Former Fayetteville High stars and current University of Arkansas baseball players Jake Fuller and Tim Carver fully realize how lucky they are this summer.
You see not many people get to play summer league baseball in the scenic beauty that is Wine Country in California.
But that is exactly what the duo is doing this summer as members of the Lodi GrapeSox, part of the Sierra Summer Baseball League.
"It is about 110 degrees, but it's just beautiful and I am loving every minute of it," Fuller said right before a recent batting practice session. "It is a great atmosphere, really laid back and I am learning a whole bunch from the veterans on the team."
Outfielder Fuller (6-2, 200) and middle infielder Carver (5-10, 160), who both redshirted this past season, are being counted on by Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn to be impact players next season.
Getting a chance to play with other collegians this summer in the wood bat league can only help that according to Fuller.
"It is a great league loaded with college players, including lots of SEC players," Fuller said. "I am learning the ins and outs of swinging with a wood bat and we are going to play some 60 games. I have had some ups and owns, but overall I am improving and getting better every day because of the experience and competition.
He's also getting the benefit of working under Leon Lee, the former St. Louis Cardinals minor leaguer who went on to a great playing career in Japan.
Lee, who once hit .340 with 41 homers and 116 RBIs in one season in Japan, is perhaps best known now as the father of current Chicago Cubs superstar Derek Lee.
"Leon Lee is a great coach, a great coach," Fuller said. "He has already taught me lots of things about the game and so far we have only played 10 games."
Fuller and Carver, who led Fayetteville to back-to-back state titles, are part of a healthy contingent of Razorbacks who are playing summer ball.
That list includes five players in the Cape Cod League, which is located just outside of Boston, has been around since 1885 and numbers 212 current major league ballplayers.
They are Brett Eibner and pitcher Dallas Keuchel with the Wareham Gateman, Andy Wilkins with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, Tim Smalling with the Harwich Mariners and Scott Lyons with the Chatham Athletics.
There's also three Razorbacks playing with the Duluth Huskies of the Northwoods League in pitchers Evan Cox, and Sam Murphy and redshirt freshman Collin Kuhn.
Playing with the West Coast Collegiate League's Bend Elks are pitchers Houston Slemp, James Mahler and outfielder Andrew Darr.
"We have a bunch of guys playing summer ball," Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. "In some cases this is a player's first chance to hit with a wood bat and every player gets an opportunity to continue playing which will only make him better. I was happy to hear that most of them wanted to continue to play this summer and I think that Arkansas will be a better team next season because of it."
Fuller, who was recruited by Missouri, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Nebraska, Air Force and Oral Roberts, was an All-State honoree and All-7A West Conference selection his senior season after hitting .430 with two home runs, 31 RBI, 11 doubles, four triples and swiping 17 bases.
Caver hit .412 during his senior campaign with three home runs, 27 RBI, 31 runs scored, 15 doubles and 12 stolen bases.
Both had a tough time while redshirting last season and being unable to help the Razorbacks' 2008 edition.
"They came in and told me ‘Jake, we could have gotten you some at-bats this spring, but we didn't want to waste your year because you have the potential to start next season,'" Fuller said. "The toughest thing was seeing all the other outfielders out there having fun, getting at-bats and playing the game that I love. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do was just to look on."
With injuries in the outfield, Fuller – who bats right and throws left - came close to taking off his redshirt – but it was something he didn't know until after the season.
"A lot of injuries were in the outfield and they almost pulled the redshirt off of both me and Colin Kuhn," Fuller said. "They didn't tell me that until after the season. The toughest thing was seeing the team struggle at times and not be able to do anything about it. I just felt helpless on the bench, but I am going to make up for that next season."
Van Horn is counting on Fuller, Carver and Kuhn to do just that.
"Collin Kuhn and Jake Fuller are both strong and physical," Van Horn said. "...Tim Carver has a chance. He's going to play summer ball and get stronger."
Playing 60 games with the GrapeSox this summer will certainly help Fuller and Caver throw off the rust off sitting out a year.
"I could play defense and I could make the throws during practice (with Arkansas), but the hardest part was to step in the box against a 90-miles-per-hour pitcher," Fuller said. "You can get ready for that with just cage work. Getting to see these pitchers this summer is getting me back in the groove."
The GrapeSox play at least five or six days a week in a season that last through mid-August.
"It is pretty much college or pro style," Fuller said. "We play four game series on the weekends on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We'll play some weekday games as well, but Mondays is our off day."
Fuller has been playing center field for his summer team.
"They are playing me mainly in center although I am getting some work in the corner spots, too," Fuller said. "In my exit interview this spring with Coach Van Horn, he talked about me playing a corner outfield spot next year."
Caver is playing second base for the GrapeSox.
"He is doing well," Fuller said. "His hands are a lot quicker since the last time we played together at Fayetteville. He is only playing second base. I don't think Coach Van Horn thinks he is big enough to play shortstop."
Arkansas finished 34-24 this season (14-15 in SEC play), not making the SEC Tournament, but making the NCAA one before losing both of its games in the Stanford Regional.
"If we can get two or three recruits that can play next year and fill some holes, we'll be very good," Fuller said. "We lost Logan and Ben, but we have Tim Smalling coming back, Andy will be at first and Eibner will be in the outfield. They are all good. We have some questions in the outfield, but we have a lot of people who can help there. We have pitchers coming in and that's good because I think our pitching was our weakness – that and striking out. I think next year we are going to be more of a contact team."
Fuller has high hopes for his squad to rebound.
"I want to win the SEC and I think that is possible and I also want to go to the College World Series," Fuller said. "I am going to be doing everything I can to get us there."
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