Standing His Ground
By Larry Watts
Little did Ben Wolgamot realize it, but he was about to experience his own Wally Pipp moment when he dashed down to first base against Illinois-Chicago in March 2009. When Purdue's senior second baseman, an All-Big Ten first team selection in 2008, hit the bag, he felt a sharp pain in his groin.
Redshirt freshman Eric Charles entered the lineup, and he never left for the remainder of the 2009 campaign. All the Zionsville, Ind. native did was bat .371 with a .503 slugging percentage and lead the Boilermakers with 45 runs scored. Charles, who carried a fielding average of .964 in over 200 chances, wound up making Collegiate Baseball's Freshman All-American team, third team All-Big Ten and was named to All-Big Ten Freshman team.
"I really expected to be spending most of my time on the bench and bounce around as a utility player," Charles says. "I just tried to play the best I could and it turned out to be good enough. But I never thought my job was secure. I had to check the roster every day to make sure I was still in there.
"Ben had been such a great player the year before and he never did anything wrong to lose his spot. I would have been OK if coach (Doug Schreiber) thought it was best to throw him back in there. I appreciated the opportunity. Ben is such a team-oriented player and he took it pretty good."
Charles took a bit of an unusual route in reaching West Lafayette. Born in Fox Lake, Ill., a far northwest suburb of Chicago, his family pulled up roots while he was in second grade when his father, who works in the sales department for FedEx, accepted a job transfer to Singapore.
"It was quite a change in culture," he says. "When we lived in Fox Lake, my dad threw me into all sorts of sports. I was playing T-ball at 3 and I was skating and playing hockey by the time I was 4 or 5. I was going to Kenosha, Wis. to play hockey all the time."
According to Charles, his family lived in a British colony during their time in Singapore.
"It was pretty Americanized and I went to an American school," he says. "It was a great experience and I would love to go back. It was a real melting pot over there with a lot of Asians and people from all parts of Europe. I got exposed to a lot of stuff at a young age, which I think was very beneficial, especially with coming to such a diverse campus like Purdue."
While in Singapore, Charles got involved in playing in recreation leagues in soccer, volleyball and rugby while still playing baseball. But his hockey experience was over by the time he hit sixth grade.
"It was tough to find ice rinks," he says. "The Canadian Association had some half-sized rinks, but once I got bigger it started getting pretty clustered out on the rinks."
While in sixth and seventh grade, Charles joined an American traveling baseball team. The squad would play in tournaments throughout Asia and Australia.
Midway through eighth grade, Charles' father accepted a transfer back to the United States and brought the family to Indiana. The move was a real shock to the system, according to Charles.
"In Singapore, we were 30 miles from the equator and it was like 88-91 degrees every day," he says. "It was ridiculously hot and humid, but I kind of liked the heat. It was a lot better than dealing with this slushy snow. I was used to having a tan year-round and now I found out what I looked like when I'm pale."
Charles did try to play football during his freshman year in Zionsville, but his career on the gridiron was short-lived. Playing defensive back, he tore the labrum in his right shoulder while making a tackle.
"I decided it wasn't worth it and called it quits after that," he says.
The recovery from surgery threw him off for his freshman year of baseball. He moved out to left field in order to put less strain on his throwing arm.
But by his sophomore year, he was a fixture at shortstop for the varsity team. He was the team's top offensive player and named all-conference all three seasons. He batted .420 in his first season on varsity and followed it up with a .530 average as a junior and a .437 average in his senior year.
In addition to Purdue, Charles drew recruiting interest from a number of other schools across the country. He finally settled on the Boilermakers just before Thanksgiving of his senior year.
"I thought Purdue offered everything I wanted," he says. "Coach Schreiber was known for his work with infielders. I liked the academics and it was only an hour from my house."
Charles also knew his days of playing shortstop were numbered. At 5-foot-9, he figured he would be ticketed for second or third base.
"You look at shortstops now and they're all around 6-2 or 6-3," he says. "I didn't quite have the arm and I knew I was better suited for second. Turing the double play at second is a lot more fun and I no longer have to worry about throwing across the diamond."
However, his freshman year didn't get off to a great start. While playing third base in a fall game, he lunged for a hit to his left side and wound up tearing the labrum in his left shoulder when he hit the ground.
"The pain was excruciating," he says. "I tried to rehab it throughout the winter and strengthen the muscles as much as I could, but it wasn't working out. My shoulder kept popping out when I was swinging, so I decided to get the surgery done and take a redshirt."
But not before he got two official at-bats in for the Boilermakers. He registered his only hit, a double down the left field line in a home game with Valparaiso, just days before his surgery.
"For the rest of the team it wasn't that big of a deal because we were up something like 10 runs at the time," he says. "But it was a big relief to me."
Charles finally made his first start of his Purdue career during a series at Texas State in 2009. He went 1-for-5 during a 17-4 setback.
"My nerves were going pretty good at the time," he says.
Although Charles went on to enjoy a breakout season, he was disappointed the team did not have a better record (25-26) to show for it.
"I was bummed out we couldn't do more in the Big Ten Tournament," he says of the Boilermakers' elimination after three games. "We fought so hard to get that last (sixth) qualifying spot, but things just didn't go as well as we had hoped."
Despite a change in climate for him, Charles is thrilled with his choice to play baseball in the Big Ten.
"This is exactly what I signed up for, a great atmosphere and great competition," he says. "I've been removed from Singapore for seven years, so I'm used to this (weather) now. You just have to suck it up and play."
And he especially enjoys the trips to Florida for the Big Ten/Big East Challenge to kick off the season. Most of the games take place in training facilities of major league teams.
"Last year we got to play in the Phillies training facility, which was pretty cool," he says. "We'll be playing in the Devil Rays and Cardinals facilities this year."
And maybe he can draw enough attention where he will be invited back some day.
"I hope I get a shot, that's all I'm asking," he says. "First, I need to put together some good seasons and, hopefully, we win the Big Ten title. You always have that dream (to play in the major leagues). If you don't have that dream, you shouldn't be playing."