May 29, 2009
By Maura K. Sullivan
Notre Dame Sports Information
Scrutinize the feet of the players on the home team bench in the dugout at Frank Eck Stadium at the University of Notre Dame. If you look closely enough, two shoes should stand out, a clover on the laces of each. It is only a small, shamrock-shaped piece of fabric on a leather strap. If you look too quickly, you could miss it. But the clover's small size is what gives it such great meaning.
Each year, two of the Irish baseball players wear a clover on the laces of their game shoes and then pass that clover on to a player of their choice the next year. In 2009, junior pitcher Eric Maust and senior catcher Ryan Connolly are sporting the clover on their laces.
"Every day you put on your cleats and you look down as you are tying your shoes and on one, the shamrock is there, and you just realize that it was given to you by your elder. So there's a little bit of expectation to, one, carry on the legacy that you see out there on that board and two, that you are acting the right way and that you are leading the guys who are coming after you," said Maust, gesturing toward the board in Eck Stadium that documents the years that the Irish went to the College World Series.
It is usually a pitcher and a position player that wear the clover each year and it is not always a captain or a senior who is chosen. There aren't any specific criteria to follow, which makes this tradition even more unique. It belongs completely to the players and the team.
"It's all up to me or all up to Eric about who is going to get it. It's a quiet, under the radar tradition," Connolly said.
Despite the lack of clear-cut criteria for recipients of the clovers, the decision to pass on the clover is never taken lightly.
"It puts the reins of the program in your hands. There is a trust factor that you are going to represent the team well," said Ross Brezovsky, a former Irish baseball player who is now Coordinator of Baseball Operations at LSU.
Those who wear the clover observe their younger teammates very closely, both on and off the field. Wearing the clover is a sign that the player is a quiet leader. He may not always hit the home runs or be the most vocal person on the team, but he finds other ways to make the team better. The clover is so tiny that it might go unnoticed if you did not know to look for it and that is the type of leadership that this Irish team embraces.
"Doing the right thing, simply put, is not like flipping a light switch on and off. Either you do it or you don't. It's a person who is going to be a positive influence on the team, and not just when they are playing. I only pitch on Sundays, so I can be lolly-gagging around and it probably wouldn't matter, but that's not the point. The point is that I'm here working hard every day. If I were to give it to somebody, they would need to have that mindset, and also the willingness and the ambition to be a leader," said Maust.
The current players cherish the history and tradition that comes with wearing the clover.
"The reason that I like it is because it connects you. You put it on and it's the same thing; it's not like you go to the store and buy a new one, it's the same thing that has been worn on the shoes for, by this point, hundreds of games by a player or a group of players. Leaders on the team have worn it, so it has a lot of deep meaning," said Maust.
Connolly echoed his teammate, saying, "It's an honor. Some quality people, both as baseball players and people, have worn them, if you look back."
For all the importance that the current Irish players place on this unique clover tradition, no one seems to know exactly how it started.
Michael Bertsch, Notre Dame baseball's sports information director, did not even know that the tradition existed until this spring, when he noticed them on Maust's and Connolly's shoes.
Maust thought that no one outside the team and former players knew anything about the tradition, and Connolly isn't even sure that all the underclassmen on the team know about it.
"It's so weird, we all know guys who wore one, but there's no story that gets passed down. It's understood that if you get a clover, you are well-respected on the team and that you want to wear that clover with pride and you want other guys on the team to strive to get that clover from you when you graduate," said Brezovsky.
Everyone seems to buy in to the tradition, but nobody asked why or how it started.
It took the stories of a former trainer, several former players, and a former Notre Dame football great to piece together the roots of this tradition.
Until recently, most people who knew about the tradition believed that Irish great Aaron Heilman started the tradition when he was a senior in 2000. But Heilman, a right-handed pitcher with a 5.23 ERA with the Chicago Cubs this season, wasn't actually the one who started it.
"I'm not sure why I was the one who got credit for starting it. The only thing I can think of is that I was captain for two years and passed on a pair at the start of my senior year, so I was still playing with the guys who received them," said Heilman.
The baseball staff at Louisiana State University has deep Irish roots and was able to shed some light on the tradition's origins. Head coach Paul Mainieri coached the Irish for 12 years, from 1994 to 2006, and assistant coach Javi Sanchez played under Mainieri at Notre Dame from 2001 to 2004. And Brezovsky is the Coordinator of Baseball Operations.
While the current LSU staff was at Notre Dame in the mid 1990s, legendary football coach Lou Holtz bought clovers for his team to wear on their cleats. Many of the football players either played baseball as well or were friends with the baseball players and passed the clovers on to them when their season was over. Mike Bean was the athletic trainer for both the football and baseball teams during the Holtz era and still works with the football team today.
"It kind of fell by the wayside in football, but the seniors on the baseball team decided to continue it," said Bean.
Brezovsky even heard rumors that former Notre Dame quarterback Ron Powlus was somehow involved in the early stages of passing on the clover. Powlus said that adidas had the football team wear the clovers on their shoes, but some of his teammates may have passed them on to the baseball players.
The Irish baseball players may not know how the clovers were passed down from year to year, but they certainly know why. It is the why that has remained constant and kept the tradition going all these years.
"I would love to see it continue. I think it is something special because it comes from your teammates, your peers. Outside recognition is always nice but it means a lot more to have the respect of your teammates. They are the ones that you have gone to war with. While people outside of the team see what goes on between the lines, it is your teammates who truly see everything; the 6:00 a.m. practices at Loftus, getting back from a road trip at 4:00 in the morning and making it to your 7:00 class, the ups and downs of a long season and all it entails. It sounds kind of corny, but it was a reminder to put your best foot forward," said Heilman.