Ronnie Dawson used to “run to the ball,” using his natural speed and glove in order to just make a play.
Today, the Ohio State left fielder times and tracks the flight path in an effort to make the smartest and most effective move.
When it comes to awareness and technique, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound junior has developed extraordinary skills comparable to those of a player with much more experience — and he’s done it in just three years, earning a starring role with the Big Ten Tournament-champion Buckeyes in the process.
“I didn’t play a lot of high-level baseball when I was younger, even through high school, I didn’t play in the Under Armour Game… I didn’t do any of that,” said Dawson, who had a tournament-record 15 hits and six doubles during a marathon run through Omaha this past weekend. “I played football, went to football camps.
“But then you know, Coach (Greg) Beals and (assistant) Coach (Mike) Stafford, they saw me and they took a chance on me. I was real raw, and they developed me.”
Listening to their instructions has worked well for Dawson, who is absolutely one to watch heading into the College World Series regionals.
“That’s why I am the player I am today,” said Dawson, who hit a crucial home run against Michigan State and scored the winning run during Ohio State’s 8-7 title-game win over Iowa.
To date, Dawson has started 56 times this season. Before then, he started in each of the Buckeyes’ 55 games in 2015 and started 53 times as a freshman in 2014.
Baseball wasn’t always the plan for Dawson, though. Once upon a time, he tore up fields as a linebacker, running back and tight end for Licking Heights in Grove City, Ohio. He had offers to play at the Division I level. Several schools were interested in him.
Football, not baseball, was supposed to be his vehicle for athletic accomplishment.
And then he got injured, tearing his ACL as a senior in the fall of 2012. At that point, football was no longer an option. So, that following spring, Dawson found a new hobby: He became a bat boy for the Columbus Clippers, a Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians.
That odd twist ended up playing out in his favor. Fetching bats for pros and hanging around the clubhouse caused Dawson to embrace the game more than he had done in the past.
“I started meeting a lot of players like Matt LaPorta, Michael Bourn… (Francisco) Lindor,” Dawson said. “I’ve seen those guys come up and down (from MLB) — I talked to those guys, and they taught me a lot…”
Attentive and willing to learn, Dawson ate up every bit of information fed to him by the Clippers. Some of it made sense, some of it didn’t — in some aspects, it was almost as if they spoke a foreign language.
Foreign, because Dawson didn’t grow up on the diamond. His domain was the field.
Football? Sure. Baseball? Not so much.
“I listened to them, but I didn’t experience it, so I really couldn’t apply that to my game,” said Dawson. “I could apply different things, but when I started playing baseball and going through those things…”
Things changed. That’s what happened once Dawson dove further into baseball.
“Now I understand what they were saying,” he said.
Polishing a Gem
Believe it or not, Dawson had never played the outfield prior to joining the Buckeyes. It was a different world all together. But Dawson has made himself at home.
The phrase “residency” suits the former first and secondbaseman these days. He wears it, too. His rapid progress has been nothing short of incredible.
“The process has been not as much with the bat,” said fifth-year Buckeyes coach Greg Beals. “The bat is awfully gifted. There’s a lot of ‘natural’ to his bat. Ronnie takes a lot of swings and works very hard on his game… the majority of the work has been done defensively. He has made himself into a very good defensive outfielder. (He has) an average arm, but he goes and gets the ball off the bat very, very well.”
Four years ago, Beals caught word of a raw kid from right in his own backyard. Inquisitive and hopeful, Beals and his staff decided to take a look for themselves.
“We had heard of Ronnie during his junior baseball season, but hadn’t really seen him,” Beals said. “Where’s he been? Who’s he played for during the summer? He was a big-time football player, really hadn’t been on the travel circuit or the showcase circuit. He just played on a local travel team there in Grove City…”
It didn’t take long for Beals to order pursuit. He wanted to see more, so he invited Dawson’s team to an Ohio State camp.
“We were really impressed with the raw tools and athleticism — speed, power,” Beals said. “But probably more than anything, we just really liked the young man… his charisma, the energy that he had. I thought that wasn’t only a skill that we were interested in, but his character would be a great asset to our club as well.”
The offer was extended and accepted. Dawson committed as a junior — before he had gotten injured playing football, and before he absorbed what he could from the Clippers.
Next thing Dawson knew, he was ready to play. Play. Not start.
But that didn’t take too long, either; he waited two whole games before being placed into the every-day lineup.
“For most people, that’s not a big deal,” Dawson said. “But for me, I’m a competitor, so when I wasn’t starting, I was like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to do something about this…'”
Which he did.
“So our third game, we had a doubleheader that day, and they said, ‘Ronnie, you’re starting.’ So I’m like, ‘OK, this is my opportunity. I can either take advantage of it, or, you know, or not,'” Dawson continued. “I took advantage of my opportunity that coach gave to me and I didn’t look back.”
The First Time
Four-for-four. A home run and a double. That’s how Dawson made his collegiate debut.
“I had a real good day,” he said, pausing, then laughing a bit.
The Buckeyes lost 7-3 to Indiana State that day. The next, they lost 8-6. But Dawson had emerged.
Beals knew it, too.
“Opening weekend his freshman year, we had a couple of older guys that I ran out there and then we got (into the game) and I said, ‘We need to give the young boy a shot,’ ” Beals said. “And when he got his shot, he took off and ran with it and never looked back.”
Coaches then began to look forward.
But not even Beals knew what would end up happening with his rising freshman.
“I knew that he had power and a lot of offensive potential when we recruited him,” Beals said. “But I didn’t know that it was going to be as clean and productive as it was right away. With the lack of the summer ball and some of the upper-level competition growing up, I didn’t know how fast it was going to translate. Give this athlete credit — it translated pretty quickly.”
Surprised but not shocked. That goes for everyone.
“Honestly, I knew I could have a good future,” said Dawson, who led the Big Ten with 13 home runs; his 47 RBI were tied for second-most with teammate Nick Sergakis. “I mean, everyone should (think that about themselves). But I didn’t think it was going to be like this…”
As “loyal” as they come. Dedicated. A “rock-solid human being” who’s all about those around him. Dawson has become a cornerstone of the Buckeyes program. Because of his contributions, Ohio State is among the hottest teams in the country and appears to be well-prepared for a run through the 64-team CWS tournament.
“When you have a group of guys who compete the way we’ve learned how to this season, you need some guys you can look up to get big plays — you need some of your big-time players to make some of those big plays, and Ronnie has done that down the stretch,” Beals said. “He means so much to our guys. Because of that energy, he’s charismatic — the guys look up to him. He’s maintained that drive, and that really fuels the rest of our ball club.”
This past weekend in Omaha was the Ronnie Dawson Show. He did everything — and they were done during win-or-go-home situations within a tight window of opportunity. Fielding, hitting, base-running. Everything.
“Bunt…,” he said with a laugh. “I showed it a couple of times, but I didn’t get a good pitch…”