When you invest over a decade of your life in a career as a baseball coach, you’re sure to develop a laundry list of memories that you’re able to vividly recall when certain people, places, or dates on the calendar pop up.
There are all those euphoric wins.
And also some heartbreaking defeats.
There are some pretty hysterical rituals.
And, of course, plenty of crazy superstitions.
Fifteen years ago today, May 19, 2001, is one of those moments in my life.
In terms of memories, this is one of those euphoric wins; in fact, the most euphoric win in which I would ever participate.
A few days prior, final exams had concluded my junior year in college, but I still had one last test – the biggest and most important one of not only my entire semester, but also one that would ultimately launch a career — a date at Tampa’s Legends Field (since renamed Steinbrenner Field, the spring training home of the New York Yankees) to coach for the Seminole High School Warhawks in the Florida Class 5A State Championship.
I was 21, donned a full head of hair, and could eat pretty much anything at any time of day without fear of not being able to fit into my pants the next morning.
Oh, the freedom!
And the financial savings on sunscreen for my scalp.
My first year of coaching as an assistant was wrapping up with a chance to complete a perfect season, 31 wins and 0 losses; an improbable scenario for anyone that knows how challenging and utterly random the sport of baseball is in and of itself.
The fact that these were all 15-18 year-old high school guys managing schoolwork, hormones, family situations, part-time jobs, and the pressure of entering the season as the favorite to win not only a state championship but also to earn a #1 national ranking certainly created quite a few challenges.
Add to this the fact that each of our team’s 13 seniors had very real aspirations of either being professionally drafted by a Major League Baseball club at the end of the season or were navigating countless college scholarship offers and it all made for a rather unique set of circumstances.
Simply put, to be knocking on the door of an undefeated season after 30 games was nothing short of a miracle.
Good fortune afforded me the opportunity to join the Warhawk staff. Upon completion of my fall baseball season in college, I hadn’t performed well enough to earn a spot on the Triton varsity squad. Apparently, the market for a 5’ 9” outfielder-who-couldn’t-hit/pitcher-with-a-78-mile-per-hour-“fastball” had seemingly dried up. Nevertheless, I was still oozing with passion for the game.
For about two years, a highly respected mentor and coach of mine had suggested that I might make a decent coach myself one day. In the summers of 1999 and 2000 when I’d return home from school, he had given me my first coaching opportunities. So, after not making the cut for my college team, he encouraged me to pursue that avenue.
As a result, a couple of wonderful opportunities came along, including an offer to serve as a student assistant coach from the man who gave me the chance to play college baseball in the first place. However, at the time, I felt I would be best suited working with high school players. Not only was there more of an age gap between player and coach, but there was also plenty I needed to learn. The most successful coaches at the high school level I’ve ever been around were masters of teaching fundamentals and motivation, and since I was still uber-competitive and wanted to be the best coach I could possibly be, it made most sense to go the high school coaching route.
Around Thanksgiving of my junior year in college, I reached out to a few of my former coaches to inquire about any entry-level coaching positions of which they may have been aware. Ultimately, that lead me to Seminole High School, where a former coach of mine from Eckerd had recently taken over the baseball program.
At the time of my “interview,” I didn’t know all that much about what I was getting into. Keep in mind, in the year 2000, there weren’t a whole lot of online publications tracking prep school athletes or teams on the national level the way they are now. Blogs and videos were still very much in their infancy. And social media was still about a decade away from becoming mainstream.
Aside from local word of mouth, there wasn’t a whole ton of information out there to research online.
All I was aware of was that the team had a lot of talent and that the school had both a strong academic reputation and athletic tradition. I had no idea, however, that this particular squad was being recognized by both the amateur and professional baseball worlds as not only the team to beat in 2001, but that they had a roster that could go down as, ultimately, the most talented in all of high school baseball… ever:
- Three preseason All-Americans
- Seven potential Major League Baseball draft picks; three of whom could be selected in the first round
- A potential Gatorade National High School Player of the Year
- Three pitchers that all threw over 90 miles per hour
- A preseason #1 ranking by USA Today, ESPN, and Baseball America
Talent-wise, this team was a coach’s dream.
Literally, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
So, at the conclusion of my phone interview, I was offered an opportunity to work a two-week preseason camp under the direction of Coach Miller. If things went well, I’d be given a shot to work with the junior varsity squad for duration of the 2001 spring season.
Just to be a part of this thing, I thought, would be a valuable learning experience.
Grateful for the chance, I accepted.
Fortunately, I made the most of it.
Naturally, I wanted to make a good first impression with both my fellow coaches and the program’s players. With all of the baseball talent on the roster and coaching acumen (both Coach Miller and our pitching coach had played professionally; and several of our player’s parents included a former MLB manager and one of the most renowned scouts and minor league managers in all of baseball — both of whom made frequent appearances at our facility) on staff, however, walking into this situation thinking I knew anything about baseball was not the approach I wanted to take.
For one, it would’ve been a lie.
More importantly, though, was that acting like I was some baseball guru who possessed hidden secrets on hitting or pitching or fielding or whatever wasn’t going to separate me from anyone that was out there on the field every day.
And, if my goal was to one day make a career out of this, I had to do something that allowed me to stand out.
The only commodities of any unique value whatsoever that were in my possession at the time were my schedule flexibility (all of my college coursework was done by noon each day) and my ability to throw left-handed batting practice.
Basically, I could show up early and stay late.
And I had nothing but genes to thank for being born with left-handed dominance.
So, each weekday from the first week of January through the entire spring semester, I would finish my classes, eat lunch in the school cafeteria, and make the scenic (and rather touristy) 30 minute drive from campus west out along the Pinellas Bayway towards the historic (and very pink) Don Cesar Hotel, continuing north on Gulf Boulevard through the beaches of St. Pete, Treasure Island, Madeira, and North Redington, before finally reaching Seminole — a community that for anyone living in Pinellas County, Florida can assure you is one of the most geographically-challenging places to which one can possibly travel.
Typically, practice would start at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. For me, that meant being there no later than 3; which gave me plenty of time to help get the locker room opened up and field prepped for practice.
Being the first coach out to the field was also an incredibly valuable time for me to develop personal relationships with our players. Whether it was helping them with equipment, pitching to them in the batting cage, or hitting ground balls as part of a pre-practice routine, it was a great way to demonstrate my desire to help them succeed. In the end, I learned an incredibly valuable lesson, later echoed by a former colleague of mine who used to always say (quoting President Teddy Roosevelt):
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
A wise axiom appropriate for more than just coaching relationships for sure.
In the two weeks I assisted with the preseason camp, I was able to make a formidable impression, so much that, when the workouts concluded, I was asked by Coach Miller to serve on his varsity staff. I’m sure it had more to do with my schedule flexibility than it did “baseball mind,” nevertheless, to this day, that moment is one of the most pleasing accomplishments of my former career.
Humbled (and Humiliated)
Throughout that entire 2001 campaign, my duties included working with outfielders and hitters, throwing left-handed batting practice, and coaching first base during games. That’s not to say, however, that I wasn’t given additional responsibilities as the season progressed; even if they just so happened to be unintended.
On the evening of our third game of the season — a game against arch rival and perennial power Dunedin High School (a match-up of the #1 and #2 teams in the national preseason polls put out by USA Today and ESPN/Baseball America) — Coach Miller (who had been hitting the pre-game infield/outfield drill that typically takes place 30 minutes before first pitch) was suffering from a stomach bug and unable to perform this particular duty.
Unexpectedly, I was handed his fungo bat and told to take over for him. Never having performed this task in my life, I went on to assume the role for the remainder of the season.
And I was, by far, the absolute worst pre-game infield/outfield hitting coach in the history of amateur coaching.
With professional scouts from every team in Major League Baseball among the thousand or so fans in attendance that chilly night at Grant Field, I can assure you that it wasn’t a very good example to have out there on my public coaching portfolio, either.
Fortunately, over time, I got a little bit better at it — at least good enough to perform during the 2010 season at Ole Miss when I served as their infield coach — but it took a ton of practice to finally get it right.
And plenty of broken fungo bats.
The Winding Road To Perfection
As is the case during any baseball season, there are plenty of ups and downs.
There were season-ending injuries, including one to our preseason All-American pitcher.
And there was controversy; an administrative error involving the residency of our preseason All-American shortstop that effectively ruled him ineligible for the season.
For most prep teams, just having a single blue chip athlete on the roster is one thing; losing 2 of them — your best players — at the vital positions of pitcher and shortstop for the entire season, typically, simply becomes an insurmountable obstacle; especially at the high school level where roster depth is virtually non-existent.
Despite the adversity, however, our club stampeded through the regular season — going 24-0 — defeating opponents via the 10-run mercy rule 12 times during that stretch.
Selfless play, firm resolve, and the ability to tune out all the external noise around us proved to be all part of the formula for success.
On the field, even with a schedule of full of competitive opponents, there weren’t many challenges.
The only true scare came in late April during the first round of the district tournament, where the Green Devils of historic St. Petersburg High School — led by the twin grandsons of baseball legend Don Zimmer — nearly pulled off an upset.
With runners on 2nd and 3rd and 2 outs in the bottom of the 7th inning for St. Petersburg, our catcher sprung out from behind home plate to block a pitch in the dirt swung on for Strike 3, quickly coming to his feet to throw a laser (in blinding sunlight looking westward just over the horizon at sunset, I might add) from well-behind home plate down to first base, just in time before the runner reached the bag; preserving a 3-2 victory and officially qualifying us for the regional tournament.
If not but for that heroic effort, our season would have been over.
We would’ve been the greatest 24-1 team in the history of high school baseball.
Fortunately, 2 nights later, we moved on, winning the district championship via the mercy rule against the Cougars of Countryside High School.
Then, there was regional play.
In the first round, hosting Gulf High School out of New Port Richey, we won again, by the mercy rule, 11-1.
Three days later, on a Friday night, travelling south down to Punta Gorda to play before a raucous crowd against a talented Charlotte High School squad coached by a local legend, we won, 8-3.
And, that environment was, by far, the most electric one that I’ve ever experienced at the high school level.
On the following Tuesday, we returned home to host the regional championship against the same team we beat to win the district championship just 10 days prior, Countryside High School.
Once again, we beat them, by — you guessed it — the mercy rule. Final score 13-3.
Ten nights later, May 18th, 2001, we had a date with Tate High School out of Pensacola in the 5A semi-final; playing in front of a huge crowd under the bright lights at Legends Field.
And, with a 7-2 victory, we were just one win away from a perfect 31-0 season, state championship, and becoming the first prep baseball team in history to go wire to wire as the #1-ranked team in America.
Saturday afternoon, May 19th, 2001 was a picturesque day at Legends Field in Tampa — sunny, hot, and humid.
First pitch of the FHSAA Class 5A State Final against St. Thomas Aquinas out of Fort Lauderdale was set for 4pm. As requested by tournament directors, we arrived at the stadium early.
Fresh off the bus, we were escorted to the Yankees clubhouse, where we set up shop and hung out for a bit.
Even for a native Bostonian like myself, it was a pretty neat experience to be sitting in the same lockers as Yankee stars like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.
After pre-game warm-ups out on the field, Coach Miller, a man of very few words, addressed the team briefly.
This is your moment.
Now, go do what we do.
And, just like that, it was time to play ball.
In Florida, all high school games are 7 innings long. So, it’s always imperative to get off to a fast start and score first. That way, you can take away the opponents aggressiveness and ability to play the short game.
Unfortunately for us, however, we were the ones playing catch-up.
St. Thomas scored 2 in the 3rd inning.
Then, 2 more in the 5th.
Heading into the 6th, with just six offensive outs to play, we had yet to score a run.
And, with all due respect to our opponent’s pitcher, we had faced far more talented arms in the 30 games we played up to that point in the season.
But, on this particular afternoon, he was outstanding.
Lots of short innings.
In fact, we weren’t able to even get a runner to second base through the first 5 innings.
Tough to score when no one is getting on base.
For us, it was entirely uncharted territory. Coming into the state final, we had outscored our competition 273 to 46 (averaging 9.1 runs per game with an average victory margin of 7.56 runs/pg) and here we were, scoreless, just 6 outs away from our season being over.
Through 5 innings of play, St. Thomas Aquinas 4, Seminole 0.
And then, in the top of the 6th inning, as if it was aligned by the stars or some wild, crazy, mysterious supernatural force, everything changed.
Our second basemen led off with a walk.
A promising start to the 6th inning, only to be thrown out at second base after our center fielder reached on a fielder’s choice.
Man on 1st, 1 out.
Next, our left fielder found chalk, his hit bouncing off the right field foul line and into the stands for a ground rule double.
Man on 2nd & 3rd, still one out.
Then, a double to left field by our All-American first basemen; two runs scored.
Man on 2nd, 1 out — St. Thomas Aquinas 4, Seminole 2
The heart and soul of our club — our catcher — then reached on an error, advancing our runner from second base to third.
Men on 1st & 3rd, still 1 out.
Next, a single to left-center by our third basemen scored another run; our catcher advancing from 1st to 3rd.
Men on 1st & 3rd, still 1 out — St. Thomas Aquinas 4, Seminole 3
A walk to our next batter would load the bases before a sacrifice fly hit by our shortstop advanced the runner from 3rd to home to tie the game.
St. Thomas Aquinas 4, Seminole 4
The inning would end with a force out, leaving the score tied at 4 heading into the bottom of the 6th.
A resilient effort to say the least.
In the bottom of the 6th, we held St. Thomas from scoring, then returned to bat for the 7th inning.
To say there was nervous energy pervading both dugouts would be an understatement.
A single led off the top of the 7th, followed by 2 quick outs.
Runner on 1st, 2 outs. Score tied at 4.
Our All-American first basemen would double once again, advancing our runner to third.
Men on 2nd & 3rd, 2 outs — St. Thomas Aquinas 4, Seminole 4
St. Thomas’s pitcher proceeded to intentionally walk the next batter (our catcher) to load the bases.
Then, in what was no doubt the most unlikely of baseball snafus that I’ve ever witnessed either in person or on television, St. Thomas’s pitcher, regrettably, began his windup only to stop it mid-step.
“That’s a balk!” exclaimed the home plate umpire, subsequently pointing at our runner on third base and signaling him home, our runner on second to third, and our runner on first to second.
Everyone advanced a base.
It was absolute hysteria.
Seminole 5, St. Thomas Aquinas 4
And that’s how the score remained through the bottom of the 7th until, thanks to a well-timed stretch by our first basemen on the back-end of a double play we turned, the final out was recorded.
Seminole High School – your 2001 Florida Class 5A State Baseball Champions
And it all very much still feels like yesterday.
While today marks 15 years since the culmination of that perfect, undefeated season (31-0), a state championship, and earning the mythical title of “national high school champions,” looking back, the victories and accolades aren’t what I remember most about the whole experience.
It’s the people — the relationships with the players, their families, and my fellow coaches.
The fact that we could all put on a silly polyester costume with pinstripes and run out on a field of grass and clay for 5 months one spring 15 years ago and work together to accomplish greatness that will in all likelihood never be repeated is something I’m incredibly thankful to have been part of.
And all the credit in the world goes to those kids who, with both talent and heart, rose to the challenge; the support of their families; and the steady hand of one of the greatest managers and teachers that I have ever had the honor of serving with in a dugout.
It truly was an amazing ride.
Thank you for the wonderful memories.