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Rookie Respect

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals-Minicamp Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As a high school senior in 1973, I was faced with a very difficult college decision of whether to attend Georgetown University or Rollins College. On the surface, it would appear that going to Georgetown was a no-brainer.

But, during my junior year in high school, the St. Louis Cardinals sent one of their baseball scouts to Connecticut to see me pitch in a Senior Babe Ruth League game. His name was Robert Ludwig and his professional scout business card with the Cardinals’ logo on it remains one of my most prized possessions.

Mr. Ludwig asked me what my college intentions were and suggested that I look into Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida because Rollins had recently hired a young alumnus and former baseball star at the school named Boyd Coffie and Ludwig felt certain that Coffie would turn Rollins into a powerhouse. Ludwig also knew that I was a catcher and he said that, at Rollins, Coach Coffie was having some of his pitchers catch because Coffie believed it was making them better pitchers.

When I called Coach Coffie, I liked him right away. He was very personable and forthright. He said that he could not offer me a scholarship just yet, but he promised me two things: (1) as a walk-on freshman, I would be given the same opportunities as everyone else; (2) if I played well, he would have no hesitations about playing me as a freshman.

Playing baseball at Rollins was an intense, but tremendously enjoyable experience. We practiced every afternoon, thus we had to take all of our classes in the morning. In the fall, we played in the Sunshine State Fall league against most of the top level programs in Florida. Then, in February we played three exhibition games at Tinker Field in Orlando versus the Minnesota Twins, which was followed by Rollins’ annual “Baseball Week” in which we played the likes of Ohio St. and Notre Dame, before starting our run for a league championship.

Coach Coffie made time for every player on the roster. He worked with all of us one on one. My first big chance was to pitch versus Stetson in our 5th fall league game. Practically eery pitch I threw was one inch too low. The mound at Stetson seemed extra high to me. I had never missed so many strikes that low in the zone and there’s nothing worse when pitchers keep throwing ball after ball.

After the game, Coach Coffie told me to keep my head up and that we would work on my mechanics. Five games later he pitched me again. This time I was throwing strikes. But then a funny thing happened. We were playing Miami Dade and they had one of the nation’s top home run hitters, Joe Abbott. Before the game, Coach Coffie told me to throw Abbott a steady diet of curve balls and to mix my speeds on them.

We had an All-American catcher from Illinois named Jack Getz. When Abbott strutted to the plate with two men on, Getz flashed me two consecutive curve signs. Abbott chased both of them, missing them by a foot. Then on the 0-2 count, Getz flashed me the fastball sign. I shook him off. He then flashed me the fastball sign more emphatically. I shook him off again.

Getz called time and bolted out to the mound where he got in my face and basically said (in between some choice profanities) that no rookie pitcher was ever going to shake him off. As Getz trotted back behind the plate, I looked at Coach Coffie in the dugout. He was smiling. He knew what was happening.

So, I wound up, rocked back and threw that hardest fastball of my life---which Joe Abbott deposited 50 feet to the right of the left field light stanchions for a three run home run. I looked in at Getz and he was shrugging his shoulders and then I looked in the dugout and Coach Coffie was practically on the floor laughing.

Despite my rocky start---Coach Coffie stuck with me. He kept me as the last man of a 6 man rotation and he started me a few games at catcher, the most memorable of which was against the Twins and the goosebumps I felt when Rod Carew came to the plate.

After 35 games in the fall league, Miami Dade and Rollins were tied and we were playing each other for the fall league championship. It was my turn to pitch and I knew that our number pitcher, who was an All-American candidate, was rested and ready to go. Thus, I assumed we would go with our ace. Only, no. Coach Coffie announced to the team that he was sticking with our rotation.

It was the most nervous I had ever felt on a pitching mound. I knew my teammates weren’t all too thrilled with Coach’s decision. But, I was so awed that Coach would hand the ball to a non-scholarship rookie like me in this situation.

I got right into a first-inning jam and Joe Abbott came up with two men on and one out. By then, Jack Getz was on board with throwing Abbott nothing but curve balls. Abbott missed the first one, but on the second one, he hit a smash one hopper to the second baseman, fellow freshman, John Castino, for the start of an easy inning-ending double play.

Coach Coffie walked out to the mound in the 7th inning when in trying to preserve a 2-1 lead, I gave up a double down the left field line and then narrowly missed strike three on a 3-2 count to the next hitter. There were 2 outs, men on 1st and 2nd, and I was tiring. I thought for sure he was going to take me out. Except, he asked me to dig down deep and finish the inning.

Again on a 3-2 count, I threw what Getz and I thought was a clear strike, but the ump called it a ball and now the bases were loaded. Coach stuck with my anyway. And on a 2-2 count, the hitter locked in on a fastball and hit a rocket line drive over my head. I knew at least two runs were gong to score, except that our centerfielder, Timmy Coons, got a quick jump on the ball and planed out as the ball was dipping toward the grass and somehow managed to slip the web of his glove under it.

In late February, a couple of days before Baseball Week at Rollins, I was rushed back to Connecticut because of a family crisis. Over the ensuing weeks, it became clear to me that I needed to stay home. Calling Coach Coffie was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do. As usual, Coach Coffie helped me to keep my head up.

Coach Boyd Coffie went on to become the winningest coach at Rollins College with over 500 wins. Jack Getz was drafted by the White Sox and within days of finally making it to AAA, he blew out his knee on a collision at the plate and was never the same afterward. Fellow freshman, John Castino, who had become one of my best friends on the team and in the dorm, was drafted by the Twins in the 3rd round of the 1976 MLB Draft. In 1979, John Castino was named American League Rookie of the Year.

I stayed close to home and transferred to Boston College where I tried out as a walk-on for the baseball team under the Eagles’ long-time coach Ernie Pellagrini, a former Red Sox infielder. Despite throwing three shutout innings and striking out eight batters versus Tufts University, I was cut. No coach ever talked to me. The day of cuts, I just saw that my name wasn’t on the roster that was posted in the locker room.

But, my short experience with Coach Boyd Coffie inspired me to want to become a coach. Funny how the cycle of life is, because I got my first coaching job in baseball at Trinity-Pawling School in Pawling, New York---and one of my new colleagues and fellow coaches there was Henry Coons, the brother of my Rollins College centerfield Timmy Coons who had saved the day for me and the team and the Sunshine State Fall League Championship with his diving catch. And then, all of the coaches at the school, Coach Coons and I were graced in 1982 with the arrival of a freshman student/athlete named Mo Vaughn.

I wrote this story because over the past few weeks it has dawned on me how much the Cardinals’ new head coach Kliff Kingsbury reminds me of Coach Boyd Coffie. It’s the way Kingsbury respects his players and treats them like men that reminds me of how Coach always treated his players. Coach had a unique way of keeping the boyish fun of the game alive and well---and this is what Kingsbury does---playing for Kingsbury is fun.

I never heard Coach Coffie swear. He rarely ever let his emotions get the better of him. He was so phenomenally patient---in the midst of conflict, his favorite saying was (in his classic Southern drawl) “We’ve got to hep each other out.” That’s right---hep. Coach always gave us the impression that we were all in this together---it was never like, “Hey I’m the big cheese here, you don’t want to mess with me.”

Kliff Kingsbury has said on a number of occasions that he, Kyler Murray and the team “are going to learn and grow together.”

Like Kingsbury, Murray is quietly confident, but is not the least bit full of himself. When recently interviewed after throwing out the first pitch in a Diamondbacks’ game, Murray said, ‘Hey, i don’t want to make this day about me. It’s about the Diamondbacks.”

All 22 of the Cardinals’ rookies were huddled up at the Diamondback game, thanks to Kliff Kingsbury’s and his staff’s eagerness to keep the rookies practicing for two extra weeks.

What we are seeing is a significant culture change with the Cardinals.

First of all, the Cardinals are now drafting and signing rookies who fit their offensive and defensive schemes. They are also committed to drafting and signing rookies who have a tremendous love for the game---as 7th round pick DT Michael Dogbe demonstrated while he was given the good news of being drafted over the phone by Steve Keim, Kliff Kingsbury and Michael Bidwill---being moved to tears by the honor and the opportunity to keep playing the game that he has always loved.

Secondly, these rookies aren’t being separated and relegated to another practice field---because it is clear that each one them has been told that he has a chance to win and keep a job.

That’s the promise and the hope that Coach Coffie gave to me and every one of the players who put on the Rollins uniform.

I will never forget, a couple of days after the 2017 NFL Draft, listening to the Cardinals’ 4th round draft pick,1st team All-American G Dorian Johnson from the University of Pittsburgh, describe to Gambo and Burns how excited he was to be able to compete for a starting job on the Cardinals line---and how the whole tone of the interview changed when Gambo informed Johnson how things work for rookies under the current coaching staff---how rookies are relegated to another practice field and how rare it was for a rookie to even have a remote chance of competing for a starting job, especially when a veteran was getting the vast majority of the practice reps on ‘the big field.”

Honest to goodness---I literally heard and felt the wind come out of Dorian Johnson’s sails after he was basically told he had little to no shot at competing right away for a starting spot.

Now---what happened to Dorian Johnson not even making the team as a 4th rounder remains an enigma. Sure, sometimes athletes have to patiently wait their turn. But, strange things can happen was valuable tinctures of hope are lost.

Whenever Boyd Coffie was asked what his number one goal as a coach was---he never mentioned wins and losses or championships. He simply said, “Your goal as a coach is to be remembered.”

I remember you so vividly Coach Coffie.

You inspired my 21 year high school coaching career. I tried like crazy to treat my players with the respect, guidance and encouragement that you gave a walk-on like me and all of your players. And, most of all, I remember you most fondly for nurturing the boyish love of competitive sports in my heart that, thanks to you, is lasting forever.

Coach Kingsbury---I know you have said that you don’t read the newspapers or articles and blogs on the web---thus you may never read my story here---but your dedication, your respect, your innovative coaching pedagogy and your insatiable love for the game remind me of the best coach I ever played for. A coach whose care and respect changed my life for the better. I know you often talk very fondly about the positive impact your dad has made on his New Braunfels Unicorns over the years. Clearly, your dad has taught you well.

When coaches treat their players with respect and give them hope---they are apt to be remembered.

Was there a coach in your life who made a huge difference for you? Please tell us!