Brandon Fite was standing in the dugout of a church softball game when a young woman caught his eye.
She made a diving catch in centerfield, then doubled off the runner at second base before they could tag up. An impressive double play.
“I’m gonna marry that girl,” Fite told his buddy standing next to him.
And next year, he will.
But first, Fite has to wrap up an impressive senior season with Winthrop baseball. Headed into this weekend’s monster series against Campbell, the former Nation Ford Falcon is second in the Big South in batting average (.361), an everyday starter at second base for the Eagles playing the best baseball of his college career.
That’s a relief for Fite, whose first three years at Winthrop didn’t go exactly as planned. He hit .230 his freshman year, .250 his second season, and .203 last spring. He’s gritted through a torn labrum in his shoulder, forgoing surgery and tortuous rehab.
A hotshot at Nation Ford, Fite admits he was humbled by college baseball. He knew during his first inter-squad scrimmage with Winthrop that he was on a different level. Easy groundball outs in high school suddenly became bang-bang plays in college.
“I came in thinking it was gonna be easy. It was not easy,” said Fite. “The game speeds up on you. Going into college, everybody is just as good as you are.”
Batting struggles were all in Fite’s head
Fite’s offensive issues last season were almost all mental. He struck out 43 times, only drawing 19 walks. He said he swung at too many pitches outside of the strike zone, kept trying to smash the ball over the fence.
“It was really hard for me,” he said this week.
Fite’s season wasn’t uncharacteristic for a Winthrop program that generally struggled in 2018, failing to live up to preseason expectations.
Sitting in his office overlooking Winthrop Ballpark, Winthrop coach Tom Riginos reminded a reporter that baseball is a game of negativity. A batter gets on base three times out of 10 and he’s considered a success. Handling negativity, hitting slumps, the voices that pay rent in one’s head, are all part of baseball.
“The whole key is you learn from your struggles,” Riginos said. “I think you can go around to every one of our players that has a good amount of playing time here, they’ve had struggles, and I think the same with Brandon.”
Throughout Fite’s baseball struggles, his family was always there in the stands. Likewise for another hardcore Brandon Fite fan: Rachel Petty. She knows the story Fite tells about her church softball double play, how it’s come true. Fite proposed to her at a dock overlooking a private lake. He was so nervous he called a nearby fish feeder a bird feeder.
Petty knew something was up.
She said yes and the couple will marry May 17, 2020.
Fite had endured a junior season of baseball to forget. But he entered his senior season in a very different frame of mind. He agrees that a settled future with Rachel, the church softball star, seemed to have a calming effect on him.
So did the finality of a last baseball season.
Leaving a legacy
Fite isn’t pursuing pro ball. Instead, he wants to be a line man for an electrical company, work in a bucket truck, outdoors, use his hands. Maybe the engagement and teetering on the cusp of total adulthood put baseball in perspective. Fite said he entered the season merely wanting to have fun, to enjoy himself and his teammates.
“I don’t really have any pressure,” he said.
Freed from the chains of self-imposed expectations, Fite’s 2019 average has barely dipped below .300. He had an 11-game hitting streak midseason that took him over .400. And he’s hitting in the No. 8 spot for the Eagles.
“From an offensive standpoint, we have a lot of confidence right now, and Brandon is one of the leaders of that,” Riginos said.
Winthrop leads the league in batting (team average of .290) and also fielding (league’s fewest errors, 44). The Eagles host the league’s top team, Campbell, this weekend. A series win would be massive for the Eagles.
“Big picture, two of the best teams in the conference are playing,” said Riginos. “But we’re not gonna make a big deal about it, and I think that’s one of the things with this team is we don’t make big deals out of anything because of experience.”
There have been multiple occasions this season where Winthrop had a combined 32 to 36 years of college baseball experience on the field, spread among its nine players.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” Riginos said.
It wasn’t clear what kind of results Fite’s senior year approach would produce. Riginos admitted that he and his assistant coaches were curious to see how their unassuming infielder would play this season.
“As a coach, you go two ways with that,” Riginos said. “He’s ready to get married, and that’s great, he’s graduating, he’s got an idea of what he wants to do, so is he really gonna be all in his senior year?
“Well, he’s all in. He’s always in here early. He’s trying to leave a legacy his senior year.”
Big South Conference baseball standings
(As of May 9, 2019)