Baseball

Jack Van Remortel’s obstacle-laden route to starting first baseman


As graduate first baseman Jack Van Remortel dug into the right-handed batters’ box in the 10th inning of the Michigan baseball team’s March 28 contest with Central Michigan — personifying the winning run with the score stalemated at 5-5 — Michigan coach Tracy Smith and director of analytics Hunter Satterthwaite were engaged in conversation in the home dugout. 

“I leaned over and asked, ‘Does Jack ever pull the ball?’ ” Smith said. “… And Hunter says, ‘No, he never pulls the ball.’ ” 

While that conclusive statement hung nonchalantly in the air, Van Remortel turned on a two-strike slider, sending it careening over the left-field wall to emphatically walk off the Chippewas in extras.  

“So we don’t know anything,” Smith added.   

But as that previous-notion-bucking, narrative-challenging home run prompted an elated team celebration around home plate — with the 6-foot-2 blonde-haired six hitter at the center — and symbolized the prolongation of the best stretch of baseball in Michigan’s young season, it was simultaneously Van Remortel’s preeminent moment of 2023, his first campaign as an everyday player.

And the path to such a moment was an arduous one. After committing to don the maize and blue as a sophomore in high school, Van Remortel surmounted a concussion, a complete lack of initial playing time, a myriad of additional injuries, an overhaul of the coaching staff, the isolation of a global pandemic and even a transfer-induced, year-long stint at an obscure community college in Oregon to finally plant his flag on the summit of lineup staple.

But for Van Remortel, those obstacles only made the end result even more gratifying.

***

It should have been an afternoon of festivities and celebration — envision streamers, pep rallies and jubilant, congratulatory pats on the back. But the Monday after Carmel High School won the Indiana football state championship during Jack’s junior year, the starting middle linebacker and long snapper was having trouble simply getting through the school day. 

“He texted me and said he couldn’t talk to his friends and walk down the hallway at the same time,” Jack’s mom, Kelly Van Remortel, told The Michigan Daily. “He had a pretty bad concussion.”

That frightening head injury, paired with the ultimate pre-collegiate athletic triumph, led Jack to forgo his senior season and a chance at a repeat title, extinguishing his football career prematurely — an illustrious one despite the abrupt ending. His player bio boasts his pair of First Team All-Conference recognitions, yet an All-State nod for his defensive prowess is humbly omitted. 

“I thought he would play football in college,” Kelly said. “… I think (the combination of) state championship and concussion led him to not play his senior year.” 

But Jack had something to fall back on — his sporting resume expanding beyond the gridiron and onto the baseball diamond. 

Playing on an elite travel team — featuring an assortment of Division I and Minor League Baseball players, including former Michigan-turned-Clemson shortstop Riley Bertram — while being ranked as the top player at his position in the Hoosier state and leading the Greyhounds to their first-ever sectional championship had crescendoed into a commitment to the Wolverines his sophomore year. His Michigan allegiance was sealed by a bleary-eyed visit to campus in the early hours of a fall Saturday following an away football game and four hour drive from metro Indianapolis, the only official visit he’d taken. 

“(Michigan) was the first school that I got any interest from,” Jack told The Daily. “And the first school that I took a visit to. I didn’t need to see anywhere else; I knew Michigan had everything I wanted.”

But once he arrived in Ann Arbor, Jack spent the majority of his initial season merely watching — reduced to spectating an ultra-talented team that would ultimately come a solitary win shy of a national title. And though the callow freshman appreciated the relationships and lavish team achievements of that inaugural year, it was difficult being asked to take a much lesser role after the prominent one he had assumed in all other facets of his athletic life to that point. 

“Getting to college and realizing there’s a lot of good players out there and you’re not one of the best players on the team anymore (is) certainly tough,” Jack said. “… It’s never easy to go to a new place and be the low man on the totem pole.”

Jack’s dad, David Van Remortel, echoed that sentiment:

“It wasn’t easy,” David told The Daily. “There were some weekends where Jack didn’t play at all. There were some weekends where Jack didn’t travel. When they got to the World Series, Jack watched, essentially.” 

In his sophomore campaign, it was more of the same. Jack registered only one at-bat in 15 games before being hit with an unforeseen, unpredictable curveball two short weeks into March — the season ending due to COVID-19. 

“I remember being in the San Jose airport and seeing people in masks,” Jack said. “That was definitely a different sight. Then I remember (former Michigan) coach (Erik) Bakich sitting us down on the field near the pitcher’s mound and telling us the season was going to be shut down. It sucked.” 

Beyond the initial shock and unprecedented nature of the pandemic, it also impacted Jack’s future with the program. Everyone on the roster received another year of eligibility, which — paired with yet another talented incoming freshman class — set up some uncomfortable conversations for the developing players on the fringes of the roster, forced to make room for the influx of young players without the usual departure of the old. 

These circumstances led Jack to venture off the beaten path and deviate from his meticulously laid plans on national signing day years earlier. He decided to transfer away to a junior college — Umpqua Community College in Oregon — planning to return to the Wolverines for his senior season in 2022. 

“I was on the phone with coach Bakich,” Jack recalled. “The situation was, ‘There are a lot of guys coming back, we kind of see the lineup being similar. It’s going to be hard for you to find your way on the field.’ … They said, ‘If you go to a JUCO, we’ll have you back the following year. Go and get a bunch of experience, a bunch of playing time and a bunch of at-bats and really focus on some stuff.’

“After having that phone call and having to make that decision — I was crushed. Michigan was my home and that’s where I wanted to be. One of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made.”

But the isolation of COVID-19 and the opportunity presented by a smaller school, abound with playing time for an athlete of Jack’s caliber, had a flip side. With class now fully online, living with teammates in an old National Guard Armory revamped into a baseball facility featuring a batting cage and a weight room, this newfound uninterrupted focus on baseball was beneficial. Jack led the Riverhawks in home runs, doubles, walks and RBI — poised to make his return as a more seasoned, confident hitter. 

“I was thankful for it,” Jack said. “It really helped me. When I came back to Michigan I was a better player.”

Despite the hindrance of two additional injuries — one suffered the summer leading up to fall workouts and one in mid-March of 2022 — the difference was noticeable in Jack’s first year back from his 12-month hiatus in the lush evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest. He appeared in 36 games in 2022, double the combined total of his first two seasons as a Wolverine, and delivered a unique pinch-hit, two-RBI suicide squeeze in the ninth inning of the Big Ten Championship that sealed an upset victory over Rutgers and a subsequent NCAA Tournament berth. 

Shortly after that unlikely run, Bakich left for Clemson — adding an overhaul of the coaching staff and a mass exodus of teammates leading up to his final season as another obstacle for Jack to overcome. 

With his degree in Sport Management now earned, he could have chosen to gracefully retire into his post-baseball life, reflecting with quiet satisfaction that he had done all he could, but uncontrollable events had led to an understated career. But Jack, invariably, trudged onward despite the barriers. Under the newly-hired Smith, he gained a different perspective for the coaching profession he aspires to enlist in in the future — and enjoyed a prosperous 2023 campaign. 

Jack started almost every game, emerging as a reliable, consistent veteran presence. He ranked third on the team with a batting average hovering slightly below .300 and finished behind only the recently-transferred senior second baseman Ted Burton in slugging percentage and OPS — a decidedly positive ending for a player who has more than paid his dues. 

“It’s hard to say I’d have it any other way because of how everything worked out,” Jack said. “… Everybody’s path is different. To go through my path and have it culminate in a year where I had some success is really cool.”   

That successful year was punctuated with a three-run home run to help stave off elimination against Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament losers’ bracket — and the aforementioned walk-off solo blast versus Central Michigan, permanently etched in his mom’s memory.                          

Kelly, a former Purdue volleyball player turned youth coach, was at practice when it happened — oblivious to her son’s heroics until she checked the stats. 

“I screamed: ‘My kid just hit a walk off!’ ” Kelly said. “I showed all the parents, we watched the video, it was so fun.”

But that moment goes beyond the result of a inconsequential midweek game, symbolizing something greater for the Van Remortels. Kelly continued, her voice temporarily wavering, describing her son rounding third to greet a crowd of Wolverine teammates, soon to be doused in lime Gatorade.

“(I see) pure joy on Jack’s face. For me, I look at that and I cry because you know, he’s been through ups and downs. And for him to have that moment, as a mom …

“It just makes me happy.”

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, everyday

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, everyday

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, everyday

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button