This looked like it was going to be so easy 16 years ago.
It was 1998, and though I was out of school for six years and had already worked at three different newspapers, had covered all three Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl championship runs in the 1990s, I still had some nerves about taking over my first full-time collegiate beat when I started at the Avalanche-Journal and took over the duties for reporting on Texas Tech baseball.
That year, Tech was coming off the very first Big 12 Conference baseball title. That year, the Red Raiders won the Big 12 Tournament, then went to Miami for the regionals. Here’s a kid who growing up went swimming in a lake with that nasty red clay at the bottom, and now I’m watching Chris Snead dragging The Chicken up and down South Beach.
My timing then, was spot on.
The next year, Tech is hosting a regional, losing twice to Rice when just one win would send it to the Super Regionals in their first year of existence. Two years later, I’m taking my picture with Screech from Saved by the Bell in a hotel lobby in Orange County, Calif., then watching Tech rally for a win over tradition-rich Arizona State one night, Cal State-Fullerton the next.
Three years after that I’m watching Tech go from finishing dead last in 2003 to putting out one of the most offensive teams in program history. In between, there were a couple of trips to Houston for regionals.
In other words, between February and June, this seemed to be anything but a job, and I was honored to meet several quality people around the program, including two of the greatest men I’ve ever met in former coaches Larry Hays and Kal Segrist, the men who set the stage for what’s happening today.
I got to go to the yard for 17 seasons and watch baseball, then tell you about it.
Even through the lean years, from 2005 through 2013, when the program underwent two coaching changes, it never really seemed like work. There were times it wasn’t as enjoyable, such as the road trip to Missouri when current big-leaguer Max Scherzer and the Tigers bullpen combined on a 25-0 no-hitter. Missing the Big 12 Tournament – which I’ve always said because of its location in Oklahoma City that I’ve enjoyed as much or more than regionals – certainly wasn’t fun.
Through it all, however, I got to cover baseball at a high level, meet hundreds of players and coaches and witnessed just about everything you can see on a diamond.
It’s been an honor. But like all good things, they must come to an end.
I’ve always been curious about just exactly what coaches meant when they resigned and said that it’s just time. Time to do something different. Time to accept a new challenge. Especially those who have been uber-successful where they are.
Now I know.
About a month ago, that opportunity came up for me. Starting last week, I began working in the Communications and Marketing office at Texas Tech. It was just time for a change, time to do something different, time to try to have a live outside of athletics that often kept me away on weekends and from attending functions with my wife and our friends.
Unfortunately, I have the absolute worst timing in the world.
I accepted the job while the 2014 season was still going. I had to give a start date, so I hedged my bets. I figured Tech getting into a regional was a given, so I told Tech I would start after the regional.
Boy, did I shortchange myself or what?
Not only did the Red Raiders win the regional in Coral Gables, they also continued to reach new heights by winning the Super Regional in Lubbock to qualify for the College World Series for the first time in school history.
I’d always told myself after Tech hit their dark years that I would stay on the beat until this team got to the College World Series, because I believed one day they would do it and I wanted to chronicle it for you. I didn’t necessarily give up on that promise to myself, but the timing was right to make a move.
Wouldn’t you know it, this is the year.
Well, in all honesty, no one knew this would be the year.
Tim Tadlock said in his introductory press conference two years ago that he’d been told Texas Tech could never get to Omaha. “Well, guess what we’re about to find out” was his response.
We’ve found out.
From start to finish, from the first game against Indiana in mid-February to Sunday’s Series clincher against the College of Charleston, the Red Raiders have been the model of consistency. Only once did Tech lose more than two straight games, and they responded by winning nine of their next 12 games. In hindsight, going 0-2 at the Big 12 Championships was probably the best thing that ever happened to this team, because it was rested and motivated for the regional and Super Regional, and they’ve played that way.
It has been amazing to watch, to see a team projected by the league’s coaches to finish eighth in the Big 12 be one of the three conference teams in Omaha this weekend. The sentiment throughout the postseason is that the program is about a year ahead of where it should be, and that by qualifying for the College World Series, is now two years ahead.
But, is it really?
Should we really be this surprised?
The thing that others might not remember from Tadlock’s presser two years ago was the fact that, when it comes to winning and being successful, he is very impatient. He expects to win, to be competitive now. Right now. Not five years from now. Not two years from now. Right now.
That’s reflected in his staff, bringing in a tremendous recruiter in J-Bob Thomas, a great pitching mind in Ray Heyward and a young, focused volunteer coach in Matt Gardner.
It’s reflected in finding the hidden talent, such as a 5-foot-9 Eric Gutierrez, the baseball equivalent of a gym rat that most every Division I program passed on. It’s reflected in finding the most mentally strong pitchers like freshman Dylan Dusek, who had gone through more in his life than most of us ever will.
It’s taking talent that was already here and elevating their game, such as they did in making shortstop Tim Proudfoot and second basemen Bryant Burleson into one of the best combos in the nation. It’s proving that you don’t have to have a 90 mph fastball to get guys out, do you Jonny Drozd or Cameron Smith?
We knew Tadlock was a tremendous recruiter. Now, we’ve found out just how good a coach he really is.
He’s gotten 27 guys to buy in completely to his philosophies, his teachings, his mantra to the point that each one of them, whether they’ve played 64 games or six games, would run through a brick wall for him. He didn’t have to chest-bump his players, but did bow his chest, right or wrong, when other coaches were going after his players, standing up for his kids. Conversely, his kids stand up for him.
It would be nice to see in person just how this team reacts this weekend in Omaha. It seems like I’m the only one in my circle of friends not going to the Series. Darn my timing.
But I’ll be watching on TV.
And I’ll be cheering the Red Raiders on as loud as I’m allowed.
And next year, I get to be a fan. Right on the front row.
And the next time Tech makes the College World Series — there will be a next time — I’ll be there.
That will be fun.