He is not yet the ‘King of Swing’ in the Big Ten, but the OSU junior has found the beat and he’s dancing to a new and improved tune.
COLUMBUS — The world has changed for Ronnie Dawson. The footing isn’t always smooth. There are obstacles where once there were few. What was easy is taxing at times.
For Dawson, it’s a new age. It’s in his eyes, his voice, his smile—his every at bat and action on the field. It’s all a part of the process, growing as a baseball player.
He has made great strides, but occasionally, he slips. Old habits are ingrained and difficult to shake, impossible to completely escape. But, he listens and works. So much is at stake. Every step—or miss-step—might affect his future. He knows this, and all too well.
When the topic arises in discussion, Dawson smiles. It’s the smile of a young man who is growing up, who’s facing a reality, something he’s given far more thought and attention than all but a few will ever know or understand.
“We work on it: hitting, fielding—the game—every day,” he says. “When we’re not working on different things, we talk about ’em.”
That’s been the practice for the better part of three years now. When Dawson arrived at Ohio State, he was a three-sport star out of Licking Heights High School giddy with success and the prospects of playing baseball for the Buckeyes. He was Willy Wonka in The Chocolate Factory. College ball was a short stop on the way to the prosperous fields of the majors. Already, it seemed within his grasp.
He never said as much, but it was evident—as evident as the smile that never seemed to fade or offer a single hint of insincerity, and why not? As a freshman in 2014, he could out-run everybody. He could throw with anybody and he could hit the ball as hard and as far as any one else on the team.
Oh, he had some trouble in the field—throwing to the wrong base on occasion, making a late or errant break on a ball here and there—but he shouldered his mistakes and assured any and all that he was “working on it.”
“Such a talent,” said OSU coach Greg Beals, “the kind of talent you don’t come across very often. But, he was raw…And that was understandable. Being a three-sport star in high school he didn’t play on the more competitive travel teams or in the summer leagues that the other kids did…He had not seen the same caliber of competition.
“So when it came to the finer points of the game, he was behind. He hadn’t had the opportunity to see these talented pitchers from around the country, and had not been introduced to some of the finer – more sophisticated – points of the game. He was just going from one sport to another. So when he got here, he had some ground to cover.”
The process began quickly. As a freshman, Dawson appeared in 53 of 55 games. His .357 batting average led the team and ranked fifth best in the Big Ten. He hit 10 doubles, four home runs and drove in 25 runs. The one mar on his line was his walks-to-strike outs ratio. He drew 16 walks and struck out 35 times.
“Freshman year,” Dawson said, “nobody knew who I was or what I could do, so they were just throwing me fastballs and I was hitting…I’m not saying it was easy. No, no, I don’t mean that, but I was getting some pitches to hit.
“Last year, they knew me and that started to change, teams started pitching me differently. They weren’t going to throw to me. You know, give me pitches to hit. I needed to be patient, but my approach was—well, I was still a kid.”
Frustration crept into play, and his line dipped. He hit .279. He had seven home runs and 34 RBI. But he hit more line drives that turned into doubles and while he stuck out 41 times, his walks total increased to 26. He was learning. He was learning the distinction between hitting and a quality, disciplined approach at the plate.
“I was learning patience,” he said. “I was learning that I wasn’t going to get much just right there. I was getting a lot of breaking balls, a lot of off-speed stuff – off the plate. But I was still a young hitter, mentally.”
This year, after spending the summer in the well-respected Cape Cod League and hour upon hour with Beals and assistant coaches Chris Holick and Matt Angle, he gets even less to hit, but he’s doing more with it.
Dawson enters this weekend’s Purdue series at West Lafayette batting .321. He has 31 RBI and has hit eight home runs; his walks-to-strike out ratio – 24-to-28, and while his numbers are second to senior co-captain Nick Sergakis (.380, 36 and seven), his status on the team and in the eyes of opponents is unquestioned.
“Even though Nick has the numbers, Ronnie is still the guy,” Beals said. “He’s the dude opposing teams say, ‘Oh, crap.’ He’s the guy everybody pitches extremely carefully because they know what he can do.”
Last weekend at Illinois, Dawson was 7-for-15. He scored three runs, drove in four, had two doubles and two jaw-dropping home runs.
“He can do it all and you do not want to see him up there when the game is on the line,” said Illini coach Dan Hartleb. “He’s a tough out in the middle of that batting order. He’s one of the really dangerous hitters in the league when he’s in advantage counts.”
Yes, Ronnie Dawson can bash, but he’s come a long way from being impressed with a prodigious home run – a very long way.
In the 2-1 win over Rutgers on April 17th, Dawson was talking with reporters after the game. No matter where the conversation ranged, he returned to his eighth-inning at-bat, a soft two-out single to left.
The pitch was up, a slider away, “some kind of breaking ball.” Dawson fisted it over short and it dropped in shallow left.
“It’s things like that, that make me happy,” he said, smiling. “He was giving me nothing and I could take that pitch the other way…Used to, I would have never done that. I would have tried to pull that pitch, and I would have popped it up or struck out.
“It may sound funny, but now I get as much pleasure out of something like that as I do hitting the long ball…It’s like Coach Angle told me, ‘I’m gonna get my average to left and my power to right.
“I can hit,” he continued. “I can hit the ball over the fence, but if I can stay disciplined and roll over on that pitch, and hit it to left—a line drive or a bloop single—I’m happy. That’s success I just got to trust myself…I’m learning.”
Beals paused for a good, long while when Dawson’s words were related to him. “That statement alone says a whole lot about Ronnie’s development. It defines his maturation process. He now has an appreciation of being a good hitter as opposed to just juicing the ball…Of course, that’s okay, too.”
NOTES: Due to forecasts for bad weather in West Lafayette, the Buckeyes and Boilermakers will play a doubleheader Friday at Alexander Field beginning at 3:00 p.m. The finale in the series will be Saturday at 2:00…It’s a critical series for Ohio State. At 5-7 in the conference, the Buckeyes are tied with Rutgers for 10th in the 13-team league…The top eight teams advance to the conference tournament in Omaha…Purdue is tied with Northwestern for last place at 2-13…A sweep would be most beneficial for OSU, but as Beals is quick to note, there are no “gimmes” in the Big Ten. Beyond that, sweeps are difficult enough without involving a double header, and bad weather adds another testy element.