Nobody knows what role Mitch Caster would have played in this Wichita State baseball season.
Most important, he would have been Mitch. He would have occupied his corner locker in Eck Stadium, where his sense of humor — in good times and bad — ruled. Maybe he would have done his impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger after a tough workout.
Regardless, he was part of the team who had been through the ups and downs and knew how to make it fun.
"I don' t think things have really changed — he's in our locker room," WSU pitcher Grant Muncrief said. "He's still weighing heavy on a lot of guys. We're all thinking about him."
Caster, a senior outfielder and pitcher, was killed in a car accident in late August as he drove through Des Moines on his way to Wichita.
The Shockers open the season against Niagara today with reminders of Caster all around. His locker remains empty with his name plate affixed. His name remains on the team roster and his biography is included in the team media guide. The Shockers will wear a patch with his initials and No. 20 on their uniforms.
"It's always on the returning players' minds, always," WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. "He was a joy to be around. Everybody loved him and had their jokes with him."
Caster, from Goddard, didn't play much as a junior. After the season, Stephenson said he hoped Caster could follow the same path as outfielder Bret Bascue, who emerged as a senior to hit .421 with 10 home runs. Caster's likely future was as a reliever, where he could make use of a powerful right arm.
"It was difficult, because a lot of times he tried too hard," Stephenson said. "He made great efforts at always trying to be the best, so it made it hard for him to relax. He wanted to be perfect."
After Wednesday's practice, Stephenson mentioned Caster to the team, urging them to take advantage of the upcoming season.
"Gene reminded us that we're fortunate to be out here, and he's up there watching over us, wanting to be down here with us," Muncrief said.
Caster's memory may keep some players from taking the daily grind of a season for granted. Outfielder Kevin Hall, a junior and a close friend, credit's Caster memory with sharpening his focus for the season.
"We're blessed to have this facility, this program and a chance to play baseball here," outfielder Kevin Hall said. "Why wouldn't you show up every day and give it your best? Numerous people have spoken to us about grasping the opportunities here. You've got to show up and do the little things you can to help the team out."