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Catching Up With UConn Baseball

May 13, 2011

Balancing History Lessons with Blissful Ignorance

May 13, 2011: "What's past is prologue." Those were the first words my Man in Society teacher uttered in my freshman year social studies class at East Catholic. Mr. Richard was an engaging educator with a real appreciation for history. He said those who fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. He argued that history was important to know in order to avoid mistakes in our current and future lives. It made sense. I've always been a student of history, and I've always appreciated its importance in large part due to Mr. Richard.

However, I'm sure he would agree there must be a balance in the study of history. Those who study it too closely can make mistakes simply by avoiding any action. This is a recipe for disaster. In coaching, we refer to "paralysis by analysis". Sometimes our past failures can debilitate us simply by over-examining them. A classic case is the batter who swings and misses at two curves in the dirt, and thinks to himself, "Okay, I looked bad there, I'm sure this pitcher is going to try to throw it again here. I need to lay off that curve down." Next thing he knows, the pitcher freezes him with a fastball down the middle, and the umpire rings him up. The batter was fearful of looking bad again, and didn't lift the bat off his shoulder. He was paralyzed by history, by fear - fear of failure.

There are two sides to the coin. Not learning from history can result in tragedy, but trying to glean too much from its study can also prevent higher achievement. Hirohito didn't wave the white flag after Hiroshima. Nagasaki followed three days later. Conversely, if President Obama overanalyzed the failed helicopter rescue plan that President Carter approved during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, he might not have okayed the use of choppers or approved such a daring raid in Abbottabad a couple of weeks ago.

In our program, I always want the players to have a sense of our rich history and know that they are part of something greater, much larger than themselves. One of the things we try to do whenever possible is to introduce all former players to the current team and have them say a few words whenever they're around. Colonel Nate Goldberg '52 spoke with the guys in San Diego. Don Burns '57 addressed the team before the Yale game in New Haven. Billy Rich '98 stopped by practice yesterday and shared some advice with the guys. It's important, so we do it. We're all part of the same family.



However, I'll never forget a story Coach Calhoun told me when I first became head coach. I was asking him how he got his players to appreciate all those who preceded them, and he relayed a story. He had seen Pearl Washington at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse earlier that year (2002 or '03), and was telling his team about how great the former Orange guard was. Despite having wowed crowds at the Dome less than 15 years earlier, Coach's players nodded politely, but had no idea who Washington was. The story was lost on kids who were in kindergarten or preschool when Pearl was lighting up the Big East. The story reminded me that while it is important to hold an appreciation of the past, your team is only as good as it can be if it is looking forward, and not backward.

With an 18-3 record in the conference, we have a 4 ½ game lead on the second place team in the Big East. We play defending champion Louisville tonight at Dodd Stadium, and it is the most important game of the year, because it is our next game on the schedule. We look forward, but not too far forward. Our preparations for Matt Barnes's first pitch in Norwich are all that matter right now.

Despite losing our most valuable pitcher from 2010 in Scott Oberg, and one of our starting catchers in Joe Pavone for the year, we've been improving all year. When our captain and sensational shortstop Nick Ahmed went down over two weeks ago, we didn't spend much time licking our wounds. We managed to keep playing hard and winning.

Over the course of the season, we've begun to earn back some of the attention that we had before the season from outside the immediate family, and we're better prepared to handle it now. Theo Epstein came to see Matt pitch last week, and Matt called him "just another guy in the stands" in the newspaper. Peter Gammons stopped by to interview Matt and George, and while he watched batting practice on Monday, nobody asked him for an autograph. That in and of itself is progress!

Some of the folks from outside our immediate family have asked what it would mean for us to win our first-ever Big East regular season championship. Of course, it would mean a lot to all of us. It is the first goal we set as a team at the beginning of the year. It also would mean an awful lot to all those who came before us. We've been playing in the Big East since 1985. So, Jack Hurley, Jim Sarantides, and Sal Tinnerello would share in it. Reuben Wilson, Clarke Caudill, and Tim Norton would be a part of it. If we're fortunate enough to finally hoist a gold trophy soon, we'll do so on the shoulders of Jason Grabowski, Peter Soteropoulos, and Jerry LaPenta. Those guys all know that we can only accomplish that goal if we're focused not on them, but on the pitch, the hit, the catch. We need to stay in the present and keep battling.

Satchel Paige said, "Don't look back, something may be gaining on you." Right now, we can't concern ourselves with which teams are in second or third. We're in first, and we control how far we'll go. We had a smaller lead and were in first place last year in mid-May, but we left it up to others to try to help us win the championship. Hopefully, we've learned to not concern ourselves with anyone else other than the 40 guys in blue and white in our dugout. The emphasis is the same this week. Win a series by winning one game at a time one pitch at a time.

As a coach who grew up hearing stories of UConn baseball in the 60's and 70's, watched it throughout the 80's, played and coached it in the 90's and `00's, I've learned much from the past. And at times, I'm sure I've overemphasized those lessons to our team. Our 2011 team, like Coach Calhoun, has reminded me to look forward, not back. We got off to a bad start. So what? It's history. We've lost some key players - whatever. We've played well for awhile - doesn't matter. We've got another game today. There's another pitch coming. Let's get ready for what's next.

As if that lesson wasn't going to stick in my brain enough, there was a convenient cue earlier this week. After our Monday win over USF, I returned to the Honda to find a foul ball completely blew out my back window. I've been driving to games for more than 23 years, and I always park within foul ball distance of the fields. I suppose I was overdue to pay the price. Assistant athletic director Evan Feinglass spent his evening going the extra mile again and Shop-Vac'ing some not-so-fine glass out of my car seats. Our ace equipment manager, Megan Hastillo duct taped a black garbage bag to substitute for the missing window, thereby rendering my rearview mirror completely useless. On the drive home I could only look out the windshield. It was a nice view.