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Catching Up With UConn Baseball

April 1, 2011

Together Everyone Achieves More

Whenever we break a huddle, we do so with the entire squad yelling one word, "Team." Too often we do so without thinking about what the word means, and why we say it. Tuesday night, I happened to catch the late, great John Wooden on CPTV at nine o'clock. I was riveted to him describing his pyramid of success in John Wooden: Values, Victory, and Peace of Mind. One of the blocks in his timeless life skills - teaching tool is entitled Team Spirit, and it got me thinking about our team and how we can become a better unit over the days and weeks to come.

We have shown signs of reaching our potential over the past week. We played well for three games of our last four, and the results have followed with three wins in all three of those games. Yet, we still don't quite have everything clicking as a team. I know if we rededicate ourselves to what the word "team" really means, we'll have a better chance of reaching our collective potential.

I've always felt that being a part of a team means to be part of something larger, more special than oneself. Coach Wooden defined team spirit as "an eagerness to sacrifice personal interests or glory for the welfare of all - the team comes first." He elaborated in the show that after years, he substituted the word eagerness for willingness to better reflect desire and action on the part of the individual rather than passivity.

While all coaches long to be as eloquent as Coach Wooden, just as Charlie Brown tries to kick the football with Lucy holding, it is a fruitless endeavor. He was one of a kind. Yet, all coaches would be foolish not to use the lessons he imparted - as they remain right as rain.

Many high school players initially get noticed by college coaches evaluating during the summer months on recruiting trips. The young men often play on teams that are constructed mainly for the purpose of being recruited or scouted, not necessarily to win championships, or as Coach Wooden implores, for the welfare of all. An investment in the team is not exactly the first priority. Often the investment is made in oneself for exposure. Fewer and fewer elite high school players play on their hometown Legion or Babe Ruth teams. They showcase, or join a traveling team that is assembled to appeal to scouts, and those offering scholarships. It is not the players' fault that the meaning of the word "team" might be lost on them. When they pitch two innings in order for the next kid in the pen to get exposure to the radar guns behind the backstop, or they get two at-bats in a two-hour time-limit game (regardless of score), the team concept is difficult to comprehend. College coaches perpetuate the problem by attending those kinds of events (we're damned if we do and damned if we don't). The trick is finding the young men who are eager to sacrifice personal interests and glory for the welfare of their team. We have enough guys on our team that are made of that eagerness.



Our first teams are our families, and so many of our guys come from really good families. I love when those families encourage their kids not just to play on teams, but also to have jobs in high school. I learned so much from shoveling neighborhood driveways with my brothers, delivering newspapers for the Journal Inquirer, washing dishes at Tasty Chick, working in a factory, and clerking at a Fotomat (remember those?) before college. In part, I was relied on to do a job to make a larger entity better, and I relied on others to make my job easier and better. I've always been eager to get to work (even when I sat in the Fotomat hut at the bottom of an icy hill with one yellow concrete pole protecting me from oncoming traffic at the Kmart plaza in Vernon). The lessons in team spirit those early work experiences provided were humbling and heartening at the same time.

Unfortunately, the dividends that come from being part of a team often don't show up until after we've left the team behind. So many of our former players return to campus or meet up with us on the road. They all have one thing in common. To a man, they all say, "Make sure the guys know how special their time together is. They won't know how much they have in common and how great it all is until it is over."

This year alone, we've been visited by dozens of former Huskies. On Tuesday, Mike Galati '98, Cy Hess '02, and Clarke Caudill '00, all came out to see us win against the Hartford Hawks. Tim Norton'06, stopped by our practice in Florida. Dale Brannon '06, Ted Garry '07, and Pete Walker '90, all saw us play in Dunedin and Clearwater. Doug King '65, brought his grandson to the San Diego State game, and Nate Goldberg '52, visited us in San Diego and Irvine with his family. Trent DeLazzer '10, and Gordon Stevens '08, checked in on the Left Coast as well. Billy Eppler's '97, mom made a special trip to see us at USD. Ron Romaniello '70, and his wife Linda saw us in Charleston along with Mark Ihlenburg (former Husky, and son of former Husky All-American John, '73). There have been Dave Ford '85, Matt Burnett '10, and Pat Mahoney '06, sightings at JOC this season too. The original versions of Jim Penders '65, Doug Elliot '82, and Pat Butler '91, have also taken in games this year from Corpus Christi to Storrs.

Each of those guys sacrificed something for the benefit of their teams. In so doing, they had a lasting impact, and perhaps even more profoundly, their sacrifice wound up leaving a meaningful imprint on their own lives and those of their teammates. Just over the course of the last week, my former Husky teammates were prominently present in my daily life. On Tuesday, I remembered that Gianni Ragaini's '93, birthday was the same date in March as Catfish Hunter's old Yankees jersey number, and I texted him with 40th birthday wishes. He started ahead of my slow bat for three years behind the plate, and remains one of the best teammates I've ever had. Our shortstop, Paul Funk '93, texted Wednesday morning to let me know his beloved mom, Marie passed away, and before the Pitt series began last week, Sean Irey '94, sent along an email, declaring a "new season begins today." Our belts are a little bigger, and the four of us haven't been in the same place since May of 1993, but we've all still got each others' backs.

I often have our alumni speak with our current players whenever they're around. I think the practice helps to lend perspective and to further enhance our team spirit. Of course, when a team is struggling to find consistency on the field, fractures in team spirit more readily show themselves. I see those fractures a lot on Mondays during the season.

A Monday after a loss is always a tough day. This week was no exception. It can be a long day with no practice or game. On that day, I often feel more like a priest stuck in a confessional than a coach sitting in my office. When there are players who are not pitching or playing to their potential, but are getting innings and are still in the starting lineup, the line outside the office can look like the one at Dunkin Donuts in the morning. Players who aren't pitching and aren't in the lineup fill the vacuum of activity on the off-day by trudging into the office and asking about playing time, or for the reasons they haven't gotten innings lately, or for an explanation as to why I pinch hit for them. Most of them just want to compete, feel they can help (the guys who visited Monday fit in this category), and just aren't used to not playing. Then some Mondays, there are some who visit out of selfishness. In years past, the guy hitting .350 in limited at-bats might stop by asking why the kid hitting .280 was still in the lineup. So far this year, it is more like the .200 hitter asking the same about the guy hitting .150. He might as well ask me, "Would you prefer a colonoscopy or a root canal?"

One day, they will realize that players make out the lineup with performances, not with meetings. They'll acknowledge that selfishness can damage team spirit faster than a shutout. They'll look back and know when they received opportunities, they earned them, and when they sacrificed for their teammates, they were rewarded with bonds that last a lot longer than a three-game winning or losing streak.

Our guys are always well-served by not only listening to our alumni, but also by following the right examples on their teams. Sometimes, the answers to questions are right in front of our faces. We have an infielder on our team who hasn't gotten a ton of playing time, but he is one of the best teammates we've ever had in our program. He's always on time, enthusiastic, and optimistic. He practices, studies, and works hard. If he can't say anything positive, he doesn't say anything at all. He takes ground balls in different spots in pre-game infield thinking about his teammates' throwing workload first, and how he can help alleviate it. He isn't a catcher, but he catches flat ground pens whenever asked. When URI was blowing us out and we didn't want to use up any more pitching, he met me at the mound and said he could eat up some innings without anyone having to ask.

I don't think he's ever seen the inside of my office. He volunteers at a local elementary school every Thursday. He thanked me for allowing him to live at home and play summer ball in a local league in order to help his family out and work a regular job. No sir, thank you! He'll be embarrassed by these two paragraphs, so I'm not even going to type his name. He knows who he is. More importantly, his teammates do too. If we had Spanish accents, it might sound like we were yelling his first name when we break the huddle. He really does epitomize the meaning of team.

As Coach Wooden said on television the other night, we all want stuff in this life - material things, money, statistics, etc. Yet, all those things go away eventually. The things that are forever are the relationships between true teammates, and true teammates are ones who sacrifice for each other - eagerly.