Fitt: Title Or No, Martin’s Legacy Secure

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OMAHA — It’s a rite of June: when Florida State gets eliminated from the NCAA tournament, the trolls and haters crawl out from under their dingy bridges and gleefully mock one of the greatest coaches in the history of sports, because he has never won the College World Series.

Don’t believe me? Try searching for “Mike Martin” on Twitter tonight, in the aftermath of FSU’s 7-4 loss to LSU, eliminating the Seminoles from the College World Series. You’ll see a tasteless torrent of ugliness and pettiness. It’s pathetic. It’s shameful.

I’ll just never understand people who apparently get some kind of joy out of reveling in the one shortcoming on the resume of an incredibly accomplished man who has always comported himself with the utmost class, dignity and good humor.

Ever listen to a Mike Martin press conference? Ever watch him doff his cap after issuing a heartfelt thank you to the city of Omaha and even the reporters who cover the sport? He’s one of a kind, a rare gentleman and a national treasure, as far as I’m concerned, and his legacy should be celebrated. Why would anyone choose to mock this man?

LSU coach Paul Mainieri clearly shares my respect for Martin, as well as my disdain for his haters. He described Martin as “one of the classiest guys we’ve ever seen in college baseball” and “one of my idols.”

“I think Mike Martin will go down in history as one of the greatest coaches in all of college baseball. He certainly will have more wins than anybody else,” Mainieri said. “And I just think way, way too much is being played about him not getting to win the final game in Omaha. It’s really a shame. Was it Marv Levy or some of these other great coaches that never won it at all? Does that diminish their career? Does that keep them from being talked about as great coaches of all time? I wish it wouldn’t, because what he’s done in his career at Florida State is very rare.

“How many years in a row has he been to the NCAA tournament? How many years does he have? Close to 40 [in fact, all 38 years he has been FSU’s head coach]. Are you kidding me? This guy year in, year out has had one of the best teams in the country. He’s done it with class. I don’t know anybody that doesn’t like Mike Martin. I certainly think the world of him. He’s a great person, a great coach. And he’s impacted a lot of young people’s lives. And whether he ever wins the last game in Omaha or not should never diminish his legacy one iota as far as I’m concerned.”

Always gracious in defeat, Mike Martin gives words of encouragement to Paul Mainieri after losing to his LSU squad (Eric Sorenson)

The on-field accomplishments alone are mind-boggling. With 1,944 career wins, Martin will surpass Augie Garrido’s NCAA record of 1,975 victories next year when the Seminoles win 40-plus games for the 41st season in a row. And you can take it to the bank, that’s going to happen, because it happens every year — and because the Seminoles still have a very good core of very talented young players who will be back in 2018, led by Tyler Holton, Jackson Lueck, Drew Mendoza and Cal Raleigh.

For a little while this year, FSU’s 40-win season streak and its 40-year streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances looked like they might be in jeopardy. The Seminoles headed into their final regular-season series at Louisville with a 12-14 record in the ACC, and had they gotten swept by the powerhouse Cardinals on the road, they might very well have found themselves on the outside looking in on Selection Monday.

But the Seminoles mounted a furious rally, sweeping a pair of games in Louisville and then marching to the ACC tournament title, which earned them a regional host. They were down to their last strike in regionals before a spirited comeback earned them a rematch with Auburn in the regional final — which they won. And they mounted another comeback in the first game of the super regional against Sam Houston State, then blew out the Bearkats a day later to send Martin to Omaha for the 16th time.

This team showed a lot of heart. Even against LSU, after falling behind early, the Seminoles continued to fight. After the Tigers tacked on two insurance runs in the top of the ninth to pad their lead to 7-2, Florida State had to be demoralized — but the players fought until the bitter end. They got two homers in the ninth and had the tying run in the on-deck circle when the final out was recorded. That fight was characteristic of this group, which was on a mission to get that elusive national title for the man they call 11.

“I mean, everybody came together, and we knew we wanted — first it started, my biggest goal was to get 40 wins,” FSU third baseman Dylan Busby said. “And he deserved it. That was a hard job to get 40 wins, and then from there it was to win the regional and win the super regional and then win the World Series. It sucks to come up short.”

The end is always disappointing, but this group of Seminoles represented their fine program and their legendary coach in exemplary fashion.

“I don’t know when I’ve ever been prouder of a baseball team,” Martin said. “They did their job in the classroom. They did their job on the field. We had tremendous leadership. Guys wanted the top of the mountain very bad, but there’s only one team that’s going to leave here happy. But I cannot tell you that I’m the least bit unhappy with this ballclub. This was a special, special team to do what they did. Very, very proud of them.”

And Florida State fans should be very, very proud of their program and their coach. The Seminoles have been to super regionals 15 times in 18 years, more than any other team in the super regional era. The trolls like to lambast FSU for failing to win in the postseason, but Martin’s clubs have won an awful lot of games in the postseason — it’s hard to win regionals with that kind of consistency. It’s hard to win regionals, period.

Florida State coach Mike Martin (Mandy Sorenson)

Martin has been to Omaha 16 times in 38 years — that’s more CWS trips than Rod Dedeaux and Garrido, and just one fewer than former Texas coach Cliff Gustafson, who holds the record with 17. Just making it to the CWS is a major accomplishment, even if it’s not as great an accomplishment as winning it all. Martin has won plenty of games here over the years, too — 21 of them, in fact. He just hasn’t won the final one — and maybe before he’s done coaching he will. But maybe he won’t — and if he doesn’t, it sounds like he’s at peace with it.

Before the CWS, Martin said that for years he had been like Captain Ahab, chasing that big white whale. As he’s gotten older, he’s learned to enjoy the ride. If he wins the title, that would be beautiful, to use one of his favorite words. But if he doesn’t, he can be content knowing that he’s made a huge difference in the lives of a great many young men, and his track record on the field is something he can be extremely proud of, too.

“It feels like we gave it everything we had, and it wasn’t meant to be,” Martin said. “And when you can walk out of this great city and the people that are here supporting this great tournament, that’s all you can ask of yourself. We gave it our best shot. We never felt sorry for ourselves. We kept battling. Like I said, there will be seven disappointed coaches to leave here. Am I disappointed? Well, if I’m not, I’m not much of a competitor. I mean, I’m going to play you guys on the golf course, we’re going to compete. You ain’t getting no strokes either. But when it’s over we both gave our best shot. That’s all you ask. And our guys did just that.”

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