Practice Day Notebook: Compelling Storylines AboundCollege World Series
OMAHA — The 2019 College World Series field has no shortage of compelling storylines, and the assembled coaches provided plenty of entertaining soundbites during Friday’s practice day press conferences. We’ll touch on some of those other storylines in a moment, but let’s begin with the big topic of the day: Mike Martin’s final trip to Omaha.
In his 40th and final season as Florida State’s head coach, Martin is making his 17th trip to Omaha. He got here in storybook fashion, as the Seminoles were one of the last four teams to make the field of 64, then went to the Athens Regional as a No. 3 seed and beat Georgia twice before heading to Baton Rouge and sweeping LSU. Now, Martin will get one last chance to chase his first national title. Whether he wins it or not, he’s savoring this final ride, and his presence adds a magical wrinkle to this field.
“Coach Martin has been coaching as long as I’ve been alive. I just have so much respect for him,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “… I think every single coach in the country was pulling for Coach Martin to get here, and I agree with these guys, now that we’re all here, if we have to face him, we’re not going to be feeling the same way. But certainly everybody is so happy he is here.”
That answer came in response to a question posed to all eight coaches: If you can’t win this national title, would a little piece of you like to see Florida State win?
“A real small piece,” deadpanned Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, who will face Martin in Saturday’s night game.
Texas Tech’s Tim Tadlock followed with a characteristically dry quip of his own.
“There was a time where absolutely you’re thinking about it being 11’s last year and until you qualify, you’re going, ‘It would be really cool if he could win this deal,’” Tadlock said. “And then you qualify, and you’re like, ‘No, that wouldn’t be cool.’”
Earlier in the day, Auburn coach Butch Thompson didn’t hesitate when he was asked if part of him would like to see Martin win it all.
“Yes,” Thompson said decisively. “I was in his regional two years ago, and you can imagine — for me being around for a while, but yet being a head coach for the first time, and my first regional, of course, I’m going to play Mike Martin in the finals of a regional. It’s really neat, have to pinch myself, that experience. But I came away with, you start thinking about the 40 wins for 40 years. My brain really can’t wrap around it in a world that I feel like that we live in, for that model of consistency.
“But my takeaway was how good he was as a person, how he treated me. I had not gotten to experience that before, how good of a human being that he was. So I answered yes quickly and easily, but it’s really because of how he’s treated me and how he makes others feel and what he’s done for our game. All of it’s good.”
That sentiment was echoed by all seven of Martin’s Omaha coaching counterparts. Sure, Martin is the winningest coach in college baseball history, and he’s led his teams to 40-plus wins in each of his 40 seasons, and won 17 regionals in the 21-year history of the 64-team era, and been to 17 College World Series. And all of that is mind-boggling. But his legacy has as much to do with his kindness and grace and warmth as with his tale of the tape.
Louisville coach Dan McDonnell and Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis both told stories of being treated very well by Martin when they were young assistant coaches, something that says a lot about the character of an established head coach. McDonnell also said he even got a big “starstruck” when the Cardinals joined the ACC and McDonnell found himself on a league teleconference with Martin for the first time.
“Over the five years, it’s been a real joy just coaching against them because you know if you beat him, he’s going to be so complimentary, and if he beats you, he’s going to be so gracious and never to make you feel bad,” McDonnell said. “It’s one of the neatest handshakes you can have after a game, win or lose. You can tell it’s a genuine, sweet, kind person, and I think the older we get, the more we realize we can be successful because we’re pretty good with X’s and O’s and we can recruit and work hard, but there’s a lot more factors that go into being successful, and you learn from a guy like 11, as we call him in the ACC, how you treat people, and it goes a long way.”
Martin himself was right in his element Friday, delighting the packed media room with a steady stream of quips delivered with his trademark folksy drawl. And it’s clear just how grateful he is to be back in this position one final time.
“It was a year of ups and downs, but I did learn a lot this year, that it is amazing how far our program can go when I stay out of it. And I did a good job of that, guys,” he joked. “These young men battled when things were not going well, and I really think the key to the season was when the guys that had been out here in ’17 had a little meeting and kind of explained to the guys that — well, we’re in San Quentin. We’re in jail. If we don’t turn this thing around, we’re not even going to get to a regional. And their experience permeated our young men, and all of a sudden an error was a big deal but yet there was none of this dropping their head. There wasn’t any of these pitchers that would give you a little body language that would indicate they weren’t real happy with what they were seeing. It turned into a real team.”
This tight-knit group of Seminoles seems certain to be the darling of Omaha this time around, as the locals figure to root for Martin in his final quest for a title.
• But Michigan is another captivating underdog story, as just the second Big Ten team to reach Omaha since the 1984 Wolverines. This is Big Ten country, and these Wolverine just played five at TD Ameritrade Park during the conference tournament a few weeks ago, so they’re plenty familiar with the setting. Though Michigan was one of the last four teams in the field of 64, this is a talented team that ranked No. 17 in the preseason, and Bakich talked about how rewarding it has been to watch his team peak at the perfect time.
“Our program hasn’t been here before in 35 years,” he said. “We haven’t navigated our way through the postseason, so we needed to catch lightning in a bottle, which we did with a walk-off win [against Illinois] in the Big Ten tournament. We were one strike away from our season being over, and that win just did so much for our players’ confidence, our belief, and just sparked a hot streak, and it’s been different ever since. We’ve sort of caught fire, and that’s what we needed. We needed an authentic, organic moment to happen on the field since we haven’t done it before, and that’s what you want as a coach with a program who hasn’t done it. You do all this work and preparation and training and all this investment of time to hope that you get hot at the end, and so fortunately we have, and our players have been confident ever since.
“And it hasn’t been perfect, we lost a championship game in the regional, blew a ninth-inning lead and got back up and came back to win the next game. Lost the middle game in the super regional, made five errors and walked 10, but our guys got back up. So they were unfazed, and really proud of how they’ve fought, and just getting to this particular stage is a huge accomplishment for Michigan, for the Big Ten.”
• The other underdog in Omaha is Auburn, which is making its first Omaha trip since 1997. Besides Auburn and Michigan, all the rest of these teams have players with Omaha experience on the roster, and most of them have become CWS regulars. The other three teams in Auburn’s bracket — Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Louisville — were top-eight national seeds. Auburn was a No. 2 seed that had to win a regional at Georgia Tech and a super regional at North Carolina.
“The difference in these three men that I respect so, so much is we’ve won five games on the road in this postseason,” Thompson said, gesturing to McDonnell, Lemonis and Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin. “We’ve had moments of adversity both on and off the field, but the journey has been sweeter. We’ve been trying to knock this door down for three years, and finally felt like the hinges were loose enough and the door knob was about to break off and took one final swing at it to make it happen.
“This is a huge moment for Auburn, and we’re glad to represent. We’re the underdog. We are a great team to root for for any people in Omaha trying to adopt a ballclub, with being the first time. It’s a neat story, and Gregg Olson is one of our greatest players that chose Auburn from being right here in Omaha, Nebraska. So maybe that’s another good reason to pull for us, too.”
• McDonnell and Lemonis were teammates on The Citadel’s 1990 CWS team, then worked together as assistants at Citadel, and again in Louisville, where Lemonis was McDonnell’s assistant. The prospect of McDonnell and Lemonis facing off against each other in Omaha is another compelling angle in this series.
“Obviously I got one of my best friends here to my left, and this guy to my right, we’ve coached against each other for many, many years,” McDonnell said, referring to Lemonis and then Corbin. “Something we’ve always said, if we had to play each other, we’d much rather play each other in Omaha. That is just not fun going against these guys in a regional or a super regional because the goal is to get to Omaha, and you hate knocking off somebody that you’re friends with or you respect so much. So here we are, about to play each other.”
Lemonis had a delightful response to that McDonnell statement.
“It’s awesome to be here with your — he said I was one of his best friends, I say best friend. He’s the godparent of my kid and everything else,” Lemonis said, as McDonnell looked chagrined. “We have a huge Citadel group coming, so you can imagine all our teammates and everything will be a part of it, and it’s a neat thing.”
McDonnell also said his wife Julie Anne and Corbin’s wife Maggie have become good friends over the years. Corbin added a little more context, causing the room to erupt in laughter:
“I say this about Dan, too, and he wouldn’t want me to say this, but he’s texting my wife when they get done [in super regionals], they get done before anyone, and he’s texting my wife to make her feel good during our super regional, which was kind of him, and just telling her to hang in there,” Corbin said. “You know, it’s more than — I know our teams will just be playing one another, but we’ve become very close through the years, and if he continues texting her during our game, I guess it’s good and bad. It’s good that he’s distracted, it’s bad that there’s something going on that I don’t know about.”
• Texas Tech and Arkansas were both here last year along with Mississippi State, and all of them have the experience and talent to make them front-runners for the national title, along with SEC champion Vanderbilt and ACC champ Louisville. Those were five of the top eight national seeds, and they’re all basically in the same tier of leading title contenders.
But Arkansas has the most compelling backstory, after coming one out shy of winning its first national title last year, only to see it all unravel after misplaying a foul pop-up. Naturally, the first first question asked in the day’s final press conference was about how that experience has shaped this group of Arkansas players — and Van Horn gave a perfect, eloquent answer.
“Baseball, 27 outs. You’ve got to get 27. We had a good team last year. We fought hard. We were an old team last year. It’s a different team than this team,” he said. “But you know, you’ve got to let it go. You’ve got to let it go. You’ve got to go out and recruit. You start fall baseball and never talked to this team one time about that play. It is what it is. I’ve only watched it two or three times. Once was enough, honestly.
“But it was a great season last year, won a lot of games, sent a lot of guys out, got a lot of guys signed. But this is a different team. This team, I just tell them all the time, this is your team. It’s not about last year. Once we started playing well, then we started getting compared to last year’s team. Then people would tell me this team is better than last year’s team, and I just tell them, ‘Just go out and write your own story,’ and they’ve been doing it.”