Kentucky Baseball and Softball — No Crying in Baseball

No Crying in Baseball—By John Huang

If the recent UK Softball and Baseball Media Day gathering was any indication, Wildcat fans are in for an exciting upcoming season. The annual event held in the media room at Commonwealth Stadium featured a catered lunch, selected player availability, and coaches Rachel Lawson and Nick Mingione dazzling reporters with an unusual dose of optimism, enthusiasm, and emotion as they described the anticipation in store for the 2017 versions of their respective teams.

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To be honest, this will be my first go-round covering the teams with any degree of regularity. Like many UK sports fans, I relish the thrill of post-season play but admittedly only follow along casually during the regular season games. I promise to be a bit more connected this year and hope to be rewarded with a whiff of that elusive World Series should the teams advance. Regardless of results, we’ll experience together all the wins and losses, the highs and lows, and the exhilaration and heartache of collegiate competition as we cheer on our Wildcats through the SEC schedule and beyond.

So, what realistically can we all expect? Coach Mingione will kick off his tenure as a first-year head coach with a roster that returns 8 starters. Although that may sound initially optimistic, the native of Tarrytown, NY cautioned everyone that much improvement is needed right out of the gate. “Out of those eight guys coming back, we actually finished in the bottom half of our league,” he said. “And this is just the brutal truth—in average, runs, doubles, total bases, slugging percentage, hits, plate appearances, on base percentage, RBI, steals, and walks. So if our goal is to win the league, then we have to get better and we have challenged our positional players with that.”

A 2000 graduate of Emery-Riddle Aeronautical University with a degree in aerospace studies, Coach Mingione subscribes fully to measurable braniac-type baseball analytics and tactics. “Here’s what we did: we created standards,” he explained. “When we got here, we sat there and looked at our program and one of our goals is to win the Southeastern Conference. Well, how do you do that? We’ve basically decided that we have to get a run and a half better. That means either offensively or defensively. What we did was we created standards and we have accountability with those standards.”

Senior infielder Connor Heady took heed. “Coach Mingione would call each of us every couple of weeks over summer ball,” he said. “This was when we found out he was going to be our new head coach. We hadn’t even met face to face and he’s calling us making sure we’re staying on top of what we need to be doing this summer. Then we come back in the fall and we’re ready to go. He would have us fill out goals for ourselves, what we wanted to accomplish this summer and we hadn’t even met him yet. This guy’s got it figured out. He’s going to have us on the right track. Then from day one, it’s ‘be a better person, be a better student, be a better player’ and it’s all going to take care of itself.”

Mingione radiates relentless energy. Even sitting behind the podium, his enthusiasm and passion could not be contained. Every question posed by reporters was a “good question” and he tackled the answers like a baseball savant on hyper-drive. Let’s not forget that he also has good talent at his disposal. Junior first baseman Evan White was voted to the Coaches Preseason All-Southeastern Conference Team. He and junior right-hand pitcher Zach Pop were both tabbed as Baseball America’s top 100 draft eligible prospects in the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft, so the cupboard is not bare. However, the SEC is loaded as usual and it’ll take an outstanding effort by coach and players alike to finish above their predicted fourth place finish in the SEC East.

UK Softball also faces a difficult challenge having lost some significant talent from last year’s roster. The Cats have a real gem in Coach Lawson, who remains unperturbed by the upcoming overhaul. The Massachusetts graduate has already proven her mettle as the winningest coach in program history. Entering her 10th season at UK, she’s led the Wildcats to four NCAA Super Regionals in the last five seasons, and to their first ever appearance at the Women’s College World Series.

But it was my innocent question regarding her use of the word “retooling” rather than “rebuilding” to describe her efforts this year that revealed her true heart and character. “I don’t like to talk about replacing players,” she said as her voice began quivering. “I like to talk about succeeding players because the bottom line is this is Shannon Smith’s senior year. It’s important to me that Shannon Smith has a big senior year, so I have to make sure that I’m retooling every time that I have a senior class.”

It was at this point that the 2016 SEC Coach of the Year really began getting choked up. “I’m really not that soft,” she said apologetically. “Everybody is important to me and everybody’s career is important to me. If you just try to figure out how to rebuild, all you’re doing is saying all of the people on my team can’t get it done. Basically what I’m doing (when I use the word rebuilding) is admitting that I’ve wasted their last four years. And, I’m not going to do that.”

Now I’m certainly sorry that I made her cry, but that’s exactly the kind of person I want coaching my softball team. I want someone like Rachel Lawson who has a passion for winning as well as the character and pride in her desire to know each player and have them all succeed. In my book, that’s not soft—that’s caring.

She concluded her emotional response with these candid remarks. “So, when I coach, I not only think about winning now, I think about winning in 10 days, I think about winning at the end of the season, I think about how I’m going to win next year, and I’m thinking about how I’m going to be able to develop my current freshman class so that they can be standing in Oklahoma City (for the College World Series).”

Like I said, this should be an exciting upcoming season. Here’s hoping you’re coming along for the ride!

This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Baseball and Softball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.

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