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Baseball - Thu, Apr. 7, 2016

April 7, 2016

Article by Jeremy Hoeck - Yankton Press & Dakotan - Photo Credit by James D. Cimburek - Yankton Press & Dakotan

A college baseball player at age 42?

Why not, thought Jay Thaler.

Why not give it a try, thought the Vermillion native who is - seriously - listed as a freshman catcher on the Dakota State University baseball roster.  

"It wasn't my idea, or even my intention," Thaler said, smiling, before a Tuesday doubleheader against Mount Marty College in Yankton.

"I didn't plan this at all."

No, it took some prodding from his friends on the Dakota State coaching staff.

And some paperwork.

Thaler, who works full-time as a banker in Vermillion and has been a fixture on the area amateur baseball scence, received a text before the season from DSU assistant coach Eric Hortness.  The question was asked,' How much eligibility do you have left?'

It wasn't a jok, as Thaler found out when he received another message:  'No, I'm serious.'  No, the Trojans needed a second catcher.  And fast.

After some back-and-forth with the registrar's office at the University of South Dakota - where Thaler studied as an undergrad two decades ago - and Dakota State, Thaler received his answer:  If he enrolled at DSU, he could play.

How?

The NAIA has what's commonly referred to as a '10 semester rule,' which in Thaler's case meant that because he never saw varsity sports action while in college, he technically never began any eligibility.  As long as he enrolled in at least 12 credit hours and met other elgibility requirements, he could play baseball for the Trojans.

What could've been a long, complicated process was actually rather simple for Thaler.

"It was easier than I thought it would be," said Thaler, who is taking four 3-credit online courses.

And so, there he is, 42-year old surrounded by players half his age.

"You don't run into that every day," Dakota State head coach Scott Hortness joked Tuesday.

Aside from any on-the-field challenges Thaler has been facing this season, he would tell you the most challenging aspect comes from juggling that coursework.  That certainly doesn't make him make unique on a college roster, but Thaler also has a full-time job to juggle.

"That's probably been the most difficult part of this," he said.  "Just the amount of time that class work actually takes, especially online.

"That's been the biggeset demand; where do I find the time?"

And then there's the matter of actually making it to games.

Thaler, who typically cataches the second game of doubleheaders, traveled with Dakota State on its early-season trip to Arizona.  He's also been able to commit to weekend games and weekday games when possible - like Tuesday in Yankton, only a 25-minute drive from his home in Vermillion.

In total, Thaler has played in nine games for Dakota State (9-18).

And when he's tasked with catching those back-ends of doubleheaders, it's almost as if the Trojans have a coach out there.

"Any time he's behind the plate, we're comfortable with the pitches he'll call and the work he does back there," Scott Hortness said.

Life in the batter's box has been a bit of a different story so far, however.

Thaler has recorded one hit in 21 at-bats, with three walks and nine strikeouts.  That was probably to be expected early on, he would tell you.

"It's the hitting and timing, especially against the caliber of pitchers we've seen," Thaler said.  "It's like seeing the best amateur pitching every night, but twice."

Even for as long as Thaler has been playing, it was probably expected that he'd need some time to adjust at the plate, Hortness said.

"When you're an amateur player and you haven't played in a couple months, your bat's going to start a little slow, and that's what he's running into now," the DSU coach said.

Thaler isn't discouraged, though, he said.  There haven't been moments where he's felt like he made a mistake and doesn't belong at that level.

"It's been a little bit of a struggle so far, but I don't feel like I'm overmatched," Thaler said.  "I don't have the results I want."

"There are flashes of it being there, but it's just not consistent."

It's going to take some time.  Just like it would for any college freshman.

And just like any other freshman, Thaler has some time.  He does, after all, have three years after this season to play for the Trojans - if he chooses to keep going.

For now, though, he said he's enjoying being around his teammates.

"They've adjusted to it great," Thaler said.  "As far as I can see, they've accepted it and treat me like one of the guys."

Follow @jhoeck on Twitter.

 
 
 
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