The Diamond Is Forever

This feature story is from the March 2007 issue of the Pack Pride Magazine. Written by Scott Vogelsberg, the article focuses on NC State junior pitcher Andrew Brackman and his upcoming season. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, click on the link below ...

  • Pack Pride The Magazine

    The Diamond Is Forever
    Pack's Andrew Brackman Misses Basketball Sometimes, But Is Enjoying A More Relaxed Life While Pursuing His Baseball Dream

    Pack Pride Magazine
    March 2007
    WORDS: Scott Vogelsberg
    PHOTOS: Jeff Reeves, Pack Pride

    or two years, Andrew Brackman's time was very rarely his own. Between competing for the Wolfpack hoops squad, pitching for the Pack baseball team and attending classes at NC State, he had precious few moments to relax, be with his friends, nap away a lazy Sunday afternoon—basically, to be a teenager.

    Now, however, Brackman is finally taking time to smell the flowers and listen to the silence, things most of us take for granted.

    "It's definitely different," he said. "Life has slowed down a little bit for me."

    In the middle of October, the junior announced that he was devoting all of his energy, time and attention to the diamond, choosing to skip the basketball season and go solely with the State baseball team. It was a difficult choice, but now Brackman is reaping the rewards.

    "I don't have to run here and there and be somewhere every minute; I have my own time now," he said. "And I get to get all my baseball work done, not just a little bit.

    "Getting away from the basketball court and away from, I guess, the media, I have more time to concentrate on everything and just getting better."

    Brackman's announcement came only after the end of an arduous decision-making process, during which he weighed all the pros and cons before electing to cast his future with baseball. New Wolfpack basketball coach Sidney Lowe and his staff basically recruited Brackman once again, wanting to ensure that the youngster had all the information he needed and was aware of all the possibilities before he made his final selection.

    For his part, Pack baseball coach Elliott Avent gave Brackman space. He made sure his player knew that the coach was there for advice or assistance if he wanted it, but also that Brackman knew that this was a decision that he—and only he—could make.

    "Actually, Andrew was pretty good about it, because he knew I didn't want to get involved," Avent said. "He actually didn't seek out many people for advice; it was moreso that others sought him out to give him advice, and I could see that happening and that it led him to confusion. So I backed off and never gave advice. I just told him, ‘Do what you feel like,' and that I'd support whatever he did."

    The process led Avent to think back to three years before, when he and then-State hoops coach Herb Sendek teamed up for a dual recruitment of Brackman. As a senior at storied Moeller High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, Brackman was considered the nation's No. 18 senior in baseball by TeamOne Baseball and the No. 43 senior in the land in basketball by PrepStars. At the time, no one believed that any athlete could handle the demands of performing in two sports at the highest levels of collegiate competition.

    "I remember myself and Coach Sendek in his house in Cincinnati, and we told him we'd do whatever he wanted to do," said Avent. "And I remember when it first happened, everyone said there was no way he could play both, and Herb and I were the only ones that thought it could happen. And now that he's been such a success at both, no one can believe he's giving up one, you know?

    "But I can remember sitting in his living room when he was 17 or 18, and people were telling him it couldn't be done, but at that point I don't think he knew which way he wanted to go full-time. We knew that at some point he'd make that decision, and we told him we'd support whichever way he decided."

    Even as a precocious freshman, Brackman proved all the doubters wrong. He emerged as an immediate contributor for Sendek's program, earning 14 starts in 35 appearances and averaging 7.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocked shots in 18.7 minutes per contest. In his first career NCAA Tournament game, he collected 16 points, six rebounds, four blocked shots in just 24 minutes in NC State's 75-63 win over Charlotte in the opening round. Then, Brackman cemented his place in Wolfpack lore by draining a clutch, dramatic three-pointer in the second round game, spearheading a 65-62 upset over second-seeded Connecticut and securing a berth in the Sweet Sixteen. The highlight came as the Pack clung to a one-point lead, when Brackman—who had missed his other five attempts from the floor to that point—knocked down a bomb from the right corner to give the Wolfpack a four-point advantage, 62-58, with just 1:08 left. He finished the game with 10 points, three rebounds and three assists in 34 minutes.

    "I think [Lowe] will put us back on the map with North Carolina basketball."

    After State's narrow loss to Wisconsin in the Sweet Sixteen, Brackman joined the baseball team on March 26. In his first start, he struck out five and threw six scoreless innings against East Carolina. He would go on to put together a 4-0 record as a starter, with a 2.25 ERA, while posting a 1.29 ERA in three relief outings. Brackman whiffed a dozen Tar Heels in one contest, helping State strike out 18 in the game, a team record for a conference matchup. In the first round of the ACC Tournament, he pitched seven innings, allowing only six hits and two walks while striking out five in a victory over No. 8 Miami.

    A stronger, beefier Brackman returned the court for his sophomore campaign. He had some bright moments, recording two 16-point outings, shooting 50.6 from the field and 33.3 percent from three-point land, and averaging 7.6 points and 3.5 rebounds in 32 games, but he looked sluggish at times on the floor. By season's end, Brackman's playing time had tailed off.

    He rejoined Avent's team on March 20, but something wasn't quite right. He struck out a season-high 10 against Virginia and went a season-best seven innings against UNC, but Brackman was experiencing pain in his hip. After he had notched a 1-3 record with a 6.35 ERA in seven appearances, his season ended in April due to a stress fracture in his hip. Speculation abounded that Brackman's weight gain and added muscle for basketball had contributed to the injury, leading some to wonder whether he would give up the game so he wouldn't jeopardize his future in baseball.

    After regaining his health, Brackman participated in the Cape Cod League this summer. Pitching for the Orleans Cardinals, he registered a miniscule 1.06 ERA in six appearances and two starts. He was tabbed as the league's No. 2 prospect in a Baseball America poll of scouts, managers and coaches. In early August, he left the Cape League when he was named to Team USA.

    The performance bolstered Brackman's flagging confidence and reminded him of the dominance he could exhibit on the mound.

    "Going to the Cape, I was really down on myself," Brackman said. "I'd never walked as many people as I did last year, and I didn't know what was going to come of it. The hip injury really hurt me, because I couldn't stride all the way out and I couldn't keep the ball low and where I wanted to put it. But this summer, I was telling myself, ‘I've got everything back where it needs to be.' So that helped a lot and that's going to show this season, because I'm going to go out there ready to pitch."

    That confidence carried over to fall practice, when Brackman drew 40 scouts to an intrasquad scrimmage. The imposing big man—now checking in at 6-11, 225 pounds—was ecstatic at the chance to be able to devote all of his energy to the baseball team.

    "The fall was great," said Brackman. "When I came out, I was out of shape some from the summer, but I felt I did very well. There are still some things to work on, like my changeup especially, but things are falling into place in terms of where I wanted to be right now.

    "I think getting to play in the preseason and working up to ACC play will help, instead of cutting off of basketball and getting thrown right into the mix in baseball. I think that will help out a lot."

    "Being there full-time in the fall definitely helped him because of what he was missing in practice: the fundamentals, like holding runners, bunt defenses, the little things that will help him on the next level," said Avent. "And the next level has been a big goal of his since he was a kid. So it was neat to see how hungry he was this fall, to make up for some lost time. He was pretty intense about that stuff, his training habits, getting his running in, his shoulder and arm exercises. He was very serious. I wouldn't say he's on a mission, but he knows he has a big chance to make in-roads to a future for himself, his family and his career."

    When Brackman made his announcement in October, he said that he would still consider himself part of Lowe's program and would look at the 2006-07 season as a redshirt year. He said he would re-evaluate his basketball future following the Major League Baseball draft in June.

    He got to know Lowe closely throughout his decision-making process, and both Brackman and Avent lauded Lowe for how he handled the entire situation.

    "I think he's going to be great for NC State, just because he works with what he has and he's definitely going to get a lot more [recruits] because of his reputation in the NBA," said Brackman of Lowe. "And [assistant] coach [Larry] Harris will definitely help with recruiting; I'm so glad that he stayed.

    "I think [Lowe] will put us back on the map with North Carolina basketball."

    "It was one Andrew struggled with, but it was one, in the end, that he was very comfortable with."

    "Coach Lowe and I knew each other before, and as much as I really hated to see Herb leave, I was happy to see Sidney come here because I think he's great for our program," said Avent. "So we were talking a bunch, and [assistant head coach] Monte Towe and I are close, so we talked a bunch, too. We had coffee a couple of times and I told them I'd do whatever I could.

    "But Andrew knew that we could work it out like Herb and I did, so there was no question about that. [His decision] bothered me a little because I knew Sidney wanted him so bad. He made every avenue open to Andrew to show how welcome he'd be, and I think he even extended him beyond the courtesy of a time limit because he wanted to make sure as well. Sidney was great, and he knew it was a career decision for Andrew at end. It was one Andrew struggled with, but it was one, in the end, that he was very comfortable with."

    Even though pursuing major league baseball has been a lifelong dream for Brackman, he still found it very difficult to say goodbye to basketball. In addition to his love of the game, he knew that he would have returned as NC State's most experienced post player. So as he watched the Wolfpack struggle with a non-existent bench and a six-man rotation in the first half of the hoops season, the relief that he initially felt following his decision was difficult to remember.

    "I actually think it's harder now, because I realize how much I can help out the basketball team," Brackman said. "I see them toward the end of games and they're only playing six deep, and they're absolutely exhausted. It feels bad, because I know I could give them a hand.

    "Yeah, I talked to [basketball players] Bryan Neiman and Trevor Ferguson the other day when I gave them a ride home. Trevor said, ‘You know we have a game tomorrow. You can play if you want.' I kind of laughed."

    Brackman knew that there would be moments when he missed the game in a big way, and so did Avent. The coach asked Brackman to do some soul-searching before he arrived at his decision, even giving his big pitcher some hypothetical situations to think about.

    "I've always told him how much I love watching him play basketball, so when he made the decision, I just said, ‘Are you sure?'" said Avent. "Because it is hard to make a decision and look at it when you make it in the offseason. The only thing I asked him was to sit there and think about being in the living room with your roommates when we're playing Duke in March, and we're down by two with five minutes to go, and the announcers are talking about, ‘If Andrew Brackman was on this team, they'd be that much better.' I told him, ‘Picture yourself in that living room, would you still give it up? When you're thinking about the fun and missing that and being on the national stage, are you sure of it? Because I'll go along with it if you're sure.' I told him to give it a couple days, and he did. He thought about it for a couple of days, and he came back and said, ‘This is what I want to do.'

    "So I stayed out of it pretty much; I just wanted to make sure it was exactly what he wanted. I didn't want him to have second thoughts later on, and he's been pretty comfortable with his decision. I've been around him and I've asked the other players, and we think he's pretty happy."

    In his first two years, Brackman was shy around the media, speaking in a low voice and giving brief answers. Partially, he was uncomfortable with the attention he was receiving as a two-sport standout at NC State. However, the bulk of his sensitivity toward the barrage of questions from reporters came from his questioning whether he was deserving of it. After all, media attendance is scant at Wolfpack baseball games, no matter how well the team is doing, and Brackman didn't think it was fair that he was singled out. Reporters rarely found their way to Doak Field—until Brackman joined the squad.

    Avent has talked with Brackman about the idea that any publicity is good publicity. If scouts and reporters come to a game to check him out, but wind up discovering that NC State has a number of other terrific players, the entire program wins.

    "He loves to play both sports, and he's a big team guy who's focused on the team."

    "He's the epitome of a team guy," said Avent. "When he first came to baseball and got all of that attention, he was uncomfortable with that. Andrew just likes to play, so he never wanted the attention to be on one individual, but on NC State as a team. When he came to baseball last year and saw all the autograph-seekers, it instantly became about him, and he was uncomfortable and sensitive about that, especially because of the success the team had had before he joined us.

    "He loves to play both sports, and he's a big team guy who's focused on the team. I know he's really close to his teammates and he is close to his basketball teammates, too; they would come out and watch him play baseball and he watches them play basketball now. So he's a team guy, and he's sensitive toward that excess attention."

    "I think it's good anytime there is media attention for baseball," Brackman said. "It helps the program and it helps each individual player. The more attention is on our team, the more other people will get recognized. I think Coach knows that, and I think we have a lot of good players who are going to get recognized this year. He put it that way; he said that people come out and look at me or Eryk McConnell or Jeff Stallings, the other guys will get recognized, too. We have a lot of good players, and it's good that they'll have a chance to get recognized."

    As much as coaches and student-athletes preach about taking it one game at a time, never looking too far down the road and focusing on the moment, it is hard not to wonder about Brackman's pro prospects. Instead of pretending those questions don't exist, Avent has embraced them, helping Brackman and his family understand the situation he is in and giving them all the relevant information they need to stay abreast of developments.

    "It has entered the radar," Avent admitted. "Things can change, but scouts have a great idea even today, when they've just got done with winter meetings, of who the top five or 10 players in country are. Now they'll have to go out and prove themselves over the course of a season, and that's one thing professional teams are interested in with Andrew: Could he maintain success over an extended period of time? Because that's something they've never been allowed to see.

    "It is only January and things can change, but going into the draft, Andrew is certainly one of the top players for this year's draft. Some people are saying he's one of the top three pitchers—or players—going into this year's draft."

    Chatting with the soft-spoken Brackman and watching him joke around with his teammates, it's easy to forget how highly regarded he is by professional scouts. So, instead of overwhelming him, perhaps the responsibilities involved in handling two sports and a full course load at NC State have helped Brackman truly appreciate the opportunity that he has in front of him. Maybe now he enjoys the peace and quiet just a little bit more, savors the college days just a little bit more, and has learned how precious and rejuvenating time for oneself can truly be.

    Looking back on his busy schedule and what he was able to accomplish on the court, on the diamond and in the classroom during his first two years, Brackman just shakes his head, sighs and gives a soft chuckle. Now that he has the benefit of distance and the time to reflect, how difficult was it to play both sports?

    "It's hard to just play one, to tell you the truth," said Brackman. "To play two … I really don't know how I did it both years. I have no clue where my time went; I don't know. I would come home and I'd be exhausted, but I'd still want to go out with friends, you know?

    "But I did it -- and it was fun while it was lasted."

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