OMAHA — On a team that racked up 49 wins and featured eight Major League Baseball draft picks, the two student managers tasked with running the newest gadget bestowed on Virginia baseball can be easy to overlook during a typical home game.
Drew Bonner sits in the concourse behind home plate in his wheelchair, diligently typing code into an iPad after every pitch. Tyler Slate can usually be found hunkered down with two 60-inch television screens in a dark room beneath the bleachers at Davenport Field, Virginia’s home stadium, splicing together film into the wee hours of the night.
Together, they hold the keys to Virginia’s new state-of-the-art $325,000 video system, another symbol for how much this program has grown over the past decade.
The Cavaliers are scheduled to start play in their third College World Series in six years on Sunday night against Mississippi, but this experience will be entirely different than the school’s first appearance in 2009. Virginia, ranked No. 1 in the preseason, is the favorite to win the national title and the highest seed remaining in this year’s field.
Coach Brian O’Connor now comes armed with the resources of a baseball power, and the eight cameras that surround Davenport Field are the latest proof of the fundraising that comes with a perennial winner. They document every move the Cavaliers make on the diamond, and a mere 15 minutes after a game ends Virginia’s coaching staff has a condensed file containing every at-bat and pitch.
None of it, though, would be possible without the efforts of two D.C.-area natives who will never take the field in Omaha over the coming days.
“Our video system is unbelievable, but if we didn’t have Slate and Drew to man it, there’s no way our coaches would have enough time in the day to use it to its full capability,” pitching coach Karl Kuhn said. “If it wasn’t for those two guys . . . we’d have no shot.”
Bonner knew long before he arrived this past fall for his freshman year at Virginia on an academic scholarship that he wanted to make the 1.2-mile trek from his dorm to Davenport Field every day.
Born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Bonner played third base and pitched until the progressive degenerative disease forced him to give up baseball at age 11. By the time he was 14, Bonner was in a wheelchair.
But his love for the game never waned. He served as the team manager at Madison and Fairfax high schools and earned national headlines when the two schools held “Drew Bonner Night” last spring and Bonner received the only at-bat of his high school career.
So last summer, Bonner, a computer science major, sent e-mails to Virginia’s coaching staff expressing interest in working with the team. He enlisted several Northern Virginia baseball coaches to do the same.
As it turned out, O’Connor needed a manager who knew the intricacies of the sport, had the patience to meticulously catalogue a three-hour baseball game and possessed the computer skills to grasp the program’s newest piece of technology.
“I was ready to do anything,” Bonner said. “Right after I stopped playing, there was a time where it felt like something was lacking. But coming here has definitely been fulfilling.”
O’Connor, meanwhile, had long eyed a new way to film his team. The old system consisted of a player, usually a freshman, setting up behind home plate with a video camera, stopping and starting the film with every pitch.
It was a tedious task, one every member of the team dreaded.
“Our freshmen have gotten off easy this year,” reliever Whit Mayberry joked.
Now, Virginia has eight cameras — two behind home plate, one in the home bullpen, one in center field, one on top of each dugout, one along each foul line and another inside the team’s indoor batting cages — that rotate 360 degrees to capture every movement a hitter or pitcher makes.
During each pitch, Bonner will note the batter, pitcher and situation on an iPad app called Sportscode, which Virginia’s basketball teams also utilize. That data is imported into individualized files, and it’s up to Slate to sync the video with Bonner’s work.
Slate, who hopes to become a baseball coach, also compiles clips Virginia’s coaches can use to scout an upcoming opponent.
“It’s easier now that we have all this,” said Slate, a Herndon native who graduated from Virginia in December. “You take the files the coaches want and plug in their iPads. [Before] there were lots of hoops. Lots of DVDs. It was a hassle.”
Most MLB teams already have such advanced equipment in their ballparks — Virginia’s system was created by the same company that installed the video system at Marlins Park in Miami — but only a select few in college baseball enjoy such luxuries.
“I don’t know what we did without it, quite frankly,” O’Connor said. “It allows us to evaluate our players. It allows us to evaluate an opponent. It allows us to evaluate an umpire. That’s probably the bad thing about this system is sometimes at night it makes me more frustrated.”
The results, though, can be seen in Virginia’s run through this postseason.
Kuhn makes his pitchers watch video from four angles after they take the mound, even if it’s simply a bullpen session, and the Cavaliers enter Sunday’s game with the fifth-lowest earned run average (2.31) in the nation.
Virginia’s lineup, meanwhile, found its groove at the plate in recent weeks after an underwhelming regular season, in part because the new system allows hitters to “see the intricacies we may not have seen before,” said catcher Nate Irving, who analyzes film more than any player on the team.
“I think it helps a lot of the coaches, especially if someone’s struggling,” said Bonner, who planned to drive from Charlottesville to Omaha in time for Virginia’s opening game of the College World Series.
“You can see the actual evidence of what’s going on, and I think it helps a lot of the players because you can see yourself and what exactly you’re doing rather than looking at a stat line or a number. This is more interactive.”
And it wouldn’t be possible without two of the program’s unsung heroes.
“I tell everyone they put more work into the game than we do a lot of the days,” Cavaliers ace Nathan Kirby said of Bonner and Slate. “They’ve made it a lot easier to kind of worry about stuff at the last minute. They don’t get as much credit as they deserve.”