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Catching Up With UConn Baseball

Friday, May 16, 2008

Pittsburgh, Pa.: We held on last night here to beat the Panthers 14-10 after staking a 12-2 lead in the seventh. The bases were loaded with the tying run at the plate in the person of Pitt's leading homerun hitter when Matt Karl got him to pop up to Mike Olt to end a torture-filled last three innings. The pharmacy across the street from our hotel is out of Maalox after the coaching staff raided the shelves this morning, yet with Villanova losing to St. John's and Rutgers playing a doubleheader today in Louisville, we are still clinging by our fingernails to the mathematical possibility of qualifying for the BIG EAST tournament.

The guys are continuing to play hard and battle, but to be perfectly honest, we don't deserve to go. We haven't earned it. When we have really needed to make a pitch, a play or drive in a big run this season, we haven't done it. That may be difficult to admit but it's true. Too many ninth inning rallies have come up short. Too many bases loaded walks have led to disaster. Too many misjudged fly balls, wild pitches, passed balls and strikeouts looking have conspired to beat ourselves all year.

On Tuesday in Chestnut Hill, we gave the Eagles no less than sixteen free base runners without committing an error. Ten walks, three hit batsmen, a strike three that got to the backstop, a ball lost in the sun in the outfield and a misjudged routine fly that turned into two runs all ganged up to beat the Huskies after we held separate three and four run leads in the game. BC managed to score four runs in a hideous seventh inning with the benefit of one hit. In short, it was ugly.

As a coach, such play this late in the season is difficult to explain and even tougher to watch. So many of our supporters have patted us on the back and reassured us that we are young, and with so many critical injuries this year, we can't be expected to meet our preseason goals. Maybe our expectations were a little lofty, but they are high every year, and I can't accept that. It is not okay to shift blame. It is not bad luck. It is not inexperience. It is our fault. We haven't earned the right to play for a championship.



Through no fault of their own, "earning a championship" is a difficult concept for many modern college baseball players. Our game has become a white collar sport in the college ranks. With the NCAA-imposed limit of 11.7 scholarships spread amongst 35 players, the best high school baseball players must also be able to afford to pay sometimes as much as $30 to $45,000 per year to play.

The majority of college baseball players are coming from some of the wealthiest suburbs in America nowadays. In order to be seen by college coaches, parents of high school players are being asked to dole out thousands of dollars for showcases, national tournaments and exposure camps. That means prep stars are spending their seasons not playing for their hometown American Legion, Connie Mack, or Senior Babe Ruth team trying to win championships.

Many of them are on the road for June, July and August on their own tours of the country. I've joked that some of the guys should have concert-like t-shirts made up with their showcase/tournament/camp tour schedules printed on the back. The days of college coaches picking up the Hartford Courant to see when Southington Legion is playing Bristol at Muzzy Field are over. Instead, we get hundreds of individual schedules from some of the best and most privileged and we follow them around all summer long.

The focus is not to win a zone title, a state championship, or get to a regional. Instead, it is to hit 90 on the gun, run the 60 in under 7 seconds, or hit a few out in b.p. at as many showcases as possible in order to get the almighty scholarship. The investment is made in the individual in order to obtain what is perceived as a "deserved destiny". The subsequent National Letter of Intent signings are covered by journalists with more fervor than team championships in so many cases.

We coaches fawn over high school juniors and seniors in the hopes that they'll sign those NLIs with us after we evaluate their talent at these expensive tournaments, showcases, and camps, and in the process we propagate the problem. The focus on the individual performance is so great, that when the player gets to our team or any team for that matter, he has a heck of an adjustment to make. When the earned run average gets over seven for the first time, and he doesn't get the ball for weeks, he doesn't know how to deal with the failure. In the summer tournaments or showcases, everyone gets the ball whenever it is his turn to throw his designated number of pitches for the scouts.

That privilege is earned not necessarily because the pitcher's performance was good, but rather as soon as the check clears.

After landing here on Wednesday needing to win three games and get some big-time help from others in order to qualify for the tourney, one of our pitchers remarked to a coach that he was concerned about how a recent blow to his ERA would hurt his chances in "the first week of June." He wasn't speaking of the NCAA regionals or super regionals. He was referring to Major League Baseball's Amateur Draft taking place on June 5th and 6th. That kind of comment would get a guy mauled by teammates when I played. Today, it is accepted.

We are staying at a nice hotel a long double down the line from the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers. The Hilton is a 24-story hotel with a nice breakfast restaurant and one of those grand wood-paneled lobbies that looks like the one in the movie, The Graduate. As is our custom, we arranged for a team breakfast in the restaurant that is charged to our master account, and we give the guys meal money to cover their lunches and dinners. The spread in the Hilton is nothing to sneeze at. Eggs, sausage, bacon, potatoes, cereals, fresh fruit, juices, coffee, and even an omelet station are available. As a 20-year old, I would have gone for seconds and thirds and thought I was in gastronomic heaven. Yesterday, three of our guys asked to go elsewhere for breakfast and spend their own money to eat on their own.

When I first started coaching at UConn, I'd always ask before the first flight of the year, how many guys were going on their first airplane trip. Several hands would go up. After three or four years of one or no hands going up, I stopped asking this year. I remember my first trip to play Pitt in the spring of 1991.

I couldn't believe the view from my room in the old Hyatt across from the Civic Arena here. But then again, as a kid, the nicest motel I'd ever been in was the Blue Star Motor Inn in Westerly, Rhode Island for an overnight with my parents and three brothers crammed into the shag carpeted room with cool paper bathmats in the bathroom. I guess I'm getting to be that "old guy" who walked up hill both ways in the snow to school with no shoes.

Our student-athletes aren't bad guys. In fact, we get more compliments than ever from flight attendants, hotel managers and all sorts of folks with whom we come into contact on the road for our deportment and class. I've gotten used to the some of the players driving nicer cars than their coaches, having more electronics than Radio Shack, and going on cruises over the semester break. In spite of all of that, our guys are hard-working, good people, with sound hearts and values. There have been just a handful of times all year when I've questioned their effort.

There is plenty of blame to go around, but I deserve the bulk of it. The plan needs adjusting. We are going to change our focus in the fall to include a lot more "team building" exercises. While I've always believed the best clubhouses happen organically, and not by artificial means, we need to at least try some of the new-wave and maybe some of the old-school military techniques for getting fragile individuals to bond and become something larger, something stronger than themselves.

We are going to foster an environment in which teammates confront teammates and hold each other accountable rather than being quick to intervene and solve conflicts amongst them after individual tattling forces us to act like cops and not coaches. We are also going to look for talented people in places other than the big national tournaments and showcases. While the players we find still will have to afford a good chunk of an ever-growing tuition, they'll also be from championship teams, and they'll be asked if they've ever held a job, been in a fistfight, and what it means to be a good teammate.We have a good young core of guys to build around, but we also need to adjust in order to grow as a program.

Getting individuals to form a team has never been easy, but today, in college baseball, it is increasingly difficult. Across the Allegheny, a team from my boyhood had the answer. In 1979, Willie Stargell, Tim Foli, Dave Parker, Kent Tekulve, Bill Madlock, and Phil Garner celebrated wins in the now razed Three Rivers Stadium by listening to Sister Sledge's hit single, "We are Family".

They believed they were just that - a family, and they earned a World Championship. Perhaps we'll do something tonight and tomorrow that will truly earn our way to Clearwater, and change my mind. Regardless, you can bet we're going to do our best to become more of a family today, tomorrow, and every day. Then, when that championship is finally won, a team of individuals sacrificing for the good of the whole will know how special it truly is when you EARN IT.

- Jim Penders