Tusk to Tail: It’s tough balancing this love triangle

As dawn broke last Friday in Fayetteville, Valentine’s Day had turned frigid. The “real feel” wind chill temperature was not quite 15 degrees by 10 a.m. Most of us were trudging through work or wasting time on social media, pretending to work but fooling no one.

Our boy Forrest, known as the “home run trash can guy (#1)” in Baum Walker stadium’s Hog Pen, was getting prepped for hernia surgery, a result of intelligently unloading an entire house’s doors and windows by himself. Forrest would have to miss opening day.

His Hog Pen cohorts could not be deterred. They were already in position to race for the best spots on the outfield rail shortly after the chilly sunrise. Sprinters and spot claimers jockeyed up front, while wagon and cooler pullers brought up the rear. In terms of romantic holidays, Opening Day outranks Valentines every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Cynics consider Valentine’s Day to be extortion, a long con commercialized by the Big Chocolate, Greeting Card, Florist, and Jeweler syndicate. Others drown their loneliness in discounted valentine candy when it goes on sale the next morning. Last weekend on The Hill indulged those Hog fans who enjoy long, romantic walks to various ballparks and arenas.

Tusk to Tailgater Brad and his wife Karen came up from Dallas for just such a weekend. The freewheeling Texans attended games, meets, and matches featuring Arkansas basketball, baseball, tennis and track. By the end of the long President’s holiday weekend, they had consumed Walmart Museum soda fountain sundaes on the Bentonville Square and noshed on corned beef sandwiches while cashing Oaklawn exactas back in Brad’s old home of Hot Springs. You would have to eat a Hope watermelon with an Arkansas diamond at Blanchard Caverns to get more Arkansas than that.

The cold, early morning line outside of Baum made it clear. Razorback fans are thirsty for a winner, and the Diamond Hogs are the only men on The Hill that can deliver right now. It would be considered a disappointment if the Omahogs failed to return to the College World Series for the third consecutive season.

We are smitten by our baseball team specifically because they provide such a consistent product. Coach Dave Van Horn has continued producing wins at a time when men’s basketball and football slid to unacceptable levels of inadequacy. Under former Athletic Director Jeff Long, Hog fans who offered their unconditional love to the revenue programs felt like they were treated like dogs.

The Razorbacks clobbered Eastern Illinois, sweeping the series by a combined 27-5 advantage. Friday starter Connor Noland has added a nasty slider. The Sophomore right hander mixed the pitch with speed to strike out 11 and earn SEC Pitcher of the Week. If Heston Kjerstad had one more at bat, they would have needed to order more baseballs. The Junior right fielder knocked the cover off the ball all weekend. Kjerstad hit two homers on Friday and another two on Sunday, scoring six total runs with10 RBI on his way to conference and national Player of the Week honors.

Of course the real MVP is those thirsty fans who braved the elements to see the team they love. A total of 29,118 reportedly attended the three-day series, despite only being 41 degrees at first pitch Friday afternoon. By Sunday, highs had crept into the 50s. Forrest made it to Sunday’s series finale, but chose an infield seat over victory beers in the Hog Pen. He has not recovered enough to hoist the Razorbacks trash can for home runs, but will still be calling the Hogs at this weekend’s series with Gonzaga.

So has Arkansas baseball become our fans’ one true love, the old flame that warms our big Hog heart? Up Razorback Road, the basketball team is becoming the crazy ex-girlfriend threatening to burn down the house. Like most relationships, when Arkansas basketball was good, it was really good. The Hogs were 14-2 overall, 3-1 in the SEC, and set to host #10 Kentucky just last month. The Razorbacks were favored to win. The game was the hottest ticket in town.

The Razorbacks did not beat Kentucky, beginning a 2-8 overall (1-8 SEC) tailspin. Injuries, lack of depth and size, senseless fouls, and poor free throw shooting are the culprits behind the free fall. In the last three losses to Tennessee, Mississippi State, and Florida, Arkansas was down by 27, 17, and 19 points respectively. In the latter two, the Hogs fought back hard to take a late lead over the Bulldogs and claw within 2 of the Gators. Unfortunately they used too much energy digging out of the hole, and fell short of victory again.

That giant flushing sound you hear is the Razorbacks’ chances for an NCAA tournament bid going down the drain. Fans may be hopping off the Muss Bus for the warm comfort of baseball. But like with any old flame, it’s hard to walk away when they need you the most. It may be completely irrational, but I want to give the Hoops Hogs one more chance, and maybe one more chance after that. These kids are playing their guts out, finding unlikely heroes such as Desi Sills and Adrio Bailey every week. Isaiah Joe may be back from knee surgery in time for Saturday’s game against Missouri, which should go a long way toward getting off the schneid.

Tusk to Tail may flirt with baseball during these cold weather series, but just can’t completely break up with Arkansas basketball right now. #InMusswetrust and whatnot. Please don’t break our big Hog heart.

Editor’s note: Now in its eighth year, Tusk to Tail is the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. Tusk to Tail sponsors are the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship program and Turn Key Construction Management. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.

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