By Chris Kowalczyk
For three years, one of Alex Gransback’s deepest regrets was that his parents rarely had reason to trek from their home in Springfield, Virginia, to The Diamond. Gransback didn’t blame them. There wasn’t much to see.
During his first three seasons in a VCU uniform, Gransback logged a grand total of 64 at-bats.
“Those three years, it really sucked not seeing my parents there,” said Gransback, a senior outfielder. “And when I did see my parents there, they really weren’t watching me play.”
But there’s been plenty for the Gransbacks to watch this year. After three years of frustration, Alex is enjoying a breakout 2017 campaign as one of the catalysts of first-place VCU’s potent offense. Despite a thumb injury that cost him two weeks of action, Gransback is hitting .341 this season, second-best on the team, for a VCU squad that ranks third in the Atlantic 10 Conference in hitting.
Gransback’s slugging this season is a stark departure from his 2016 campaign, in which he rarely left the bench.
The right-handed hitting Gransback had entered the 2016 season with high hopes. He had played an important role as a designated hitter during VCU’s historic late-season run that produced the program’s first Atlantic 10 and Regional Championships. Overall, he batted .310 in 29 games of action.
But that modest success did not translate into a larger role as a junior. Gransback batted just 15 times in 2016 and managed a grand total of two hits.
“Going into last year that whole outfield returned, but we kind of had some hope for him in the DH role, and just never happened,” said VCU Coach Shawn Stiffler.
All that idle time gave Gransback an opportunity to evaluate his collegiate baseball career. Although some sense of frustration wouldn’t have come as a surprise, Gransback eventually found his motivation.
“I thought about my parents a lot,” he said. “I thought, I can’t let them down. They’ve sacrificed so much for me. If I’m going to play this year, I’m going to give them the best year I can.”
Even when he couldn’t find playing time, Gransback has always enjoyed a bit of an outsized role with the Rams as something of a clubhouse energy guy. Gransback, who can play both the piano and the violin, usually controls what the team listens to in the locker room before games and practice..
“For four years, he’s the guy who’s kept that clubhouse loose,” Stiffler said. “He has the clubhouse iPod. He runs the music. He coordinates the dances. You’ve never seen such an eclectic mix.”
A mass communications major with an interest in broadcasting, Gransback is outgoing, engaging and occasionally loquacious. Those traits have largely served him well. Although relegated to the dugout for most of his career, he never let the disappointment grip him.
“I think I sensed some frustration that he wasn’t playing, but you would never know that he wasn’t the biggest team guy out there,” said Stiffler.
“No one really cares when you’re feeling bad about that kind of stuff, so do you want to be the good teammate and move on or do you want to sulk? It doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t really do anything for the team,” Gransback said. “ [For me] it was just a simple question: Who do you want to be? Do you want to be a guy that just takes away energy? Do you want to be a guy who just sits there and wastes his time, or do you want to be a good guy, do you want to help your team, do you want to pick people up?”
Stiffler held out hope each year that this would be the season Gransback settled in and found success, but says when Alex wasn’t trying to shoehorn his way into a loaded outfield, he was weathering bouts of fleeting focus.
But this year, Gransback was different. In the fall, his focus was razor sharp, and his production on the field was that of a man playing with the keen sense he had nothing left to lose.
“He had a, ‘I’m going to leave it all out there mentality,” said Stiffler. “He was willing to make mistakes. He was willing to hang it all out there and fail. I think that’s a lesson young players should take.”
“I said to myself, I’ve got one year of baseball left, so I just laid it all out,” Gransback affirmed.
Gransback also says he was spurred by a pair of books recommended to him by Stiffler, “The Energy Bus” by Jon Gordon, which places heavy emphasis on the power of positive thinking, and “The Compound Theory” by Darren Hardy, which focuses on the cumulative impact of small decisions. Both books struck a nerve with Gransback, especially “The Compound Effect” .
“I read it and think about it almost every day,” he said.
Gransback, confident and inspired, was VCU’s leading hitter during the fall, and his bat did not cool off during the winter. Eventually, he found himself a regular in the starting lineup.
A broken thumb not withstanding, Gransback has enjoyed a career season in 2017. VCU has managed to assume control of first place in the A-10 for much of the season, a fact the Rams owe, in part, to Gransback’s emergence.
As he prepares for the final series of the regular season, a three-game set at rival Richmond, Gransback likely knows a few hits could go a long way toward securing the No. 1 overall seed in the A-10 Tournament. But that’s hardly all that motivates Gransback, who knows his baseball career is likely entering its final weeks. As hard as he’s worked to become a contributor on the field, his three-year struggle for relevance seems to have taught him much more off of it.
“I don’t think when I leave here that people will be like, Granny hit in the three-hole all year,” he mused. “I think they’ll be like, he was a great teammate. That’s what I’ll be happy about.”