It has become increasingly rare to find a two-sport athlete at the Division I level, but sophomore wide receiver Eric Decker has decided to embark upon the tenuous path to becoming a Big Ten baseball player.
Decker, the Gophers’ leading receiver, decided to hang up his football cleats temporarily and lace up a pair of baseball spikes this season after much deliberation, becoming the first football player to do so since 2002.
After playing summer ball for his hometown of Cold Springs, and much encouragement from teammates back home, he decided to renew a lost love.
“I thought baseball was a sport I grew up loving, and it was hard to give up right away in college,” Decker said. “I figured I’d give it a try.”
Although he will miss spring football practice, head coach Tim Brewster, offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar and receivers’ coach George McDonald all gave Decker their blessing as he started practicing with the baseball team after Thanksgiving.
Minnesota head coach John Anderson said his staff was aware of Decker in high school and would have recruited him had he not decided to play football for the Gophers.
Now Anderson has Decker and says he has been impressed with his play thus far.
Last weekend at the Dairy Queen Classic, Decker dazzled spectators with a diving catch against Texas Christian University to get Minnesota out of a jam in the sixth inning.
“His speed and athleticism lets him to do some things that everybody else isn’t able to do,” junior center fielder Matt Nohelty said. “He made a couple of big plays; especially that diving catch that got us out of a big inning and kept us in the ball game.”
The Gophers like the speed Decker possesses and the way he can change a game.
Against Tulane last Saturday, Decker reached base on a walk, stole second and later came around to score to put the Gophers within three runs.
Then Minnesota erupted for four runs in the next inning to win the game. Once again, Decker rose to the occasion and kept the inning alive by dropping down a bunt single to advance the runner to second. Decker later came around to score.
“He gives us speed on the bases, speed in the outfield; a different threat we don’t have in a lot of other guys,” Nohelty said. “He definitely opens up a lot of opportunities offensively for us.”
Decker has played in every game so far for the Gophers, but he still has to adjust to college pitching after playing sparingly for the past two years.
“Each time he goes up to the plate he gets a little bit better of an at-bat,” Anderson said. “He’s starting to figure it out a little bit more.”
He collected his first two hits of the season at the Dairy Queen Classic, and has scored a run in four out-of-the five times he has reached base this season.
“I’ve got a lot of things to work on batting-wise and just experience,” Decker said. “These first two weekends have been a good learning tool and something I can work off of.”
Decker’s been working to get up to speed at the plate where college pitching can be difficult for newcomers.
“Guys throw harder, have more command, better off-speed pitches; so it’s just getting used to seeing that kind of thing,” Nohelty said. “He’s making up for a lot of time.”
And he’s making up for that time by coming to practice early, leaving late and spending plenty of time in the batting cage.
“He knows he’s got a lot to learn, but he surely is a student,” Anderson said. “If you’ve got good students, it’s easy to be a good teacher. He’s a great student.”
The transition from the gridiron to the diamond took a shift in mentality as well for Decker, as he initially criticized himself too harshly on the baseball field.
“It teaches a lot of lessons about yourself, 1-for-3 is good in baseball, and that’s failing statistically,” Decker said. “It’s not something you’re going to be good at right away, but over time it will come.”
Minnesota hopes Decker can continue to contribute like he has thus far, and perhaps he will. He said he plans to stick with baseball for the remainder of his eligibility.