Bats were ringing throughout the practice facility and Mainieri smiled at the sounds that were coming off the bats, a smile that continues with every minute spent with Mainieri. Mainieri grins a lot lately as his team boasts a 25-6 record heading into Tuesday's game with Eastern Michigan. I wanted to uncover how a man could turn a Northern school into a top baseball program when nobody else seemed to be able to do it. I probably learned much more from watching the coach than listening to his words and his words give you all the insight you would ever need.
Freshman Brennan Grogan is in the cage and Mainieri asks him to lay down some bunts. Grogan is sitting firmly in the two-hole in the line-up and is expected to sacrifice at any time. "Where are you taking that ball Brennan?" asked Mainieri. "You need to take that pitch and drive it Matt," said Mainieri. Mainieri is throwing to his star, Steve Sollmann, his hope, Matt Edwards, his future, Brennan Grogan and his struggling but emerging star in Matt Macri
A healthy diet of psychological warfare for any coach but Mainieri finds the right buttons to push. He has to keep his star on track. Develop some pop in his hope. Make a complete player out of his future and nurse his budding star that has struggled but is starting to really swing the bat.
What is obvious amongst his players is an attitude of respect. They smile with glee and they nod with respect. It must be fun to take the old man and drive him but they smile at his little mind games just the same. While the elder Mainieri might not have the gas of pitching coach Brian O'Connor, he has a craftiness developed throwing to many hitters over the years and made his best hitters look inept and one time or another.
Each hitter gets a healthy diet of fastballs, curveballs, changes and Mainieri grunts meant to fool the hitter on the velocity of his pitches. If Mainieri doesn't like what he sees, he stops and corrects the poor mechanics. It doesn't matter if you are a star senior or a freshman just getting your feet wet, Mainieri is a coach and treats all of his players the same.
Mainieri knows the sacrifices his teams make for him and for the school. He appreciates their effort and that is one of the reasons he grows so close to his players. "The commitment for a young guy to be a college baseball player at any school is an unbelievable commitment. The amount of hours they put in, the amount of games they play and the amount of practice that goes in to prepare to have the skills in such a complex sport is unbelievable. Now add to that at Notre Dame, the fact that you are at an academic school that academically is as challenging as it is on the baseball side, being able to balance those two things in their life and also being able to mix in somewhat of a social life is really a tremendous challenge."
One of the most impressive stats about Mainieri and his players is that he has graduated 100 percent of his players who completed their eligibility while at Notre Dame. Notre Dame is the only Division I program to produce Academic All-Americans in each of the last three years. "These kids all graduate in eight semesters, four years. They take the same course load that any other student takes and they don't lighten their load during baseball season because baseball players don't have the luxury of going to summer school, they're off playing ball in the summer."
As a Northern school, Notre Dame has to play a treacherous schedule early to avoid the elements. Notre Dame started their season with 17 games on the road. Last year their first 20 games were on the road. "About two weeks before the season begins, these kids won't have another weekend day off the entire season except for Easter Sunday," said Mainieri.
Playing in the BIG EAST is a challenge for Notre Dame. A school like Seton Hall would only have to take one flight a year to travel to a game in BIG EAST play and that is only if they play at Notre Dame. For the Irish, it's a different situation. "It's a real challenge," said Mainieri. "We have to travel four times by air each year to the east coast. We don't miss any classes to play our BIG EAST schedule. We leave after classes are over on Friday afternoon. We're not pulling out from campus until roughly 3:30 PM on Friday afternoon. We're either catching a flight out of South Bend or we are catching a flight out of Chicago during rush-hour traffic to try and catch our 7 or 8 PM flight. By the time we land, get our luggage, catch a bus to the hotel and get checked in, many times its after midnight before we get settled into our rooms. Then these kids are up at 8 AM for the pre-game meal and then it's off to the field for a double-header. Then we play again the next day and fly back home and sometimes not getting back into their dorms until midnight and then they have to be at class the next morning."
The Irish are forced to play the double-headers and the game on Sunday because they are not allowed to miss much time from class. Under NCAA rules, the Irish are only allowed to miss two Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes and two Tuesday-Thursday classes. If the Irish get rained out over the weekend, they are required to stay on Monday to try to finish out a series.
Sophomore pitcher Chris Niesel agrees that the travel can be difficult. "I think the hardest part is that we are only allowed to miss a certain amount of days of classes and the toughest part is when you have a test on either Monday or Tuesday and you get in late Sunday night. It forces you to bring your books with you over the weekend and you have to study when you are not playing ball. I think our team is ready for those challenges and we know that every game we play, we've got to get it done and then do it in the classroom as well"
It's not an easy schedule and Mainieri is happy he has the kind of kids that can handle it. He credits the character of his players and his assistant coaches that recruit them. "Somehow, someway, these guys are able to do it. I honestly believe that these kids are the best of the best of what this country has to give. That's why we are so selective in our recruiting. It's not enough to be a really outstanding baseball player. It's not even really enough to be an outstanding baseball player and an outstanding student. You have to have the moral conviction and the mental toughness to handle what I'm putting on these kid's plates. If we pick the right kids that embrace the challenges that we're presenting them, then you can end up with some pretty good baseball teams."
Recruiting is another challenge for Mainieri and his staff. Many players bypass college and head straight into the minor leagues. Baseball isn't allowed to offer many players full scholarships and Notre Dame's tuition is not cheap. "There are some unique challenges to recruiting athletes to Notre Dame considering all the other challenges I mentioned before. You're talking about 11.7 scholarships. When you have 30 players on your team but only have 11.7 scholarships to divvy up, that's another factor and you have to look at families that can afford to handle the balance of what their scholarship doesn't cover. The fact that it says Notre Dame across our chests gives us a chance. There are a lot of families out there that understand the value of an education at Notre Dame."
Mainieri also thinks the success of the program helps in recruiting. "I think we've proven that these kids can improve their skills at Notre Dame. We're in the North and we've had 31 players drafted or signed during my 8-year tenure at Notre Dame. We've had All-Americans and we've had a team that went to the College World Series and every team has won over 40 games. We've proven that the cold weather is not going to hurt their development to their fullest. When we put all of that together, the families understand that even though it is expensive that it's an investment in their sons future and it's well-worth the investment."
Niesel came to Notre Dame from Florida and the weather was a change for him but he also agrees that the weather doesn't affect his pitching much. "I think it affects me a little bit," said Niesel. "I try not to think about it that much. When we're here at school, the use of the indoor facility has really been really beneficial. We are able to work from an actual mound and that has really helped our pitchers get ready for the season. I think the weather makes me a better pitcher and more mentally tough on the mound."
Senior pitcher Brandon Viloria has had a bigger change of climate. The right-hander walked on to the Notre Dame baseball after playing high school baseball in Hawaii. "The main thing that I have noticed is it just takes a little longer to get the blood flowing through the body. I've found that once I get my body going, I feel like my arm doesn't get as tired when it's cooler out. It does take more mentally and physically to be ready to pitch in the cold but I think it just makes our pitchers that much stronger."
Mainieri has always been uncomfortable taking credit for anything. He talked passionately about how much support his athletic director and administration have given him and their tireless work that has given him the tools to be successful. "In the last few years, Notre Dame went on a big fund-raising campaign. They raised about a billion dollars with the goal that they would meet every student's financial need through the financial aid office and that has also helped the baseball players. I've found that's been a more challenging aspect of recruiting than even the academic restrictions."
Mainieri credits everyone for his success other than himself. He is merely the Captain in an army that has set him up for success. Still, plenty of coaches in the North have support from their athletic directors and administrations. Mainieri still credits his support. "I think it's because we're Notre Dame. The kind of kids we can attract and the support of our administration. Look at the beautiful field we have to play on. Look at the beautiful facility we are doing our interview in today. There's not a lot of Northern schools that have this kind of commitment from their administration to want to have a good program. Our administration has allowed me to hire outstanding assistant coaches. There's a lot of things they've done for us."
Mainieri also credits his team. "Success breads success too. Once the kids really believe they can accomplish great things, once they prove that they can play with those guys, that confidence grows more and more. I don't have to do that anymore, these kids know that they can play with these teams. I believe that confidence is everything. If they believe they can do it then you don't put limits on what they can accomplish."
The beautiful new facility Mainieri refers to is an indoor facility built especially for the baseball team. Inside are two clay mounds for the Irish pitchers to work out on simulating actual conditions and mounds they will throw from during the season. Also inside are four batting cages where the Irish hitters can face live pitching from their coaches.
Every school will have prospects that don't develop. With the challenges that Mainieri faces, he can't afford to have that happen. Just like football, many of the top prospects reside in the South. It's much easier for families to afford to send their sons to an in-state school than make up the difference at Notre Dame. "We don't over-recruit. You look around the country and there's a lot of baseball schools that bring in 20-25 players ever year. What happens is the kids that don't pan-out, don't play as well as they hoped they would, they run them off to a junior college or to another school, we don't do that. The kids that we recruit to Notre Dame, they're going to be a part of our program. Sometimes it's more beneficial to a kid to find another school if he wants more playing time but we've never tried to run people off to regain their scholarship money. That is why some of those warm-weather schools are in the World Series every year because when they lose a kid to the draft or lose a kid to injury or they don't plan out, they have other kids waiting in the wings, we don't have that luxury at Notre Dame."
What some may see as a challenge, Mainieri sees as a positive. Mainieri knows that he can sell playing time and many of his freshmen are making a big impact on the team right now. "I'd rather have this kind of environment. The kids that we recruit, we're committed to and they are committed to us. Sometimes we play kids earlier than they would be able to play at another school. These kids are high-character and high-quality people and they end up doing some really great things for you."
It would easy for Mainieri to complain about all the challenges he faces to field a winner year in and year out. Mainieri doesn't see his challenges as burdens; he looks at these challenges as opportunities. "Coaches by their very nature want to emphasize the things that are disadvantageous in their particular situation. I prefer to look at the cup half-full. What one coach may say is a disadvantage I say is a positive. We're forced to play four freshmen. Do the other schools have to play four freshmen? I look at that as a positive because once that kids does grow into his position, now you've got a kid for three or four years that is going to be a really experienced player."
As evidence, Mainieri offers the College World Series class of 2002. "Look at Steve Stanley's group. None of those kids were drafted coming out of high school, not one of them. At the time they all graduated, five of them were drafted and they ended up going to the College World Series because we played those kids early and they kept growing up and developing."
Mainieri didn't stop there. He made it clear that the cold weather makes his team mentally tough. "You look at the cold weather and some people will complain but I look at it as a positive thing. Here we are in April now and we've fought through the first 26 games of our schedule. Now we get to play 15 out of the next 17 games at home. We were able to keep our head above water for the first 26 games and now we've got a chance to develop a really special season. This is the time where we feel our season is just getting started so our enthusiasm and energy level is higher later in the year than maybe some of those other schools."
Mainieri follows the simple rule that a positive attitude can take you a long way. Like many winners in all things in society, he focuses on the positives because the negatives won't change, you're dealt the hand you're dealt. "I take all these things, the academics requirements, they all complain about that. Look at the quality of kid I get. They're disciplined, they know how to manage their time, they can handle stress and they're intelligent baseball players because they're intelligent people. I look at that and I say ‘I'd rather have these kids.' It's harder because the talent pool is smaller but once you find these kids, you've got a goldmine."
Mainieri summed up his philosophy to baseball very simply. "Every school has its advantages and disadvantages, no matter where you are. It's all a matter of how the leadership of the program looks at it. If the leadership chooses to embrace the positive aspects of the program then the players will embrace that as well. If the coach chooses to dwell on the negative aspects then the players will have excuses readily available for their failure. We don't tolerate failure. These kids aren't going to fail, there's no question we are going to succeed because that is our attitude about things. We're going to focus on the positive things, always looking at the positive things and accepting the challenges that will make us better."
Spending five minutes with Mainieri will make the most negative person feel good. His enthusiasm and his attitude are contagious. He has proven that you can win and can be a top program in the North. "Contrary to what people around the country may believe—that you can't do it in the North—I think our kids have proven that you can if you have the right kids," said Mainieri. He isn't satisfied with his program yet but he clearly has his program heading for great things.
Mainieri has succeeded when so many have failed. He has done this while graduating 100 percent of his players. He has won while not landing many of the top high school baseball players. His secret to success is hard work, a focus on the fundamentals and a positive attitude. An attitude that is buried deep in the hearts of his players.