It’s entirely possible that no player in the Show-Me Collegiate League knows U.S. Baseball Park better than Caleb Essick.
The White River Cobras outfielder is an Ozark native and standout at Drury University, which plays its home games at the stadium, located near U.S. 65 and State Route CC. Between Panthers home games, the Great Lakes Valley Conference tournament and four Show-Me Collegiate League games, Essick has played at U.S. Baseball Park more than 60 times in the last 16 months.
But he’s not sick of the place yet. Well, not exactly.
“I’m tired of big the park is and how tall the fences are,” he said. “But other than that, no, I really like it here.”
He’s not wrong. The stadium has long been known as a pitcher’s park, with the southern prevailing winds blowing in from right field. It’s 330 feet down the foul lines, 375 feet in the alleys and 400 feet to center.
“Not many balls get out. It can get kind of boring,” Essick said.
And then there’s that fence: 20 feet of blue, corrugated metal, from foul pole to foul pole. It keeps a lot of balls in the yard and makes life difficult for outfielders like Essick, who have to play the unpredictable hops.
“You have to stay quite a ways back so you can figure out which way the ball’s going to go,” Essick said. He would know by now.
Essick had a decorated career at Ozark High School, playing for his uncle, Mike. He pulled off a rare feat, earning all-Central Ozark Conference honors four times. Essick also earned Class 5 all-State honors as senior, when he batted .351, with 16 stolen bases.
He was also one of Ozark’s top pitchers, going 7-1 on the mound, with a 1.40 ERA.
He signed with Missouri State University out of Ozark, but after a redshirt freshman season, made the decision to transfer to Drury University with four years of eligibility remaining. That move has really worked out.
“I love the team. It’s a great group of guys and coaches, and it’s a great school,” Essick said. “It’s the right place for me.”
Essick made an immediate splash for coach Scott Nasby's club, starting 54 of NCAA Division-II Drury’s 57 games and leading Drury with 16 stolen bases. He batted .275 and was second on the team in runs scored, with 40, and walks, with 21. Essick also ranked in the top six in hits (53) and RBI (28 for Drury).
The Panthers went 37-20 that year, advancing to the GLVC finals and qualifying for the NCAA Division-II National Tournament.
His numbers were just as good as a sophomore. Essick batted .267 in 52 appearances, 45 of them starts, with 39 hits, 28 runs scored and a team-high 29 stolen bases. He was fifth in runs scored and sixth in both hits and RBI, with 21. Drury was 29-23 this past spring.
But he knows his game could still use some polish. He’s going to work on that this summer with the Cobras.
“Coach Nasby tells me to get better at bunting, so I’m going to get better at bunting,” Essick said. “I also want to work on hitting to the right side. Those are the main things I need to work on this summer.”
This is Essick’s third season of summer ball. He spent two years playing in the Carolina Shores Collegiate Baseball League with the Little River Blue Crabs. There were some positives to that experience, but not enough to keep him from choosing to stay in Ozark and the Show-Me Collegiate League in 2018.
“Being that far away from home in that humidity is tough. I was definitely glad to be home this summer,” Essick said.
Essick sat atop the statistical leaderboard after four games with a .500 batting average. He had five hits, including a double, to go along four stolen bases.
This move, like Essick's move to Drury, is working out nicely, too.
“It’s nice to be close to home,” Essick said. “(Show-Me Collegiate League commissioner) Joe Lincoln was originally supposed to be our coach, and I love the dude. And I know a lot of guys on the team. It’s a fun atmosphere to be around. It’s hard to turn that down.”