As Texas A&M baseball coach Rob Childress approaches home plate tonight for the traditional exchange of scorecards, he'll undoubtedly find a plethora of mixed emotions.
He's sure to glance at his own dugout and flashback to visions of midseason 2005, when he came to town as Nebraska's pitching coach and won the series against an Aggie team short on talent, and shorter on confidence and attitude.
He'll glance back to the first base dugout, one that he's implied is the worst place to be in college baseball, and recall the maelstrom of 2006; a brutal season that saw an aspiring architect pull every string at his disposal, but the opponents in that dugout had more smiles than frowns. Once a feared location, that side of Olsen Field had become safer than Fort Knox.
He'll take a peek at the stands, and hopefully see them full for the first time this season. You see, Childress is a mighty man, but he can't make a family of four shell out $79 for tickets, hot dogs, and drinks for a singe night of baseball.
Rather than worry about things he can't control, he'll stop and stare one more time at the home dugout and take quick inventory on what he's done in just two seasons at A&M.
In year one, 2006, he took the reigns of a team that didn't qualify for the Big 12 tournament in the previous year. That 2005 team had one good hitter, a couple of arms, and a penchant for losing a lot of very close games. The 2006 team, oddly enough, had one good hitter, a couple of arms, and a penchant for losing a lot of very close games.
Looking into that 2007 dugout, he really isn't seeing that much of a talent upgrade. Many of the pieces are precisely the same; the catcher hit .188 last year, the first baseman threw in a paltry .259 with 15 RBI, and the second baseman is a fifth year senior who entered the year with under 30 career RBI. The centerfielder is hitting 23 points lower than his freshman year (where he was the only real bright spot), and the designated hitter is a transformed pitcher with 3.2 innings and one at-bat of playing time in his career.
How about newcomers? Try "second verse, same as the first." The new shortstop hit .321 in JUCO last year; not a bad number, but certainly no where near the lead of any stat columns. The left fielder barely saw the field his senior year, and was told by his coach that he had no future in baseball. Third base and right field have been the epitome of the revolving door.
How about pitching? Fourteen pitchers threw for A&M in 2006, and five of those have thrown at least an inning. The best returning arm has almost tripled his ERA, last year's promising freshman and transfer have been inconsistent and problematic in conference play, and the heralded closer has thrown just 9.2 innings thanks to injury. Mid-April saw a redshirt pulled on a freshman, just to help the pitching staff out.
How about those injuries? They're certainly not restricted to the closer. The new first baseman injured his hand and hasn't played in weeks, and the freshman utility player who stepped up to shut one revolving door was smacked in the head with a fastball that has sidelined him from everyday work. An incoming JUCO infielder had a promising fall before being sidelined early in the season, an expected big time power bat has 23 plate appearances, and the projected Friday night guy was coming back from Tommy John surgery. Throw in a returning second baseman diagnosed with cancer in the offseason, just for good measure.
How about the incoming recruits? Six of the sixteen never stepped foot on campus, three who arrived haven't seen the field, and just two have been everyday starters (one of those is, of course, injured). Fifteen players who didn't find a suitable taker for their talents in the previous November's signing period joined the team over the summer.
Childress will find himself somewhat jolted back to reality with the voice of Rick Hill, A&M's PA announcer, recognizing the six seniors who returned for one more season. Given last year's results, and the realities of this year's talent, it's reasonable to expect those to be the leaders in a rebuilding season. The architect had razed the building back to its' foundation, and it's impossible to build greatness in one season.
Before returning to the dugout to coach the first game of the State Farm Lone Star Showdown, Childress will surely stop and take one last look around – just before putting on a smile bigger than Texas.
You see, this is his destiny.
Just one year after ending the worst season in the last 25 years of A&M baseball, the architect has the building standing stronger than it has in almost a decade. The 41-12 start ranks in the top five in school history, and the turnaround is the best ever.
Childress is the perfect manager for a program that needed his style. A team first mentality, wrapped around individual accountability and tough love, permeates through the program. Some failed to see eye-to-eye with his style, and left the program. Many lined up at the door, just waiting for one chance.
Make no mistake—the 2007 A&M team is not an overly talented one. Sure, some very good college baseball players will take to the field in an Aggie uniform tomorrow, but only a couple have the tools to play professional ball for any extended period of time.
Childress' style has created this monster – this team that has won 40 games and is challenging for one of the Top-8 seeds in the nation, but on paper isn't one of the 50 most talented teams in the country. That style has been to maximize the results from each player, and he's done that by placing them in a position to succeed.
This begins with his mentality, and quickly works into his coaching staff. Matt Deggs is one of the most freakishly aggressive offensive coaches in baseball at any level, and uses speed (and more importantly, the threat of speed) on the base-paths to get better pitches for his hitters, and the team routinely takes the extra base when they have no business doing so. Where else in America can you find two RBI on a suicide squeeze, or 124 stolen bases in 53 games?
While Deggs calls the offensive shots, Jeremy Talbot and Will Bolt have helped firm up the fundamentals. The team is disciplined at the plate, gets the bunt down when needed, and rarely places themselves into a bad situation.
Creating a team that is greater than the sum of its parts is the goal of every coach at every level, but it rarely happens. When it does, credit often goes to the individuals who worked hard and earned gaudy stat-lines. That credit is certainly deserved, but it all goes back to the leader – the architect.
What's scary for college baseball, and delightful for Aggie fans, is that the journey has just begun. Sure, Childress will see to it that the talent level improves each season, and when an expected fringe regional team churns out a squad that's almost national seed worthy, it sends a certain message about the future of the program.
Returning to his place at the south end of the Aggie dugout, Childress isn't concerned about the future. This is now his program—his team, his mentality, his players. A&M hasn't played in a Top-10 home match-up since 2003, and the architect is ready to return Aggie baseball to national relevance.
How about today?
Childress building something special
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