Close your eyes for a moment and think back to when you were 13 and think of your best friend. The person who knew you better than anyone else. The one who knew how you got the scar on your knee. The one whose house you spent just as much time in as yours. The friend you laughed with, cried with, and would go to bat for time and time again.
Now, imagine that friend trying to conquer you in a midst of angst, hatred, and disdain, now having to go at bat against him.
Welcome to the weekend of Ohio State first baseman and pitcher Josh Dezse and fellow freshman Michigan outfielder Michael O’Neill.
As Ohio State welcomes Michigan for a critical weekend series to start the second half of Big Ten play, for two student-athletes a little more will be transpiring than seeing which team emerges from the weekend inches closer to another championship for two storied programs.
It’s hard for one to think that more could be in the air than what is with both teams sitting at 6-6 in conference place in a tie for fourth place, with the usual anticipation and excitement that surrounds Michigan-Ohio State weekend, but that is the case for these two Olentangy Liberty products.
“The fact that I’m going home has sunk in more than playing Ohio State,” said O’Neill. “I haven’t been home for five month, since winter break, to see family, friend, my high school, will be nice. But I can’t lose sight that I’m there to play baseball.”
Playing in the Central Ohio will be nothing new for O’Neill, but as Dezse points out, that will be will the familiarities end for the weekend.
“It’s going to be weird seeing him in the Maize and Blue,” said Ohio State’s closer. “It’s a little scary actually. I feel like time flies, just yesterday we were playing our senior season together and now we’re three quarters through our first collegiate season.”
For the typical college sports fan, thoughts of Michigan and Ohio State bring to mine a fiery hatred for the other. For a unique friendship that is the furthest thing from the truth.
“Everyone asks us is it a friendly rivalry or what not, and it’s not, we’re best friends. We’ve been best friends since the eighth grade, nothing is going to change that,” said O’Neill.
The words of O’Neill are backed by actions of both. Though both teams are in the thick of the Big Ten race, just one game out of first place and two games above last place, outside of the usual scoreboard watching, which comes in heated championship races, the two are more interested in box scores, box scores of each other that is.
“Every day after a game he plays I check the box score to see how he did,” said O’Neill as Dezse attests to weekly texts and Facebook messages touching base on how the other performed over the weekend.
How they have performed is well.
O’Neill enters the weekend tied as Michigan’s leading hitter with a .303 batting average, with two home runs and 20 stolen bases. Dezse’s average sits at .341 a clip that is second on the team and jumps to .404 in Big Ten play, with a pair of home runs himself while driving in a team-high 28 runs for the Buckeyes.
That the two are having successful seasons in their first go in the collegiate circuit is no surprise considering the events of last June, a major life event that makes the friendship all the more rare.
With their high school days at Liberty at an end, the two were set to step on opposite sides of the border rivalry before a name that has more cache in the sports world than even Michigan and Ohio State entered the mix.
“We committed to separate college so we were thinking we'll be playing against each other but then the draft comes,” said Dezse as the New York Yankees selected he in the 28th round and O’Neill in the 42nd. “Though he did get drafted a little later, there was still the possibility that we could play with each other again for the same organization, and that was going through our minds which was cool.”
While O’Neill may feel as if there was not a decision to be made on his end given his place in the draft, he did admit that his destination did play a bit of a role in Dezse’s choice.
“Early on it was a bit of a joke with us saying ‘hey lets go play with the Yankees’, but in reality Josh had the decision to make,” said O’Neill. “Coming off of shoulder surgery I was kind of told to go to college where Josh was made the offer. I do think though that with me going to Michigan and the rivalry it had a part in Josh’s choice.”
The decision Dezse made to spurn the Yankees offer and to attend Ohio State has set the stage for another chapter to be added to friendship of the two.
“It's going to be cool, it's something two best friends don't really get to do, to play against each other with rival schools,” said Dezse.
Yes it is Michigan-Ohio State, a meeting that regardless of sport brings out the fanatic in a fan. Dezse mentions a nervous, a good nervous, of the weekend at hand with atmosphere and environment that is expected when the two schools clash. It is a conference series, with O’Neill calling it a great opportunity as both fight for a top-six finish and a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. Beyond the chalk of the baseline, the series provide the two with the chance to be together again, to do something special.
But there are games to be won and both know that and for these three days there will be a desire to top the other.
“We’re one game out of the conference lead,” said O’Neill. “That’s bigger than going home or playing Ohio State. Hopefully I can get a hit off of him and for us to take the series.”
Pressed what may happen if O’Neill comes to bat in the ninth inning when the game on the line trying to secure a victory for the home team?
“I’ll give it a quick smile but I’ll be in the zone,” said Dezse. “Yeah I’ll smile, but then I’ll go after the strikeout.”
Whichever team takes the series, the other will undoubtedly hear of it for a full season. But that is what best friends do. With these two participating in one of the biggest weekends of their young career, taking part in their first Michigan-Ohio State weekend, its most fitting that each other will be on hand. Even if it is staring at each other from sixty feet and six inches away.