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June 14, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Hunter Mense tosses a baseball while he sits on the bench in the MU baseball team’s dugout — an action natural to him from years of playing. Mense played for MU until he was drafted by the Florida Marlins after his junior year. Five years later, he returned to MU to finish what he started: his degree. He came back to a team with the same coach, the same drive for hard work and the same dedication to the game. However, his role had changed drastically. This is his second year calling games on the radio and helping out at batting practice. Mense will graduate in December, but he’ll remain on the radio and stay with the team as a graduate assistant.
You were called to try out for the USA Baseball Team as a sophomore in college. What was that like for you?
That was one of the best experiences of my life. About three-quarters of the way through the year, they come out with a list of the guys who get invited to play for it. I was on that list along with Max Scherzer, who’s in the big leagues now. Coach Jamieson was one of the assistant coaches on that staff, so being able to experience it with him and Max made it extra special.
Did you ever second-guess yourself after leaving MU to play professional baseball?
No, not really. Maybe sometimes now, when I’m still taking undergraduate classes. But no, because that next year I ended up separating my shoulder, and I had to get surgery. If I would have done that while I was here, I don’t know if I would have gotten the chance to play pro ball. It was like a blessing in disguise.
What was it like coming back as a 27-year-old undergraduate?
It makes me feel young again. My sister is an undergrad here, so the first day of class when I came back, I asked her because I couldn’t even remember what you need for class or anything. It took me a good two months to really get back in the swing of things.
What would you tell young athletes considering leaving school early for the big leagues?
When you have the opportunity, go ahead and take it because you never know if that’s going to present itself again. For me, if I would’ve stayed and gotten hurt, it would have been a lifelong dream that I would have never had.
What do you think your biggest challenge was when playing professional ball?
The biggest transition I think was just playing every day. It wears on your body. And at first I think one of the tougher things, too, is just to know where you belong and find a place. In college, you kind of have set roles and know what’s expected of you.
Have you noticed anything different about the team now?
Coach Jamieson is really the same guy as when I was here. The way he coaches is really positive, and he gets the most out of his guys. That’s something we always prided ourselves on when I was here — being able to play hard and giving it your best effort every time out. The team this year has been up and down, but as of late they’ve been just as good as the teams that I played on when I was here. They won the Big XII championship, and it’s the first time he (Coach Jamieson) has ever won it.
How does it feel to be in the radio booth instead of on the field?
It helps that during the week I’m at practice, and I’m able to work with the hitters. That helps me a lot up in the booth because I know the guys, I know their personalities, I know what they’re working on. But at first it was tough because I wanted to be down there so bad. It’s a different perspective.
Who is your favorite baseball player, past or present?
Growing up, my favorite baseball player was George Brett. My dad always tried to get me to hit like him. Now my favorite player is Carlos Beltran. He played for the Royals when I was in high school, so I got to see him play quite a bit. Now he plays for the Cardinals, so I get to see him on TV again.
What advice do you have for young athletes hoping to play professionally?
Don’t ever forget how much you love it. Even in college, sometimes it almost becomes like a job, but it really isn’t; you’re still playing a game. You put so much pressure on yourself to do well, but if you just go out and be who you are and don’t try and be somebody you aren’t, then you’re going to be fine.