Feb. 16, 2014
Senior Writer Phillip Marshall spent Friday, opening day for Auburn’s baseball season, following Sonny Golloway through his first game day as Auburn’s head coach.
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Batting practice is winding down on the first day of Auburn’s baseball season, and head coach Sunny Golloway is looking at his text messages. Among them is one from athletics director Jay Jacobs, another from iconic former national championship quarterback Lloyd Nix.
“It means a lot,” Golloway says between hitters. “You want to do well for those people. That’s the pressure you feel.”
It is Friday, Feb. 14, and Golloway’s first Auburn baseball team will soon take the field to play Indiana State in the first game of the Snowbird Classic.
Golloway moved from Oklahoma to Auburn last June. Throughout the long offseason, he preached Auburn baseball to all who would listen. He told them he came to win championships, to play in the College World Series. And he was talking about this season, not some season in the distant future.
And now, on a sunny Florida day, the kind of day made for baseball, the beginning of the long journey has begun.
The day starts early for Golloway. In the cool of the February morning, he is up with the sun and off to Starbucks for coffee. Then he goes to Target for non-baseball duty. It’s Valentine’s Day, and he buys a dozen pink roses for his daughter, Taylor, and a dozen red roses for his wife, Charlotte. They will arrive later in the morning, along with his son, Callen.
At 9 a.m., Auburn players and coaches gather for breakfast. Golloway talks with hitting coach Greg Norton, pitching coach Scott Foxhall and volunteer assistant Hunter Vick. They decide to stay with the starting lineup they’d agreed on the night before. That means five true freshmen will start.
Golloway visits with some players. He likes what he sees and hears.
“Everybody showed up,” Golloway says. “Everybody had a white collar shirt looking like a team should look.”
The day’s game will be played at Charlotte Sports Park, the spring training home of the Tampa Bay Rays. Batting practice will be a North Charlotte Regional Park, where the final two games will be played on Saturday and Sunday.
Golloway feels the excitement building as he climbs onto the bus. It’s baseball season, and he loves it.
“How can you not love baseball on a day like this?” he says.
At batting practice, players appear to be loose and relaxed. Golloway watches everything. He watches every hitter. He watches how players field and throw. He tells them where to put baseballs and bats when they aren’t being used. He misses little.
“Let’s not be trying to lift everything, fellas,” Golloway says. “Driving it is not lifting it. OK? Let’s find some dirt with our hit and run.”
“Are we starting early or are we over swinging?” he says to no one in particular.
Not so long ago, Golloway wasn’t all about bunting and moving baserunners. That changed when those in power decided to deaden the bats in the name of safety, changing the game dramatically. The plan is to use the same baseball next season that minor leagues use. There is the belief that will return some of what has been lost. Players and coaches universally hope so.
“We led the Big 12 in home runs in 2010,” Gollway says. “The next year we had to turn around and learn to bunt. That will change somewhat next year when we go to the minor league ball. Nordie (Norton) and I have talked about it. Right now, this is the way we have to play.”
Golloway’s focus gets most intense when players are putting down bunts. Getting them down isn’t enough. He wants batters to know where the ball is going and where it should go, depending on the situation.
“Push it firm, now!” Golloway says. “It’s going to be thick grass.”
Golloway shakes his head. It’s not so easy to convince players to love to bunt.
“They all want to hit a double off the wall,” Golloway says. “You can’t blame them. Who doesn’t?”
Auburn players are swinging Easton bats after years of using Louisville Slugger. For players, it was a welcome and long awaited move.
“We are swinging what the players want to swing,” Golloway says. “They did not want to swing those other bats.”
In the batting cage, sophomore left fielder Jordan Ebert is hitting. Golloway is chattering.
“All right, Ebert, grunt and swing as hard as you can,” Golloway says. Ebert does just that, flying the ball into left field.
“I was joking, OK?” Golloway says, laughing. “Put a nice, smooth swing on it. You know how you hit a 7-iron, just to get it to check up on the green? Let’s see if you can do it.”
Golloway offers words of encouragement to J.J. Shaffer, a freshman who will start in centerfield while senior Ryan Tella is suspended for the first two games. Tella’s suspension, Golloway says, is because of issues from last fall. It’ll be done after the first two games.
“He’s been absolutely great,” Golloway says. “He’s been encouraging his teammates. He understands. He’ll be ready to go Sunday.”
Golloway calls out to Scott Duval, the long-time director of baseball operations. “Where do we stand on the 40 minutes?” Golloway says. Duval answers quickly. “Thirty-one minutes,” he says.
Duval is at the very heart of Auburn’s program and has been since Hal Baird hired him 15 years ago. Details don’t escape him.
“He’s the best,” Golloway says. “I was talking to (South Carolina AD and former baseball coach) Ray Tanner and said ‘I’m in the car with Duvie.’ He said ‘how is the longest-running ops guy in the SEC doing?’ I said ‘I’ll be his last coach at Auburn. He’s signed a long-term contract.’”
Batting practice finishes, and it’s time to get back on the bus for the two-mile ride to Charlotte Sports Park. Gametime is less than an hour away.
Auburn players and coaches thought they were going to be in the first-base dugout, but when they arrive Indiana State is already there. They go across the field to the third-base side, looking into the sun.
“That’s OK,” Golloway says. “We want to be in the sun.”
Golloway strolls out the bullpen in left field. He wants to make sure the telephone line between the dugout and the bullpen works. It does, and he heads back toward the dugout. He breaks into a grin. His wife, daughter and son have arrived. They walk down the steps, and he hugs them all.
On the same flight was assistant athletics director Jeremy Roberts, the new administrator for baseball.
“He’s going to do a great job,” Golloway says. “I’m excited about it.”
Roberts, who graduated from Auburn and never really left, is excited, too.
“Coach Golloway reminds me of Coach (Gus) Malzahn,” Roberts says. “He wants to get things done, and he wants to get them done right now.”
Norton, who played in the major leagues for 13 years, is talking with Rays third base coach Tom Foley and bench coach Dave Martinez. Golloway shakes hands with both and joins the conversation.
“Nortie knows all those guys,” Golloway says. “That’s good for our ballclub.”
Golloway stops to visit with an Auburn fan who lives in the area. He talks with his coaches. There’s another walk to the bullpen, where starter Dillon Ortman is starting his warmups. It’s part of Golloway’s gameday routine. He chats briefly with Ortman and heads back toward the infield.
“My motor is running pretty fast right now. I’m not going to lie to you,” Golloway says. It’s time to go meet with Indiana State’s coach and the umpires.
“The opposing team is always going to wish me good luck,” Golloway says. “I’m not going to tell them that. I’m going to say ‘let’s play hard.’ I don’t really want them having any good luck. I’m not going to start out lying.”
All the players are in the dugout, and the time to play is at hand. Senior shortstop Dan Glevenyak is walking up and down shaking hands with his teammates. It’s opening day, and there’s nothing quite like it.
Auburn gets a run in the second inning, but it should have been more. A hit-and-run goes bad on a pitch high and out of the strike zone. Freshman Damion Haecker’s base hit drives home a run, but he is caught between first and second and then catcher Blake Austin is thrown out at home for the thirdout.
For the first time, Golloway shows some irritation.
“We have to swing on the hit-and-run,” Golloway says. "I don’t care if it’s a foot over our head.”
And on the final out: “We gave them an out. Just gave it to them!”
Later, Ortman almost picks a runner off base and, on the next attempt, throws the ball away.
“Hey, pitchers,” Golloway says, “he got close and tried to do too much. You don’t have to do that. Get the batter.”
Auburn players are standing up at the edge of the dugout when they are on offense and sitting down when they are on defense.
“I tell our guys to sit down when we are playing defense,” Golloway says. “The other team is trying to create some havoc. Why would you contribute to that?”
Golloway, for now, is coaching third base. He plans to turn it over to Norton in time for Southeastern Conference play. He says he wants to aggressiveness with Auburn must play.
Austin pokes a two-run single through the left side to put Auburn up 3-0 in the sixth. Freshman first baseman Keegan Thompson puts down a squeeze bunt to make it 4-0 in the seventh. Ortman and Justin Camp dominate Indiana State’s hitters and it’s over. Auburn has won 4-0.
Golloway grins as Glevenyak starts a game-ending double play. He turns and shakes hands with other coaches. "Good job!" he says as the players return to the dugout, then go immediately back to the field to shake hands with Indiana State players.
Meeting with his players in left field, Golloway tells them they played well but must improve. Overall, he’s happy. His first game at Auburn was a success, he says, a “really solid win.” His first Auburn baseball team has 11 seniors but is playing a frightfully young lineup. There is much to be done.
“We’re a work in progress,” Golloway says. “We’re nothing now like we will be when we get to Omaha.”
Golloway greets his family as they arrive before Friday’s game against Indiana State (Phillip Marshall photo)
Golloway checks on starting pitcher Dillon Ortman before Friday’s game (Phillip Marshall photo)
Golloway talks with reporters after Friday’s victory over Indiana State (Phillip Marshall photo)
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: