College baseball: Catawba’s Driver gets Rawlings Gold Glove

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 9, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY —  “Centerfield” is a familiar song at ball parks. Everyone knows it.

“Put me in, Coach. I’m ready to play — today!” John Fogerty shouts.

A mellower song was written about playing right field many years ago. Not many people know it.

Folk music artists Peter, Paul and Mary sang it.

Willy Welch penned the tune, obviously drawing on his own Little League experiences. The weakest of the nine guys available heads out to right field because baseballs don’t get hit to right field often in Little League.

The song goes  …

Right field, it’s easy, you know.You can be awkward and you can be slow.That’s why I’m here in right field.Just watching the dandelions grow.

But as you move up the baseball ladder, the right fielder becomes increasingly important. Not as important as the pitcher or catcher or shortstop, but important.

Balls start getting hit frequently to right field in high school and American Legion and college.

Balls get hit extremely hard to right field by lefty pull hitters in the pro ranks.

The right fielder has very long throws to make to third base and home, and he’s got a lot of ground to cover. Usually teams put a slower slugger in left field, so the center fielder shades in his direction to help. The right fielder is usually on his own island.

Many of the MLB greats played right field — Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline, Reggie Jackson. Just to name a few.

Ichiro played right field. The most exciting player in the game right now is a right fielder — Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr.

Catawba College student Dylan Driver can tell you all about Acuna because he loves the Braves.

Besides being a college student and a major Braves fan, Driver, a Carson graduate, is the right fielder for Catawba’s baseball team.

Anyone who has ever seen Driver play at Newman Park can tell you that he’s a sensational right fielder, but if anyone doubted that fact, now there’s proof.

The Rawlings Sporting Goods people sponsor national Gold Gloves for all the college divisions and the high school ranks. The voting is done by the American Baseball Coaches Association. They’ve been giving awards since 2007, and Driver is the first Catawba Indian ever to win a Rawlings Gold Glove.

Nine Division II guys got one. Driver was one of the three outfielders. They didn’t specify left, center or right field.

Driver learned that he was a winner during the summer months while he was playing for the Asheboro Zookeepers in the Coastal Plain League. With McCrary Park under construction, the Zookeepers had to play home games for part of the season at UNC Greensboro.

“I do remember being surprised when I heard about the Gold Glove,” Driver said. “I didn’t know I was in the running.”

That announcement had come in June and Driver hadn’t thought much about it lately. Classes have started and Catawba’s fall baseball workouts are under way. He’s been busy.

Catawba head coach Jim Gantt told Driver to come down to the field recently, and he found the whole team waiting for him. Driver had no idea what was going on. They handed him a large equipment bag with something heavy in it, but Driver was still oblivious.

“Honestly, I thought they wanted me to demonstrate some new fitness equipment,” Driver said with a laugh. “I had no clue.”

He opened the bag with some caution, like a snake might jump out, but as it turned out, his Gold Glove was in there.

It’s more awesome than he ever imagined it could be.

Driver had started out the 2020 baseball season for the Carson Cougars incredibly hot and would have been one of the leading candidates for the Mark Norris Memorial Award that goes to the Rowan County Player of the Year, but that was the COVID season and Carson’s season and everyone else’s season was over after a handful of games. The Norris Award was put on hold that year.

But now Driver has a terrific award to call his own. He earned it.

“He’s a mature defender who always takes care of his responsibilities as a right fielder,” Gantt said. “He never takes a pitch off. You have to have a lot of mental focus to play that way in right field. He reads hitter’s swings well, and he positions himself based on those insightful reads.”

Besides the mental part of it, Driver has the physical tools to be a superb right fielder. He has a center fielder’s wheels and a pitcher’s arm. He throws people out on the bases. He makes leaping catches and he makes diving catches. He can really run, so he can cover his area, and then some.

“The catch I remember most from the season was a sliding catch on the warning track at Francis Marion,” Driver said. “The warning track was made of bricks, and I tore my arm up.”

Gantt couldn’t remember any specific amazing play, just a lot of consistency.

“I just know Dylan makes every play, from the right-center gap to shallow foul territory,” Gantt said. He has a strong arm and a quick release. The best thing about his throwing arm is his accuracy and his knowledge. He always throws to the proper base for the situation.”

Driver doesn’t hit the ball over the fence all that often, but he hits quite a few doubles. He is complete offensive player as well as an outstanding defender.

He batted .364 as a sophomore for Catawba in 2023, with 47 runs scored in 51 games. He had four homers, 37 RBIs and 25 steals. He had so many walks and HBPs that his on-base percentage was a lofty .470.

While he only made third team All-South Atlantic Conference, he led Catawba hitters in OPS, which combines on-base percentage with slugging percentage.

Driver’s summer playing in a wood bat league with the Zookeepers was eye-opening, but not frustrating. He adjusted and was successful. He played left field, at first, but then coaches got a look at him in right field, and he stayed there. He remembers throwing out five or six base runners. They evidently didn’t have a scouting report on him.

“A lot of Division I pitchers gave me a warm welcome in the CPL, with more velocity than I was used to seeing at Catawba and also very good breaking pitches,” Driver said. “It was tough to hit in that league, but I did OK.”

He did better than OK. He batted .330 for the summer. The team batting average for the Zookeepers was .265.

In 27 games, Driver scored 18 runs and stole 12 bases.

Driver is 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, so he doesn’t have special size, but in every other way, he’s a special baseball player. He figures to keep getting better.

“He already is a great outfielder,” Gantt said.

While the Driver story is just getting started, it’s worth noting that song about about the Little League right fielder had a happy ending.

The kid is daydreaming in right field when he hears the crowd roar.

The song goes …

Suddenly everyone’s looking at me.
My mind has been wandering, what could it be?
They point to the sky and I look up above.
And the baseball falls into my glove!

Here in right field, Its important you know.
You gotta know how to catch, you gotta know how to throw.
That’s why I’m here in right field,
Just watching the dandelions grow.