June 15, 2007
"IF IT WORKS THEY'LL THINK YOU'RE A GENIUS"...
As the College World Series kicks off today, I'm sure that each of the head coaches involved would be quick to admit that their teams didn't arrive in Omaha solely because of them. First of all, they have good players who have worked their tails off and found something inside themselves that raised them above the level of those they have beaten to get there. Most of those coaches have at least one or two great players, or players on the cusp of being great.
But this story is dedicated to all the loyal assistant coaches who work so hard to make their teams and their bosses look good.
Twenty years ago last month, my assistants at Montclair State, Rich O'Connor and Rick Giancola, shared a room with me in the Ramada Inn at the Division III World Series in Marietta, Ohio. It was a low budget operation...players were four to a room. We sprung for a cot in our room, and since I was too nervous to sleep anyway, I gave them the beds.
Curled up on my lumpy mattress, I decided to pray myself to sleep. The past four years, Montclair State had made it to this point in the season. Fred Hill coached them there in 1983, and I was lucky enough to keep the streak going. But this 1987 team had seen its ups and downs. We got hammered in our conference tournament, but a week later won our regional in a thrilling 11 inning final. We beat the grandfather of FAU's Mickey Storey, Ed Lyons, in that game.
From the beginning of that season I felt this was the least likely of MSC teams to get to the World Series-let alone win it. That night I prayed, asking the Lord to not let us be the first Montclair team to go two and out!
Rick and Rich agreed with my plan to start freshman lefty Brian Devins in the first game. Brian could easily pitch the final on two days rest if needed. Brian was not our number one, but he had been solid all season. The year before, I had done the same thing in the regional and garnered a lot of second guessing in the press. It had worked then, and I felt it was our best shot in the Series.
Devins gave us a solid five innings. We later blew our lead and had to go ten innings to beat Eastern Connecticut, but we now had our number one, Jeff Vanderoef, for the next game.
I took our guys out to dinner while O'Connor and Giancola scouted our potential opponent in their game. Later, we met at Pizza Hut and I asked them how Vanderoef matched up with our next opponent.
They looked at each other.
"We don't think you should pitch Vanderoef."
As my face got red as their pizza, they nominated Brian Cheswick, a big lefty who had struggled enough the last few weeks. I had never even warmed him up in the regional. The kid had confronted me in the locker room after the regional, making it crystal clear how angry, and upset he was with me. Needless to say, he wasn't on my radar to start this game.
Their logic was that Brian pitched best in hot weather and the temperature was in the `90's. If we won, Vanderoef would pitch the game that would get us into the championship day undefeated. If we lost, our number one would face someone's number three in an elimination game.
I told them that if it didn't work, everyone in New Jersey would be say I was an idiot.
One of them said, "But if it works, they'll think you're a genius!"
Brian Cheswick hooked up against future major leaguer Kyle Abbott and his UC San Diego teammates, whose offense was led by another big leaguer, Bob Natal. The big lefty for MSC threw a sold six innings, leaving with the game tied at two apiece, and we later pulled another extra inning win out 9-4.
Jeff Vanderoef faced Wisconsin-Oshkosh and their team batting average of .417 the next day in the critical game three of a four team tournament. Jeff was a nice kid from a relatively wealthy family. Some people thought he was soft because of his background. As the national anthem played that day, Rich O'Connor leaned over and asked how I felt about our fate being in the hands of "a pampered suburbanite"?
No sweat- Jeff carved up the Titans 9-2 and we were in the championship day as the undefeated team.
That night my prayer was still this side of optimistic.
"Please, God, don't let us be the first team to get swept in the championship!"
Oshkosh again was our opponent. In the bottom of the ninth we trailed by one when our captain, Jimmy Fasano hit a lead off home run to tie the game. After an out and a single by John Deutsch, Pepe Herraro launched a bomb to left! I've seen pictures of me coaching third, leaping high in the air, watching the flight of the ball.
But the wind was blowing across to right, and Terry Jorgenson (another big leaguer) leapt high, and snared Pepe's shot at the top of the fence. The relay to first doubled Deutsch off first. The inning was over.
We all stood there in shock, but Fasano was pushing guys onto the field screaming, "Let's go! It's still tied."
We got through the tenth thanks to some clutch relief pitching from sophomore Wayne Masters. The little guy with big guts picked up three wins in the series.
Mike Weinrich led off the bottom of the tenth with a single. As the Titan coach, the late Russ Tiedemann went to the mound, I went to our dugout to talk things over my two trusted assistants.
Our batter was Leroy Horn, a sophomore football player in his first year playing baseball. A great baseball player in high school, Leroy was a strong kid who took some mean hacks.
"We have to bunt here", I said when I reached the dugout.
"Skip...Leroy's never bunted in his life", was Rich O'Connor's reply.
"Then we better hit and run." I was desperate to score.
"Skip...Leroy's not a hit and run guy."
"Well we gotta do something! There are 10,000 people here who agree with me!"
"Let's just do nothing and see what happens", said Rick Giancola.
Cursing under my breath, I walked back to the third base coach's box. The umpire had heard our entire conversation. He stepped close to me and said, "I'd steal."
I decided that my assistants were right. Leroy was a talented, but very raw player. It was best to just let things play out and watch. Sometimes in coaching, the best move is the one you don't make.
As the tension built, the Oshkosh pitcher fell behind 3-1.
Weinrich was a pretty good runner. A long single might score him if he had a good jump.
I flashed the steal sign.
The pitcher delivered a fastball on the outer half. Leroy got it up into the wind blowing to right and over the fence! As Weinrich ran past me at third, I was on the ground, looking up at his legs going past. Fasano was on top of me. The celebration was on. I gave Leroy a big kiss on the head and headed for my assistants. Giancola picked me up and pancaked me outside the dugout. O'Connor couldn't stop grinning for days!
All the newspapers in New Jersey wrote about the head coach smart enough to position his team to win, not asking players to do what they don't do well. All nice compliments, but Coach O and Coach G knew the real story.
So to all the head coaches in Omaha the next two weeks...keep listening to your assistants.
And to all those players from 20 years ago...thanks!