By Rick Assad
Maybe it’s because OakLee Spens batted leadoff and played center field for the Burbank High baseball that he was an on-field leader.
“I knew that I needed to be there day in and day out to help my team,” said Spens, a recent graduate who will play baseball at Lakeland University in Plymouth, Wisconsin, in the NCAA Division III, where he will major in Criminal Justice and Communications. “I was actually one of the captains of the team for my junior and senior year.”
Spens continued: “I knew that leading off a game with a base hit or a walk would get the team rolling early,” he acknowledged. “I knew that everyone counted on me and trusted me to be in that spot to get on base with the most at-bats possible. I viewed my role on the team as a leader and a bar-setter. If I could get going early, it would only help the team.”
Spens was on the varsity for three years, collecting 30 hits, scoring 23 runs, driving in 16 runs with 13 walks and was a premier outfielder.
“I knew the pitchers and coaches had trust in me that whenever a ball was put into the air, that I would be there to catch it,” he said.
Bob Hart, the Burbank coach, thought Spens was the finest at the position.
“OakLee was the ultimate competitor,” he said. “Quiet, but measured. Always someone you could count on to work hard every day. In my opinion, he was the best center fielder in the [Pacific] league.”
Spens was a two-time winner of the Defensive Player of the Year and Utility Player of the Year and was recognized by the California Baseball Coaches Association.
“That’s a tough question because both are fun, especially when you love the game, but I’ll have to go with defense,” he said of whether he preferred being at the plate or in the outfield. “Sitting out in center field or really any position knowing that anything could happen is just exciting. Making diving catches or jumping the fence to catch a ball, or even throwing a guy out at home plate, just gives you a little bit of swagger in your mindset and it can really energize the team.”
Spens helped the Bulldogs reach the CIF Southern Section playoffs in 2019, a first-round loss, and said he was disappointed the season was cut short because of COVID-19.
Spens batted .273, with a .346 on-base percentage, scoring three runs and knocking in four across seven games this season.
“Having my senior year get shut down due to COVID-19 was horrible,” he said. “You grow up with dreams on how you want to live out your season. I went through a lot before the season this past year and to have it cut short due to the pandemic was gut wrenching.”
Spens went on: “I went through a knee surgery the first week of school and I was going to be lucky if I made it back by senior night, but I trained and worked through hours of pain with a great trainer in Claire [Coudray] and she helped me get back to the field just before the end of December,” he said.
Spens added: “Mentally it has been very challenging, but physically it has made me want it more. I’ve been working out and running a lot to stay in shape. I’ve been doing drills to keep my game up and I have been finding places to go hit every so often so I don’t lose any progress in my game,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s not impossible.”
Spens came to love and appreciate the game because of his grandfather, Vergil and his father, Randy.
“My grandpa started teaching me this game when I was two years old,” he pointed out. “Growing up having both my grandpa and my dad by my side to guide me into being a better player really made me fall in love with the game. My grandpa actually passed away on my 10th birthday and ever since then it was more than a game to me, it was my life.”
Baseball can humble even the best and Spens is well aware just how tough it is.
“I learned that it is okay to fail, in fact, you have to fail in order to succeed,” he said. “I play a sport where a great player is still failing 70 percent of the time. You have to fail to realize you need to work harder or keep working on a certain skill. I learned that it’s just like life. Sometimes you are going to fail and you are going to get beat down to the ground, but you have to be resilient in order to push back toward the top.”
Spens talked about being moved into the leadoff spot late during his sophomore season and going hitless in his last 17 plate appearances.
“It really sucked, but I learned that I had to get back up and keep trying and keep working because failure is a part of this game and it is a part of life,” he said.
Spens said he tried to make baseball easier, if that’s possible.
“Slowing it down came with a lot of practice in the cages and on the field,” he said. “It takes a lot of repetitions to be confident that you can play this game. I really just took it one pitch at a time and tried to just focus my mind on that. It really helped me.”
Spens said a game during his junior season, one in which he batted .250 with 12 runs scored and a .343 on-base percentage over 23 games, still brings chills.
“One of the most important games I’ve played in was against Crescenta Valley,” he said. “We needed to at least split to help us get a playoff spot. We were playing at home under the lights and it was one of the best games I have ever played in my life.”
Spens added: “I scored two runs, one very important run in the fifth to tie the game at two a piece,” he said. “Then I believe in the top of the seventh, I threw one of their runners out at the plate, keeping the game tied which later ended up as a walk-off win for our team.”
Though professional baseball in America dates to 1869, it has changed, which is part of its appeal for Spens.
“Baseball is always evolving,” he noted. “Nowadays, pitchers are throwing faster and have more movement to the pitches, while hitters are working on proper launch angle to hit a home run. If you master one thing, it evolves and you have to remaster it, even at that you always have to keep practicing or you will lose your skills.”
After playing baseball four years including one at the junior varsity level, Spens said he will look back fondly on this time.
“High school baseball was what I envisioned it to be,” he said. “Besides the ending, I loved every moment that I was able to spend out on the field. It is something I will never forget for as long as I live. It was a great ride while it lasted.”