May 30, 2007
OH, MAMA, CAN THIS REALLY BE THE END,
TO BE STUCK INSIDE OF MOBILE WITH THE MURFREESBORO BLUES AGAIN...
My apologies to Bob Dylan...he sang of the Memphis blues, but for Florida Atlantic Baseball, the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State provided the swan song of our `07 season. Twice we squared off with Steve Peterson's boys at the ungodly hour of 9:00 AM and came up short in our bid for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship.
The final weekend of regular season play saw us move up to sixth place and a bracket pairing without either the Ragin' Cajuns or the Men of Troy. I hoped we'd find more favorable pitching matchups with the teams in our bracket. As usual, I was wrong.
We had hit MTSU's Brad Robinson pretty well back in Murfreesboro during our rainy doubleheader, so I had some reason for optimism. But this time around Robinson exhibited total command of his fastball and changeup. He limited a hot hitting team to only seven hits.
Truth be told- we were never in the game.
The early wake up calls continued the next day against Western Kentucky. I walked bleary eyed into the hotel restaurant and challenged WKU Coach Chris Finwood to "rock, paper, scissors" so we could all go back to bed.
Finny declined, so we got dressed and got it going.
Things started ominously as a questionable call on a potential inning-ending double play gave the Hilltoppers their first run. It was really early to be yelling at umpires, but I sucked it up and said my piece.
Chris Salberg looked sharp on the mound for us, and in the third, Danny Cook led off with a double. Danny Bomback's 15 homeruns weren't enough to make the All Conference team, but his 16th gave us our first lead of the day. After an FAU error tied things again, Cook, Bomback, and Widlansky combined for a double, single, and double to give us a 5-2 lead after our half of the sixth.
But WKU refused to fold. Three hits and a walk drew the Hilltoppers within a run entering the seventh. Salberg looked strong in the seventh, but when I saw his pitch count I knew he was done. The kid is under control by the Orioles and I wasn't risking his arm after the season he'd had.
We needed to go to the pen, but I wanted to avoid using Mike Obradovich who had been our dependable guy down the stretch. We needed Mike to start the next day. The eighth was too soon to even think about him.
Brandon Cooney would be the first to admit that he'd had a disappointing season, but we needed the big guy to face their right handed hitters. All he did was strike out the side.
We tacked on two runs in the ninth and made a decision to ignore history.
Lately Brandon had pitched well in his first inning and then struggled whenever he went back out. Coach Fossas reminded me of that to which this former History teacher replied," Screw History."
Cooney went back out and history repeated itself, as the teacher became the pupil. After hitting the first batter, Wade Gaynor sent a line drive over the left field fence and I summoned Anthony Bradley to the mound. Bradley looked sharp getting the first two hitters easily while Obradovich started to get loose in the pen.
Nothing hard is ever easy...Bradley plunked the next hitter and the winning run was at the plate with the wind blowing out. Obradovich walked slowly in from the pen and took the ball. His chance to start the next day rested in the same hand into which I placed the ball, and our season.
A groundout to Arata and we were off to Hooters for lunch!
I usually tried to work a restaurant for a t-shirt in return for bringing in a team, but this time I passed.
Middle Tennessee lost to New Orleans which set up another 9:00 am meeting with us. This time we were the home team which meant we took BP first at 7:00 am. Our wake up calls were at 5:45.
Obradovich looked sharp early against the Blue Raiders. Things seemed promising when we took a 4-2 lead on Mike McKenna's homerun in the third. But that was it for us as Nick Marrs came out of the pen and surrendered only one hit over the final four innings while his teammates kept chipping away to a 7-4 victory.
I spoke to our players in the dugout, facing tears and hanging heads. It's the hardest thing to do because of the finality of it all. Many of these young men will never again wear our uniform. Some will never again play in a game. Others still have a bright future here, but they ache for their friends and teammates.
It's tough on coaches too.
As much as these kids can drive you to drink... ok, for some of us it's not a long drive, the bond that develops on a team of players and coaches is unique. There are a lot of ups and downs on the long ride of these guys and their careers, but in the end, it is the absolute best time of their lives. To spend your life as an observer of their development, and to and extent, being able to participate and share in this most human of journeys is something special.
Robbie Widlansky had one of the best seasons of any position player in the country. He shattered our single season batting average, doubles, total bases, and hits records. There are probably some I missed. He was voted Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, and named first team All-American by Louisville-Slugger.
A year ago, he sat with Mike McBryde as they each nursed torn hamstrings and missed the entire season. I'm sure Robbie's season was gratifying to him, after the hours of rehabbing, wondering, and fighting doubts. He got his chance to play healthy and he exploded. Now he and a bunch of others wait for the draft to see what will happen.
Mickey Storey was 3-0 and never got to throw a pitch after February. He should be fine this summer and some pro team may give him the bonus he wants to sign and he'll be gone. If not, Mickey will come back and put up great numbers just like his buddy Woody.
Chris Salberg was drafted last year and asked my advice. I told him that based on his first two years of erratic performances, I couldn't guarantee him a leading role on this year's staff. But I also told him that if he signed he would never graduate college. I knew that meant a lot to Chris. Coming back would be the better option, and if he were my son, the only option.
Chris returned and worked hard in practice to iron out the problems in his mechanics which had made repeating his delivery so difficult. In the meantime he has gotten to within an internship from his degree. He also agreed to terms today with the Baltimore Orioles for much more money than they offered last summer.
There were a lot of great kids like Tomlin, and Bradley who kept plugging away hoping to get their chance. Guys bouncing back after struggling, and then succeeding really make you smile. Life isn't supposed to be easy. Either is this game. You just need to face them both head on each day and hope for the best.
So now it's done.
Teams are traveling around the country preparing for the NCAA Regionals.
I'm sitting here trying to make sense of it all and slip the malaise that grips my every moment. My wife looks at me and says she's sorry...usually at least three times a day. Luke was happy I got home a day earlier and last night I threw him some BP. I took Maggie to the mall the other day. She bought matching bracelets for Mom and her.
A guy who thought he had moved on to the rest of his life got a surprise last week. Steve Traylor, FAU's founding baseball coach, announced his retirement prior to Wofford's last regular season series. He wanted to see his son play high school baseball, and be free to take his daughter to school when she starts at Furman in the fall.
But Wofford won a play- in game to the Southern Conference Tournament. They were the 8th seed and not expected to go very far; but someone forgot to tell the Terriers. As the tournament progressed, Coach Traylor realized he might miss his daughter's high school graduation that Friday. Friday arrived and Wofford was still alive. Steve stayed and coached. His daughter understood. They won and she returned with her Mom Saturday to see her father's team send him to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his career. It will also be his last.
I hope it ends for Steve in Omaha.
Another coach didn't have the same happy ending.
Danny Price was fired last week after 28 years as head coach at FIU. He won over 1000 games during that time, including a bunch against me. His boss decided to throw him out after being a player, assistant coach, head coach, and the most visible and successful face of that university throughout its athletic history.
No one at FIU was raising money before football came onboard and was handed a boatload of money to build their program; nobody except Danny Price. Look at the stadium. He was part of that. Their covered batting center was all Danny Price. Who gave Mike Lowell, the nine hole hitter on his high school team, the chance to play every day? Danny Price.
The last five years at FIU didn't match the success of the past teams, but shouldn't the new Athletic Director take a guy who bleeds FIU Blue aside and say, "What can I do to make things better in your last few years?"
Maybe the AD's boss told him not to bother. At least four head coaches have disappeared since the new sheriff came to town. Maybe Danny was just the last head the FIU president wanted to see roll. No one knows for sure.
All we know is that a good man, with a proven record of success was treated like yesterday's newspaper. If FIU had been going to the College World Series for years, and now the well had gone dry, they might have had a case. But this is a sport and a program that had been largely ignored by its own university.
Now they are big time.
Now they are acting big time.
It should have ended better for a good man.