BASEBALL COMES BACK

BASEBALL COMES BACK

A HISTORY OF THE SPORT AT WICHITA STATE UNIVERSITY IN THE YEARS 1977-1982

(excerpted)

A Thousand Bucks A Month And Free Long-Distance

“New WSU Baseball Coach Pledges Winning Team,” read the headline of February 12, 1977 in the morning’s edition of The Wichita Eagle. Pretty much your typical new-coachly thing to say. Not really your typical new coach.

Two days earlier, Gene Stephenson, at thirty-one years of age, had been chosen the man to bring baseball back to Wichita State University after a seven-year leave of absence, the local boys of summer gone somewhere, anywhere else. The Eagle dutifully reported that seventy-six  applicants had come forward, seeking the position that Stephenson had just won.

Well, maybe.

College athletics, especially a second-tier NCAA sport such as baseball, operated by a different set of assumptions back then. Standard operational procedures in collegiate sports programs had not yet bent to the whims of high finance. Money, big money at every level of competition, had not yet made its presence felt, at least officially, and so the coaching profession, like the lives of the players they recruited, was far less controlled by rabid alumni in search of bragging rights at the country club, was far less nomadic in the firing of good men, teachers of the game who failed to win sufficiently often, sufficiently soon.

In 1977, football and basketball remained the marquee collegiate sports, of course. Notre Dame beat Texas and Heisman running back Earl Campbell in the Cotton Bowl to win the national championship, and even then the polling method of selecting a champion was generating its heat and its fury as five schools finished with identical 11-1 records. NCAA basketball involved just thirty-two teams in its championship tournament in 1977, the last year in which teams were not seeded. Butch Lee led Marquette to a 67-59 win over North Carolina in Coach Al McGuire’s last game to win the championship on the court, as opposed to the offices of the Associated Press. Meanwhile, over in Charleston, the Panthers of Eastern Illinois University were celebrating their NCAA championship in cross-country, and only a precious few more sports fans will remember that Coach Jim Brock showed Arizona State to a 2-1 final-game win over South Carolina in the 1977 College World Series in Omaha, the series still in its old double-elimination format. Collegiate baseball took a decided third or fourth seat in the stadiums of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, its best players as much the provenance of the American and National Leagues as of the alma maters in the meantime.

That said, by 1977 collegiate baseball had begun a modern legacy, had known its great players go on to Hall of Fame careers in the major leagues, had seen the refinements of the game and the more systematic development of players at ever younger ages. By 1977, NCAA baseball already recognized a few legendary coaches – Dick Siebert who at Minnesota had shown the Southern Schools that champions played sometimes on frozen infields, Bobby Winkles who at Arizona State had accomplished something like Gene Stephenson was preparing to do, Cliff Gustafson at Texas, Jerry Kindall at Arizona – but none more than Rod Dedeaux, who by 1977 had won seven College World Series including five in a row from 1970 to 1974 and who would win it again a year later in 1978.

In late 1973, Rod Dedeaux was sitting in his Southern California office when the phone rang, Gene Stephenson on the line, Assistant Coach Gene Stephenson wondering if the national champions would like to come to Norman, Oklahoma to play the Sooners, rich and growing more so in their own baseball tradition. Such was the confidence in the young voice at the other end of the line.
Gene had shared in what he describes as “great success” at the University of Oklahoma, five years (1972-1977) in which the Sooners had made successive appearances at the College World Series in Omaha. These were days in which collegiate baseball coaches found jobs and stayed put, days in which desirable sorts of openings came along infrequently at best. Head Coach Enos Semore had shown remarkable confidence in his young assistant, assigning Gene responsibilities typically reserved for the head coach. In his tenure in Norman, Gene scheduled the Sooners’ games for the coming season. He recruited. He worked with the scouts of every major league team, shepherding teenaged prospects into a program that would teach again and again the basics of hitting, throwing, pitching, baserunning, and fielding, that would show a talented center-fielder how to become a component of a team on its way to Omaha. Gene organized all team travel. He became involved in fundraising, in alumni relations, in all the non-baseball endeavors of running a baseball team.

No one should accuse Gene Stephenson of being brash. At the same time no one should find him in any way shy or shrinking. Told to schedule the strongest schedule he could muster, he simply called up Mr. Rod Dedeaux, the man who won more collegiate baseball championships than any other coach, The Man himself, builder of the strongest program in the history of the amateur sport. An assistant coach at a smaller, albeit winning, program calls up the man whom he had met once before, in Germany in 1970, Gene commander of the midnight duty-train through the East German corridor, during his stint in the Army, before his service in Vietnam. Gene called up and asked if Rod wanted to play, in Norman, and college baseball’s greatest coach said, “Sure. Why not?”

Gene had continued to develop his innate sense of toughness at OU, a natural aggressiveness that found first expression in the rough-and-tumble of a small Okie town, then in collegiate athletics as a baseball and football player at Missouri, in the military of course, and then under Coach Semore. His young assistant’s description of the boss: “Enos was a hard-working guy, really committed to being excellent in every way. Honest man, straight up. Good as they come. But the most important thing was that we recruited players who weren’t afraid of hard work.” Coach Semore was at the time halfway through his twenty-year tenure in Norman, two decades in which he won 851 games.

So Coach Enos Semore could not, for the life of him, understand why his protégé would up and leave as he did. The move simply made no sense. The arguments for staying were strong: the Oklahoma program was sending teams year after year to the college world series; pay raises were regularly forthcoming; Gene exercised more responsibility, and concomitant authority, than perhaps any other assistant coach in the country; Barry Switzer had hired Gene to help in the OU football team’s recruiting efforts, and the benefits from that assignment were significant. The arguments for going were…well…a challenge. “At OU, I was making $25,000, given a new car every six months, free clothes, football tickets. We were living large.” It is not known now, may never be known, if Gene Stephenson was offered football tickets to see Wichita State’s Shockers play under Coach Jim Wright, but it is definitely fair to say that their value in the marketplace stood somewhere below what seats in Norman on game day with, say, Nebraska in town might bring.

One free night at the Hilton Inn

Wichita State University had attempted a resurgence of baseball in 1973, when Jeff Pentland  arrived on campus. Hired as an assistant athletic director, brought in from Ted Bredehoft’s Arizona State University, he came with the intent of becoming head coach of a resurrected program. He and Athletic Director Bredehoft puttered ahead, the media attention and donor support focused on a winning basketball team and a football team that limped along in the sad years following the 1970 tragedy in the Colorado mountains when a plane carrying players and coaches crashed near Silver Plume, killing thirty-one people. By the 1975-76 school year, would-be Coach Pentland left in frustration, the likelihood of a WSU school program slipping in his mind toward impossibility.

When the designated-hitter approach failed to produce the beginnings of baseball, the WSU athletic department reverted to the conventional methods of hiring an NCAA Division I coach. Most of the applicants fled in terror after hearing the budget figure: $50,000 for the whole shebang. Salaries, recruiting, scholarships, field, equipment, uniforms, travel, you-name-it.

“I’m not at all sure I was the top guy,” Gene says to this day. “But I had so much confidence, so much belief that anything was possible.”

Invited to an in-person interview, Gene found himself spending a night at the Hilton Inn East, wondering what in the world he had ventured upon.

“Wichita seemed to be a good town, with some possibilities that might be yet untapped. I had a family to support though, and the thousand dollars a month WSU was offering didn’t leave me much choice. No way could I take a paycut with a wife and two kids.” The review committee did not offer Gene the job immediately. Coach Semore wanted him to stay at OU, told him so often and loudly. Still, the thought of starting a program from nothing hung around, asserted itself at odd hours, made Gene think that maybe, just maybe baseball might flourish on the WSU campus once more.

Were you to ask him now – after all the wins, all the records, all the players sent to the Bigs, the hundreds more sent into lives of character and purpose – Gene Stephenson will tell you that, maybe, he was “the best of what was left in a process of elimination,” a gambler, an old boy willing to look down a dead-end road and see a sign pointing straight to Omaha. “I knew that, with the relationships we had built with pro scouts, some recruits might at least take a look at Wichita State. I can’t say that I was actually excited about our prospects. No players. No field. No money.”

But he came anyway, for less salary and fewer employee benefits, from one of America’s premier baseball schools to build a program, in terms both literal and figurative, from the ground up. “The big fun lay in starting from scratch. I really felt that the city would respond to big ambitions, would want to share in the excitement of baseball coming back to town.

“The process in those days called for pro scouts to identify the talent, and then to help guide prospects into schools where their skills could be seasoned,” Gene recalls. The universities might also need to address a young man’s character, his attitudes toward life in general, teaching along the way the discipline, the persistence, the willingness to work necessary to play at the next level. “To some degree we expected to take marginal students at WSU, marginal characters, and turn them into good men and productive citizens.” He was absolutely certain that he could find the players necessary for a trip to Rosenblatt Stadium someday, that he could mold them into a team with a collective heart and mind like unto his own.

In his first press conference, a hard-charging Stephenson — sans mustache and sporting a full head of curly, dark hair — predicted that he would produce “winning teams,” for a salary of a thousand bucks a month, on a month-to-month contract, a meager sum compared to the compensation that he’d been receiving as an assistant coach at tradition-rich Oklahoma. The claim could not have been more unequivocal, more specific, more ridiculous.

“In four years we’re going to challenge for the College World Series,” Wichita’s new baseball coach said for all the world to hear. The local sports community was by now used to the proclamations and the promotions of Athletic Director Ted Bredehoft, and promises were not necessarily meant to be kept. Not every wild boast need come true around Cessna Stadium.

But Gene Stephenson could not have been more sincere. Or more serious.

Looking back at his decision to come north to Kansas, he said. “I had a passion and knew that we were going to make it successful. This was a huge risk but, honestly, I just never allowed the thought that we would fail. To some people something may seem like an impossible task. But to others it may look like a great opportunity. It’s a matter of what you are willing to put into it. Still, people shook their heads at my decision, told me that it simply could not be done.”

Well nigh impeccable

The naysayers’ logic was sound. Kansas’ population was small, the pool of available players made smaller still by the fact that only eight percent of all Kansas high schools played baseball. In 1977, the best of the graduates from those few prep programs naturally turned their attentions toward the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, both members of the athletically prestigious Big Eight Conference.

But still Gene believed. “I was a very confident, prepared coach from my experience with Enos. I had been given a lot of responsibilities because he had faith in me. And I had this unbelievable, burning desire to be a head coach.”

Athletic Director Bredehoft reported after the fact that “fourteen major-league scouts gave Gene high marks. They were so confident in his ability to build a program to which big-league teams would guide their top prospects for four years of seasoning.”

On East Douglas, on the second floor of the daily newspaper, in a time when cigarette smoke still hung over the manual typewriters of the columnists who stabbed at them, Bill McKay wrote in his first piece after Stephenson’s hiring, “he brings with him coaching and recruiting credentials well nigh impeccable.” Those were days in which “well nigh” still rang forth from the Wichita Eagle’s sports pages, in which even the most grizzled sportswriter might still, if he wanted, alliterate.

They were days in which a first-time head coach believed that he could build a team from the “two hundred or so quality players I had my eye on,” players evenly divided between the region’s  — no, the nation’s – junior-college and high-school ball teams. Gene said, “We need seven or eight players in key positions. I’ll surround them with walk-ons. I need three pitchers who can win, a catcher, two infielders, and one outstanding outfielder.” With those ingredients, he was just sure that “we can surprise a lot of people. And we won’t have any trouble scheduling games, because other teams will think that we’ll be an easy win. And right away I want KU and K-State on the schedule.” The young coach — for all his exuberance, for all his will to win – did not want, at least immediately, to see in the batter’s box the crimson-and-cream of the university he had just left.” No fear there. Just respect. For Coach Enos Seemore, the man who had given him just about everything.

As a last indication that there were no hard feelings, Coach Semore let Gene bring his desk to Wichita. A dark hulk of indefinite tonnage and uncertain manufacture, the desk came up Interstate 35 as — at thirty bucks, list — the most expensive of his baseball possessions. So, up in Wichita, he had a favorite old desk to slide into his brand new office there under the football stadium’s westside seats, in the football team’s film room, directly below the Shocker Mountain Ski School, a handmade sign on the door, “Gene Stephenson, Head Baseball Coach.”  Coach still works from that desk, albeit now with a new formica top, its legs still showing the warp of prolonged damp, the stains inidcating the high-water marks when the rain ran in under the door of the film room. The very same door through which Gene would have to depart every time the football team wanted to review game films, the more disrespectful of the players pulling his sign off the door and fairly well stomping it again into the mudded-up asphalt.

Gene brought a baseball from Norman as well, the first ball ever to be used in his new program. It had been signed by the OU bat-girls, and it sits too on perhaps the homeliest desk in college baseball.

(SNIP)

The Thinking Behind The Playing

Baseball, its believers would argue, operates with an essential purity, a deep-down freshness that keeps its adherents forever young. Other sports may change, may have to change, but baseball goes on forever.

Basketball may soon be requiring a higher goal, eleven feet or more if the professional version of the sport hopes to retain finesse and ball movement and defense as elements of the game even remotely as important as lob passes to waiting dunks. Football at its highest level of play necessitates the pass these days: the field is simply too small to accommodate the size and speed of defenders against the run. But baseball, at least in the fading light of an April evening, remains as always it has been. The biceps and the back-acne of the steroid years easily forgotten now, because little boys with mitts the size of their chests are playing catch in America, back and forth their rubber-coated Rawlings in the promise of a new season with new talent coming out of a farm system that doesn’t ever have to end.

Coach Gene Stephenson begins to talk about The Natural, the movie starring Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, the man who struck out Babe Ruth on three pitches, the man who cratered a fastball to explode the stadium lights and win a game he had been paid to throw to a gambling syndicate. At 67 years of age now, Coach Gene Stephenson of Wichita State University would not be embarrassed for anyone to know that he’s crying a little as he sees in his mind’s eye old Roy step into that fateful pitch.

Maybe Gene has read Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, the book on which Barry Levinson based his movie. Maybe Gene hasn’t read the novel, which ends far differently than the orchestrated good feelings of the flick. The book concludes with two scenes: in the first, one villain loses his glass eye to a haymaker from a newly righteous Roy and another villain messes his pants after a Hobbs left jab, while Roy’s ex-ladyfriend attempts suicide; in the second and final scene, Roy leaves the stadium, only to glimpse a newspaper stand screaming headlines that he threw the game, and when a newsboy pleads with him to denounce the charge, Hobbs breaks down and weeps. These are the details of life outside of baseball.

Roy really and truly has left the stadium.

In Gene Stephenson’s dampish eyes the lessons of baseball have to be learned inside the lines, ninety feet to safety, ninety feet to surety in four directions. “Because baseball doesn’t change, its lessons apply, no matter how much the world or the popular culture changes outside of baseball,” he reasons, and the precepts of his fifty year’s experience of the game come easily still.”

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.”

“You have to play hard every day.”

“Enjoy the ride. It’s the journey, not the destination.”

“Love your teammates.”

“Surround yourself with good people. Ignore the losers.”

“Impossibilities are just opportunities waiting to happen.”

“Work on the things you don’t do well.”

And on he’ll go amplifying baseball’s commandments, its gathered wisdom with stories of players he has coached, of young men whose lives have been changed because they saw and then they respected the evolved rightness of sixty-feet-six-inches between the rubber and the plate. Not an inch more nor a foot less. Baseball has its unchanging rules and rubrics, because only when players go by the book can there ever be the game.

And ain’t it funny how the circle is a wheel?

Why South Carolina will beat Florida two games out of three

“Routine plays,” Gene says. “South Carolina made the routine plays consistently.” Speaking of the final game of the 2011 College World Series, wherein the Gamecocks won their second straight national championship, Gene says that a less talented team can beat the better athletes with preparation, “with practicing at game speed.”

Because he had thrown hard all year in practice, South Carolina’s Michael Roth delivered eight innings of superb pitching in the second and deciding game of the series. He did it on three days’ rest, as his teammates held Florida in firm control throughout the 5-2 win. “We’re not the most talented team, and we don’t have the best players, position for position,” Roth said after the game. “But we go out and stick together as a team. We battle. I can’t describe it. We’re a bunch of average Joes, but we love each other and we come out and we battle.”

It’s enough to make Gene Stephenson cry, this unselfish statement of fealty to the cause, of sticking together, of gutting it up to play every day, the means whereby a team wins 16 straight NCAA tournament games, including 11 straight in the CWS. But, no, he’s pumped now, no more tears as he talks of “fire in the gut,” of the stuff that drove him to drag tarps from the football field to hang on the temporary chain link fences lining the would-be baseball diamond at WSU, by himself in his earliest days, those tarps intended to persuade the few folks who came to the Shockers’ first games to fork over a dollar to go and sit, all legal, in Gene’s bleachers up on a trailer borrowed from Grant Stannard’s construction company. Fire in the gut, alright, the self-motivation of his favorite players, the kids who came to him with a love of and respect for the game that led them to give not less than everything. Kids like he used to be, hustling all the time, going hard, gutted up.

The five “Ds”

The simple truths of the Stephenson approach to America’s game have never changed. Over the years that approach had distilled to what Gene calls “the five Ds,” a set of principles that, firmly held and frequently practiced, will lead to success every time, on the diamond and on to life its own self.

1) Deserve them. “The Players must understand that they deserve success,” Coach says, but those right and just deservings come only to responsible people of accountable character, “young men who care about others.” Early in their acquaintance, Gene asks his players a formidable question, “Do you like the person you’ve become?” Right between the eyes, that one. “Do you like the person you are?”

And then comes the rationale of the team concept, the basis of all that a group of players might become together. “Across all these years, no player has ever heard me utter the words ‘my team,’” Gene says. “From the first day of practice, I urge these players to forget ‘I’ and ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ to think only in terms of ‘we.’ Great team play simply cannot happen with selfishness from individual players.” And then in the shared responsibility and the shared reward of teamwork comes a particularly good practice, the drills run just as their coach has insisted, every minute engaged with good people at game speed, every man with a game face on, and the thought comes “Maybe we deserve to win a game or two.”

Gratitude has its role to play too. To whom much has been given, much will be required, the Biblical injunction comes, and the coach steps again to the pulpit on the mound. “Usually scholarship players’ first trip back home comes at Thanksgiving,” he says, “and I lean on the guys pretty hard. I tell them to hug their mommas, to walk up to their dads and to say ‘I love you’ right out loud. Many of these parents have sacrificed a great deal – in terms of their time and their money – so that their sons could play baseball at this level, and they deserve to be thanked often and, as I say, out loud.”

Gene doesn’t push religion, not at all. But he does counsel his players to a deep spirituality, to faith in a Higher Power. “I tell them that there is a God, that their belief in Him will carry them through the tough times, that He has given them talent that they must use to the very best of their ability.”  He tells his players, every one them, to be the guy “who’ll be there for his brothers.

“Because we’ll win when we deserve to win.”

2)  Desire, the second of Gene’s Ds, motivates from within, untaught, unteachable probably. “A player has to want to win, to be the best he can be,” the coach suggests, knowing that he can only create the environment in which personal desire translates to individual and collective achievement. “People have always told me how much they enjoy watching WSU play ball,” the coach says. “Whether we’re up by 10 runs or down by 10, we play hard.” As with those first players of his, the ragtag bunch of the early seasons, the secret waits in the wanting. The caps in the air and the piling on at homeplate begins in the quiet yearning of a kid thinking that he loves this game, that he wants, really really wants to play this game.

The coach pauses for a moment, and he thinks of Eric Wedge. Eric Wedge, catcher on the 1989 national championship team, first-team collegiate All-American, Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, runner-up for the Rotary Smith Award for College Baseball Player of the Year, major-leaguer with the Red Sox and the Rockies, American League Manager of the Year with the Cleveland Indians in 2007, currently manager of the Seattle Mariners. That Eric Wedge. The year Eric won the AL managerial award, he wrote his old coach, “I know now that passion and mental toughness are everything. Thanks for giving them to me.”

“I love Eric,” his coach says, “but he’s wrong. I didn’t give Eric that passion, that desire to succeed, that willingness to do everything necessary to win. I just pointed it out to him. He simply flourished in the environment around here. The desire, the fire in the gut, that was all his.”

3) Dream, of course, where obstacles float away, and opportunities flash like signals from a third-base coach with arms forever moving. The great players dream. And they listen. To the still, small voices within them. To those old souls all around them who too believe that there isn’t one thing in this world impossible. Never doubt. Never give up.

4) Discipline, self-discipline which enables an athlete to work on what he doesn’t do especially well. “It’s fun to repeat over and over what you’ve already mastered,” Gene says. “In life and in baseball, it becomes your responsibility to improve in every aspect of the task at hand, to pay close attention to the details of your work hour to hour.”  In time an ethic of effort asserts itself, and the game gets played every day. Teammates watch each other work hard and harder still, and a trust begins to build, certain in the knowledge that when the call comes, they’ll be ready. They will respond with discipline and confidence to the opportunities of the moment, because they have practiced at game speed.

Joe Carter would not immediately come to mind as an exemplar of this sort of day-to-day grit. Unnecessary in Joe’s case, right?  The great Joe Carter, gifted in a way that few athletes could ever hope to be, right?  Joe Carter, the five-time major-league all-star, who went to The Bigs as the second pick in the 1981 draft, off to the Chicago Cubs after winning honors as College Player of the Year a few weeks earlier. That Joe Carter?

Here’s how the history happened.

Joe grew up with ten brothers and sisters, most of them younger, many of them as naturally athletic as he, all of Big Joe and Athelene Carter’s kids encouraged to follow their talents into whatever field of endeavor, athletic or otherwise. Little Joe played ball in the backyard where a makeshift infield had been fashioned, where big-league announcers in his head called him to the plate, his natural athleticism already obvious to anyone paying attention.

By the days of his stardom at Oklahoma City’s Millwood High School, Joe was a three-sport letterman: quarterback on the football team, forward on the basketball team, a pitcher on the baseball team. He did not go out for track, a conflict with his beloved baseball, but one spring day in 1978, he was sitting with some friends watching a regional track meet when the Millwood coach ran into the stands, wondering if Joe could broad jump, the team’s regular long-jumper down with an injury. Joe changed clothes, walked to the pit, counted his steps, and popped out there twenty-plus feet to win the event, which until that moment he had never, ever practiced. A week later he won the state championship.

Joe Carter, now among the handful of the very best players ever to come out of WSU. Gene had brought him here to see a basketball game. Gene had been to Joe’s high school as a football recruiter, had seen him play basketball. And when I told his dad that I was going to take this job at Wichita State, immediately he said, ‘That’s where my boy is going to play then.’ And I told him back, ‘Big Joe, you better wait and see. I appreciate your confidence more than you can know, but you had better just wait and see.’”

God-given talents made Joe Carter a high-school athletic phenomenon. Hard work and a prodigious discipline of self made him everything else. “The fact is, when he came here, Joe didn’t know how to play baseball,” Gene says with no hint of sarcasm, no suggestion that here is nothing more, nothing less than stone-cold truth. At nineteen years of age, the World Series hero hadn’t yet begun to explore his baseball greatness. “Joe came to Wichita State, first of all, to play football, a wide-out and a punt returner. The deal was, he would be excused from football spring training to concentrate on baseball. And he went to work. He worked hard, even in front of his teammates, especially in front of his teammates. He wasn’t afraid to admit his weaknesses, to work on those aspects of the game in which, frankly, he had no experience. Remember, he was a pitcher in high school, and he played in only six games. Six! But Joe was hungry to learn.” Joe Carter recognized his gifts, recognized even more the athletic movements, the specialized skills even those prodigious genetics could not automatically master. And so he humbled himself, and he made mistakes in fielding and throwing and hitting and running the basepaths with precision and modulated speed. He made those mistakes over and over until he didn’t make them anymore.

5) Dimension, the final “D,” a sense of proportion in matters great and small, a humble understanding that no one is irreplaceable. “After the 1989 championship season, I had some occasional thoughts that maybe I was some pretty hot stuff,” Gene admits. “People were telling all of us associated with the College World Series victory how much they admired us, how proud they were of our accomplishments. I’d be strutting around, full of myself, and a fan would come up to me and shake my hand and say, ‘Congratulations, Coach Smithson!’ (mistaking Gene for look-alike Gene Smithson, the WSU basketball coach fired for multiple violations of NCAA regulations)  And I’d remember how important it is to laugh at yourself. ”

That self-deprecation persists in Gene to this day, admitting right out loud that, were he to disappear tomorrow, “this program would continue and not miss a beat.” And the dimensional nature of things continues right up to all our disappearances, to the last question asked of any of us, “Did you leave the world a better place than when you came in?” The scorebook records the passage of the innings. The record book reports the accumulation of timeless achievements. But time will have its way, and an eternal sense of proportion asserts itself.

Gene Smithson understands. “Baseball is a humbling game. So is life. And all that matters right now is the next pitch.”

Or, more importantly, the next practice.

After all else, respect for the game

Every true ballplayer understands The Code, the unspoken, certainly unwritten notion of baseball as the best and only eternal game, the reverence for an innate fairness impossible, for example, in football with its willfull mayhem, the distinction between what’s fair and what’s finable coming in the angle of a helmet’s injurious use, the fury of a nanosecond’s onslaught. Baseball has rejected the instant-replay with a righteous scoff, knowing that in time all will be made just and right. Witness Bob Gibson, the Cardinal’s fireballing Hall of Famer, who waited 15 years to settle the score with a batter who had shown utter disrepect to Bob, Bob popping him hard in the shoulder with a fastball still capable of 80-mph hurt. In an Old Timers’ Game!

And despite what the rest of the world might think of soccer, that sport borrows from baseball only its languid generality, its interspersals of intense, focused and crucial movement, bringing along none of the slow strategy, the thinking-man’s genial input. Soccer has no slow, folded-arm discussions at the center of its field, no public decision-making on whose result hangs the entire game, these conferences on the mound governed even in their length by a gentle etiquette.

They float about, these unspoken rules, more moral than strategic. “Don’t steal a base in a late inning with a big lead.”  Okay. “Don’t walk between pitcher and catcher enroute to the batter’s box.” Understood. “Don’t talk about a no-hitter in progress.” Makes sense. “Hitters, don’t admire your home runs overmuch.” Bad form that. “Know when it’s okay, even expected, to take out the catcher on a play at home.” More subtlety creeping in now.

Playing at a level twice-removed from the Major Leagues, the Shockers of WSU’s resurrected baseball program in a long-gone century’s seventh decade were learning the intricacies of the game from a man who sheds an unashamed tear in baseball movies, who now and then uses Tin Cup as a coaching tool, who would have no truck with former Orioles manager Earl Weaver once telling Ross Grimsley, his weakening pitcher, “If you know how to cheat, now would be a good time to start.”

Gene Stephenson was teaching these young men that baseball might be the ultimate means of shaping their attitudes toward each other, toward themselves. In quiet reverence of the game’s traditions and its gentlemanliness, they might still play with intensity, with emotion unconcealed, displayed not in anger or intimidation, but in motivation of oneself and one’s teammates. Never show up an opponent, Coach taught, but hit hard, throw hard, run hard and, by all means, slide hard. Spikes down.