Pittsburgh boasts a number of fan favorites with varying levels of skills and experience. The Pirates' current fan favorite might just be Neil Walker, a local product who is actually one of the better players on the team. The Penguins have a cadre of beloved fourth-liners in Mike Rupp and Craig Adams who inspire fans with gritty play on the ice and great personalities off of it. The Steelers have had their share of fan favorites from starting tight end Heath Miller, who earns himself a helping of "Heeeeath"s every time he catches a pass, all the way down to third-string running back Isaac "Redzone" Redman, who made his mark as a short-yardage force one training camp.
But it's doubtful that many players have become accepted as quickly as 2011 seventh-round pick Baron Batch, a running back who is quickly capturing the hearts of fans despite the fact that he's only been a Pittsburgh Steeler for less than a month – and hasn't participated in even a spring workout.
Batch has yet to touch a football, but has found ways to connect with current and future fans off the field through social media and a very popular blog, which has been up and running for the past three years.
"I think it's important for people to just really feel like they're immediately connected to me by being able to go to my blog," said Batch. "And I think people feel that when they go there. I know a lot of people that have never met me read that stuff and they're like "I feel like I know you." And it's true. If you go there and you read that stuff, you know me very well. All of that stuff is very personal and stuff that I struggle with and stuff I'm going through."
"I think it's important – if I'm going to be in the spotlight – just to kind of be transparent," Batch said. "I think nowadays a lot of athletes, or people in general that are in the spotlight, don't realize that it comes with the territory. I think the best way to do it – to affect people – is just to let people see that you're just like them, that you struggle just like they do, and have problems and issues and things just like they do. I think people go and they can see that and it's real to them. If they feel connected to me, hopefully it helps him."
Baron's blog, which he admits has gone "out of the roof" since being drafted, has become a platform for him to show that he is more than a football player while simultaneously inspiring readers – or even saving them.
After Batch's pro day at Texas Tech way back in March, a fan approached the NFL-hopeful and told him the story of how one of his particularly-inspirational posts backed him off from committing suicide.
"It was really cool to see that what I do and sometimes what I can't see really does affect other people in a big way," Batch said of the event.
Much in the way that the city has began to fall in love with Baron, the seventh-round pick was equally impressed by Pittsburgh, a city which he believed was all "coal stacks and smoky pipes" before his pre-draft visit.
"I had no clue what to expect," he said. "That's what I thought it was going to be and I got there and it was nothing like that. I was really surprised and really kind of fell in love with the city and loved the feel of it. It really caught me off-guard. I enjoyed the little bit I saw and from what people have told me, they say I'll fit in well there as far as how the people are."
Baron also believes he'll be able to fit right in with his new professional team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Because no matter how popular he becomes off the field, it will be up to the young runner to make himself equally loved on it.
The 5'10", 210 lb. running back arrives from a Texas Tech football program that has been one of the teams at the head of the rise of the spread offense in the NCAA. Coach Tommy Tuberville keeps a fast-paced tempo and dishes out a heavy dose of the passing game on his opponents, something most running backs might not approve of. Batch isn't complaining, however.
"Playing in that offense, it really made me well-rounded as a running back," he said. "If you play in that offense first of all, you'll never play if you can't pass protect. That's one thing: it helped me out in terms of pass protection; not only being able to physically do it, but mentally being able to go through the schemes and break down defenses, get pre-snap reads on things, and understand where blitzes are coming from."
"Secondly, you have to be able to catch the ball because they throw it so much," Batch continued. "So just being able to improve my hands and my route-running skills and being able to actually line up, if I needed to, at wide receiver and be able to run a route; and then not only run a route but catch the ball and get up field to make a play after the catch."
It's these primary skills that led Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert to draft Batch in the seventh round. In his post-draft press conference, Colbert praised the running back's ability to catch the ball and stated that Texas Tech was "really like a third-down offense," something that could work in Batch's favor.
With third-down back Mewelde Moore facing free agency and no clear heir apparent among the team's other young rushers, Baron's wealth of experience in catching the ball and picking up blitzes could allow him to make the team out of training camp and carve out a role early in his career. Beyond that, he'll just pay his dues and follow the lead of Pittsburgh veterans.
"I know coming in I'm not going to be a team leader immediately," said Batch. "I'm going to follow. There are tons of leaders on this squad and I'm going to follow what they say. Hopefully, I can become one of those people who makes people around them better."
Batch listed being a good teammate, that willingness to both follow and lead, and his toughness in facing adversity, among traits he'll bring to the Steelers when play resumes.
Regardless of what happens in the next year or two, the young seventh-rounder has already placed the foundation for becoming Pittsburgh's next fan favorite. The city just hopes he'll be able to capture their hearts with his play as well as his words when he's finally given the chance.