Kirby McMullen is a kid on Christmas morning standing outside of a house, faced pressed against a window watching his friends open great gifts while he sits out in the cold.
Wearing a white hardhat and a neon yellow vest McMullen walks through the Florida Gators’ new baseball stadium under construction. He’s going from room to room as the players are shown what will soon be their new home but McMullen is a senior, he’s not going to be around for the opening of this new park. It won’t be his home.
“We didn’t see the finished product, just the foundation, but you can tell it’s going to be an amazing facility. Every door that we went into it made me more jealous and jealous, to be honest,” McMullen told Gator Country. “It’s awesome that the University of Florida is doing that but it made me a little bit jealous for sure that I wasn’t going to be able to play in that stadium.”
The Gators went right from the new park to McKethan Stadium for their first practice of the spring. Entering his senior season the guy that his teammates affectionately refer to as “Kirby Barrels” had earned a spot in the lineup based on his hitting in the fall. McMullen had long dreamed of this growing up in Ocala. He watched games at McKethan Stadium and dreamed of putting on that uniform and playing on that dirt.
His freshman year was a dream. While he only pitched made 16 appearances on the mound and only two plate appearances, including a walk, he was part of the Gators’ first National Championship. The next two years were more of the same. McMullen would make appearances out of the bullpen and get an occasional pinch-hitting opportunity. He has always been liked and highly respected by his teammates but for one reason or another, he wasn’t getting a real opportunity at extended playing time.
2020 was different. McMullen’s bat was so hot in the spring that Kevin O’Sullivan had to find somewhere to put him defensively. McMullen ended up at third base and spent hours trying to make himself more comfortable at the hot corner.
His glove would take some time to come around but his bat was red hot. McMullen went 5-8 (.625) with three doubles and scored five times on opening weekend. He hit a home run in Coral Gables that helped Florida get past Miami on Saturday night and win the series. He was on cloud nine, hitting the cover off the baseball and for the first time in his four years in Gainesville was making a real impact for his team on the field.
The Gators won 16 games in a row before a loss to Florida State. It was the first time McMullen had ever lost to FSU in his career but in just a little over 48 hours he would lose more.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 initially only postponed the Gators’ weekend series against Georgia but it would soon end all spring sports indefinitely. With that thousands of seniors sat back and helplessly as their seasons and careers were erased.
“That’s what I was really upset about,” McMullen said. “I didn’t know if I was going to get that opportunity to finish my career at UF. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, to play for the University of Florida.”
The NCAA was quick to make a statement saying that all spring sport athletes would get another year of eligibility but college baseball is different. There is a strict roster limit of 35 players and each program only gets 11.7 scholarships, with every scholarship player being required to be on at least a 25% scholarship. The numbers are tough to juggle in a normal year, nothing about 2020 has been normal.
So it was up to the Division I Council to vote on it to make it official and that was a waiting game as the logistics of it all had to be considered.
“Sitting there and waiting for a month or so for the NCAA to vote on it had me nervous,” McMullen said.
A month is a long time to wait but the Council’s decision would allow for returning seniors to not count against the 35-player roster and allow for schools to have the ability to use the NCAA Student Assistance Fund to help pay for their scholarships. The decision, however, would be left up to each school. With a new group of freshmen coming in not every senior would be welcomed back. McMullen knew what he wanted and he was quick to call his head coach.
“After the vote passed Sully and I talked and we definitely got it figured out,” he said. “He wants me back and I want to come back, I know that.”
There’s no telling when baseball will return. McMullen just returning from his grandfather’s farm, helping tend to the 21 thoroughbred racing horses on the property when we were on the phone. He was going to get a workout in his garage gym before throwing with his brother, Florida pitcher Hunter McMullen, as the younger brother returns from surgery.
He has clarity now on his future and he’ll have the opportunity to end his career at Florida on his own terms, not on the terms of a virus that is stealing more than just games and careers every day. He’s been living out his dream for the last four years and will get a chance to have a storybook ending in 2021.