Aaron Dodson was sitting in the car that May day in 2015 when he learned that Baylor had fired head baseball coach Steve Smith. The Baylor first baseman had departed for Virginia to join his summer-league team, the Harrisonburg Turks, when suddenly he found himself facing a big, fat curveball.
“It was a shock. I think we all didn’t really know what to think,” Dodson said. “We were going off to summer ball, putting Baylor behind us for now, going off and enjoying that, and we get that news and it’s like, ‘Wow. What’s in store for us?’”
A couple of weeks later, Baylor hired Steve Rodriguez from Pepperdine as its new coach. Like many of the BU players, Dodson worried about his place on the team. A new staff coming in figured to have its own ideas, and he wondered where he might fit.
Two years later, Dodson is fitting in better than ever. The long-limbed, even longer-locked slugger has put it all together with the best season of his college career. He is hitting .335 with 35 runs, 61 hits, 10 home runs and 38 RBIs entering the Bears’ NCAA tournament opener against Texas A&M at the Houston Regional. Those 10 bombs are as many as Dodson hit in his first three years at Baylor – combined.
Dodson’s only struggle has been trying to uncover the secret to his career year.
“I don’t even know. Ah, I guess things just panned out this past year for me,” he said. “I was a good player, and the first two years were just really bad years.”
When he mulls it over deeper, he realizes that he has more freedom in the batter’s box this year than at any previous season in Waco. Numerous meetings with Rodriguez and the assistant coaches established a trust relationship, where Dodson realized the coaches just wanted him to succeed.
“There was a little bit of letting me do what I wanted to do,” Dodson said. “They really gave me the reins to hit how I wanted to hit, to free me up a lot at the plate. I think that was the big thing.”
Dodson’s father Chris played college soccer at Tulsa, and some of the first athletic teams for which Aaron ever participated came on the youth soccer pitch.
But that wasn’t really his game. He found more enjoyment with football and baseball. He played football through the pee-wee ranks up through his freshman year of high school, then quit the game to concentrate his efforts on the diamond.
Dodson loved strapping on the gear and playing catcher – “It kept you in the game at all times,” he said – and by his junior year at Cy-Fair High School his size, talent and athleticism had attracted the interest of a bevy of college scouts.
“Oh, man. That was so much fun, but it turned to not fun when you had to call the schools back and say, ‘No thank you,’” Dodson said. “Having the opportunity to get six, seven, eight Division I schools to call you up and say, ‘Hey, we want to offer you a scholarship. We want you to come be a bat in our lineup,’ it was so much fun.”
Dodson narrowed his choices down to TCU and Baylor. He liked both schools. Through much of the recruitment process, it was basically a coin-flip call.
“I get asked this question all the time, and really I don’t know why I chose Baylor,” Dodson said. “It felt right for me to come here, and I have no regrets, for sure. I’ve loved every year here.”
Dodson has been a fixture in the Baylor lineup since his freshman year of 2014. He has mostly anchored himself at first base, where his reach seems to rival the flexibility of Elastigirl or Stretch Armstrong.
“Defensively he’s been a stud all four years,” said junior infielder Steven McLean. “You make a bad throw to first and we expect Doddy to pick it. He’s that good.”
And yet the batting average wallowed in the low .200s. Dodson hit .222 as a freshman with three homers and 16 RBIs, then followed with a similar sophomore season of .225, three longballs and 15 RBIs in 2015. The potential was there, but he struggled to unlock it.
“What is interesting, he’s a guy I’ve had meetings with and I’ve said, ‘There’s something really consistent about you. … We have to find something that works for both of us.’ I don’t like to change a lot of things with guys,” Rodriguez said. “I want to change mentality, I want to change physicality. But for him and for me, it was just about trusting each other.”
Dodson made some mild improvements in 2016, Rodriguez’s first year at the helm. But he has exploded this season. He is making better contact, driving the ball more and getting on base more often.
“He’s just flowing with confidence,” said McLean, who doubles as Dodson’s roommate. “You get a couple of hits, and after that he hasn’t slowed down. It’s been cool for us, because we really needed him to do that.”
Dodson’s upward trajectory as a hitter and his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame could lead to a chance to play professionally. The Major League Draft is slated for June 12-14, and Dodson said if he is drafted he’ll pursue that dream. But he’s also pragmatic. With a business degree in hand, he has some job prospects lined up in the financial sector in Houston if pro baseball doesn’t work out.
As it turned out, Dodson really should have never fretted when Baylor hired Steve Rodriguez. In a lot of ways, “Coach Rod” rejuvenated his career.
“I love Coach Rod and I’m so glad that Baylor picked him,” Dodson said. “Probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me is having Coach Rod as a coach.”
Rodriguez doesn’t name team captains, but he considers Dodson one of the Bears’ chief leaders and a de facto captain. Amid the chats they’ve had over the past two years, the coach realized that Dodson had some unique insights and a firm handle on the game.
“I view him as (a team captain), simply because he had a real good pulse for the team, understands the individuals on the team. He has great baseball instincts, which makes it really good for a coach,” Rodriguez said. “I think our relationship has come a long way from the first time I met him until now. It has come full fold, I’ll tell you that.”