hard and be the best we can be,” Hansen said. “We are all pretty excited about the number of minutes we are getting and contributions we are making. But it’s not a personal game. It’s not about one guy being better than the other. It’s about trying to win games for the Cougars.”
Hansen’s older brother Brett will join the pitching staff next season after transferring from Vanderbilt with two years of eligibility remaining.
Big 12 future
An added challenge for BYU’s new kids on the block is to live in the present while knowing membership in the Big 12 is in the immediate future.
“You see all of those teams and it gets exciting to be in one of the top conferences,” Call said. “It’s even more exciting because we are on the field now and we see how much fun it is.”
“It shows us what the college atmosphere is like and the Big 12 is going to be a really big atmosphere,” Anderson said. “This is good for us freshmen to get the experience so we will be ready for next year.”
Deming’s return to the lineup restores experience to the infield and polished power at the plate for BYU’s last run in the West Coast Conference. Pratt (arm), Wilkins (hamstring) and Sterner (foot) are also expected back at some point.
“The biggest thing it is helping with is confidence,” Jones said. “Knowing that next year I won’t be brand new (at third base) and that I’ve done it before is going to help a lot.”
Pratt and his staff are caught in the middle between competing right now and preparing for next season. Despite the injuries that have spurred BYU’s youth movement, he is bolstered by the anticipated payoff that appears to be coming sooner than later.
“These kids are good kids. It’s easy to be patient with kids who are showing up every day and giving you all that they can,” Pratt said. “You just know that those guys are going to have ups and downs. When they are down, you just try to coach them up to get them better. They go out and play hard all the time.”
Band of brothers
New Kids On the Block produced nine top-10 hits and sold over 80 million records, but they remain mostly strangers to the Freshman Five. Jones, Call and Anderson hadn’t heard of them. Goff knew a little bit, but Hansen was quick to throw them under the generational bus: “It’s a band my dad used to listen to.”
Nevertheless, those “old” kids and these “new” kids are bound by the same brotherhood and determination to stay on stage and play together for as long as they can. For BYU and the Freshman Five, that includes Tuesday against the Utes. For the band, the wait is a little longer — May 26 in Rosemont, Illinois.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.