Sunday, August 07, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Baron Batch(notes) (35) runs the ball during training camp at the NFL football team's practice facility in Latrobe, Pa. Steelers' veteran running back Mewelde Moore(notes) and rookies Baron Batch and John Clay(notes) are fighting for playing time behind starter Rashard Mendenhall(notes). (AP)
Mike Tomlin reacts with the same simple, flat, declarative sentence every time somebody asks him about Baron Batch.
"He's a rookie."
Which is a truth self-evident, but sometimes, we hold these truths to be wholly inadequate.
"Until he does something in a stadium," Tomlin said again here the other day, "I'm sticking with that statement."
Batch might never play a game in an NFL stadium, as seventh-round draft picks out of Texas Tech or anywhere else with the dimensions of a fairly standard human (5-10, 210) don't automatically assimilate to a professional roster, but you don't even have to ask Batch if that matters.
"Whether I play a down in the NFL or not," he wrote recently, "I am proud to say I am very much OK without football."
Batch's young life is an open book, or rather an open blog, so when you see the kind of move he put on an approaching linebacker here at Saint Vincent the other day, the kind of quick-twitch reflexive genius that sends young players and old observers alike into hoots of astonishment, you don't have to wonder where a person could have learned to run like that.
You just go to the blog.
And the blog is a wonder. It's called "Baron Batch, the Life and Happenings of Me. Enjoy."
Turns out he could have learned moves like that playing tag with four siblings on the roof of the West Texas trailer they grew up in.
Tag on the roof? Dangerous?
That's how little they had to lose.
Or he could have learned moves like that running the halls of that hospital where his mom died from multiple sclerosis when he was 15, when he ran in them all night, not knowing where, just running through the tears until he vomited and went to sleep.
How Baron Batch went from the torment of those halls, from the abandonment by his father and the agonizing decline of his mother, to the 23-year-old who gets email like the one that follows has to be one of the most compelling stories anyone has ever lugged to Latrobe for a Steelers summer.
"Dear Baron, Thank you for taking the time to read this email. I have a few questions and am asking for advice. How have you become so successful? How have you achieved what you have? I envy you, but you are also my hero. My family doesn't have much. I don't have the perfect life and the talents or skills that you have. I feel like the world is against me sometimes. My parents are divorced and my mom is sick. I have brothers and a sister that I have to take care of like I am a parent. I don't think it's fair. I feel like I will rot in this town that I'm in. I feel like there is no way out. I feel like my life isn't that important.
"I would like to hear any advice that you could give."
Batch's response ran hard and passionate toward 3,000 words, about childhood, repressed memory, faith, the heart, the soul, the spirit, temperament, grinding poverty, disease, anger, grief, life, death, bad hair days, and hope. Mostly hope.
So the demands of training camp on the clueless rookies aren't about to intimidate Baron Batch. In fact, some of the loudest, fiercest collisions of Saint Vincent's first full week have come from Batch's rattling blocks. He lit up free agent cornerback Donovan Warren on Thursday and held his own multiple times against James Harrison.
"I'm just trying to get better," he said on the field the other day. "I'm not aware of any particular reaction to what I'm doing. One or two things aren't going to make the team for me. The whole thing has just been an enormous learning experience, and the other running backs are doing a tremendous job helping me out."
Batch said he hasn't had time to update the blog in awhile, so we'll just have to content ourselves with its standing components, the evocative writing, the gorgeous photography, the soothing songs he chooses as the audio backdrop (forced to sing in the cafeteria to fulfill a rookie ritual, he went Four Tops -- "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch"), and the haunting pictures of the Haitian children he took on an Operation Hope mission in January. They're selling for $150, with the proceeds enabling those kids to attend school. Batch was hoping to sell 15 of them. More than 100 have been purchased, and his goal is to raise nearly a quarter of a million dollars.
That might happen whether or not he forces Tomlin to say something more expansive about him come September.
For now, he's just a rookie, one who appears to run with fluidity, block earnestly and catch if necessary.
But in a league that's been forced to establish its own little side industry in the redemption and reclamation business, rehabilitating dog abusers and gun toters and DUI cowboys and quarterbacks who go bump in the night, the question probably isn't whether Baron Batch is good enough for the NFL. It might be the reverse.