Aug. 25, 2006
Welcome back coach! Tell us where you were this summer and what you did.
After our season was over I spent all of the early part of June recruiting and seeing a lot of games, which was very important. But then on June 22nd I left for the USA Baseball Trials where I was an assistant baseball coach for Team USA. With Team USA I was the third base coach, I ran the offense on games days and worked with the hitters. It was a wonderful experience.
Explain to us the process of the trials.
We convened as a group for the trials in Pittsfield, Mass., for the start of trials. There were 36 players from across the country invited and the trials were great. We spent time in Pittsfield, Mass., Torrington, Conn., Keane, N.H., and Newport, R.I., where we finished up. While were in Newport the US Women's Open was being played and its one of the most beautiful places in America I have ever been. We stayed on the campus of Salve Regina University while we were there, which is just a beautiful campus.
The neat thing about trials is that it is just baseball 24-7. We got up in the morning and we had a practice and after practice we had a Red and Blue intra-squad. After intra-squad we would play games against the local NECBL (New England Collegiate Baseball League) teams of the town we were in that night. So it was a lot of baseball. It was basically a week-long of three-a-days with practice, intra-squad followed by a game that night. Each night, as coaches, we got together and broke it down and talked about the team.
Trials are then over, what happens next?
At the end of that week-long period we cut the squad down from 36 to 22, and it was tough. Obviously all 36 players that were there were all very good. It was the best 36 freshmen and sophomores in the country, so basically it was an all-star team, and we were cutting guys that were college All-Americans, freshman All-Americans, so it was a tough process. But we got down to the 22 that we felt would help us the most and represent our country.
We played our first game as a team in a triple-A stadium in Pawtucket, R.I. (home of the Pawtucket Red Sox). We played Chinese Taipei and faced their number one pitcher, who the Cleveland Indians had just signed for $350 thousand and we beat them 1-0 in a very well-played game by both teams. Chinese Taipei was very good and that was the beginning of a seven-game series with them in various parts of the country. It was July 4th weekend and there were people chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A" and there was a big fireworks show and obviously we won the game, which was a great feeling.
After that we traveled down to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where we played Chinese Taipei for a couple of games. We left from there and went to Durham, N.C., and played them in the Durham area. We basically traveled all throughout the Carolinas for parts of July, spent time in Kannapolis and Greensboro, N.C., time in Greenville, S.C., and Charlotte playing Japan. We also went out to Joplin, Mo., and played a few teams out there. That was basically pay-back to Joplin because Joplin hosts the `Tournament of Stars' which is the Team USA Junior National Team made up of high school kids and we brought the national team and played three games while we were out there. We also got to tour the Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City and that was a lot of fun. We then came through Atlanta and played three games there - two against Germany and one against a team of Georgia All-Starts. We played in Rome, Athens and then right there in Marietta.
We then went back for a swing through the Carolinas, beating Korea two-out-of-three and then played Japan in a five-game series. Japan was, in my opinion, the best team we played all summer. We were constantly reminded by the USA Baseball people that no USA Baseball team had ever lost a series to Japan on American soil, so there was a little bit of pressure there, both on the players and coaches, but we won that series with the clinching game in Greensboro. That was a big accomplishment for the team. We finished up July with some games against teams in the Coastal Plain League, and those were more to keep us ready, focused and in shape before we headed to Cuba as all these games were preparing us for the FISU (International University Sports Federation) Tournament in Cuba.
Your time in the States is over, now take us through the tournament in Cuba.
As much as we had heard that no American team had lost to Japan on our home soil, we also heard constantly how no American team had ever won in Cuba. So we had a singular goal, and the team was focused. We got to Cuba on August 3rd and it was quite an experience.
The first field we showed up to practice on, the outfield grass was 10 inches high, there were no screens, no bases - we stacked equipment bags up to throw BP behind. The Cuban people were wonderful - they treated us great at every stop. We played in three different stadiums while we were there - Fernandez, Mederos and Latino-Americana, which is right in downtown Havana.
Probably the worst game we played in Cuba was our first game. We played against the Virgin Islands and we won 4-0. However, when we first got to Cuba we were supposed to play an exhibition game against Cuba but they decided they didn't want to play. Then we got rained out, so we were basically in Cuba for four days without playing and when we played our first game it looked like a team that hadn't played in four days and didn't play particularly well.
We rebounded from the game against the Virgin Islands and we played a double-header against Puerto Rico and the Czech Republic. We beat Puerto Rico 15-0 and the Czech team 16-0 before playing Chinese Taipei in the championship game of our side of the bracket at Latino-Americana.
After pool play we beat Nicaragua in the quarterfinals 7-0, than played Japan in the semi-finals and that game had every bit of a feel of a regional championship game. Our players were really into it, the coaches were into it and the fans were into it. Japan's number one pitcher, Takayuki Kishi, was a 93-94 fastball pitcher with a great curveball. In the States, he had really dominated our batters the two times he pitched against us. We were able to beat him in the semis 5-1 as we played really well.
In preparation for the finals, we as a staff went to the see the Chinese Taipei-Cuba semi-final game. It ended up being a 15-inning game and neither team swung the bats all that well that night and Chinese Taipei ended up winning 2-1, setting us up to play them in the championship game, which was going to be the ninth time we played them. We had already beaten them eight times and it is very hard to beat any team that many times in a row.
In the championship game, they got up on us 3-0 in the first but we came back and answered with a two-spot before going on to win the championship game 18-9. It was a really neat experience to be awarded a gold medal and see the American flag raised the highest during the medal ceremony, especially being in a communist country. They did not play the United States' National Anthem, though. The only song they would play was the FISU official song. But it was still great to be in a foreign country and win a gold medal and do something that had never been done. To accomplish that after all summer hearing how it had never been done was great.
It was a great group of guys, a great group of coaches and every got along really well. We put in a lot of hard work and it really paid off.
Most Americans have never traveled to Cuba, tell us about the country.
Obviously Americans can't travel to Cuba, but there were a lot of Europeans there. The people there were wonderful, the treated us great and really liked our team. But it is a lot of poverty. It is a beautiful country, a tropical paradise, but at the same time, if someone wants to have air conditioning in their home, they need to apply to the government for air conditioning. The public transit system is cattle trucks. You see hundreds and hundreds of people along the road - at all times of day - just walking and waiting at bus stops for cattle trucks. When we would drive by on our bus, people would wave money at us trying to get us to stop and pick them up.
The spirit of the people - the children, the grown people - they are hard working. They have a great spirit about them despite the poverty.
You were away from Auburn for 55 days, who took care of the Auburn Baseball program while you were away?
In the 55 days that I was gone, obviously I had to rely a lot on my assistant coaches. I spent a lot of the early part of June recruiting before I left so I was able to see a lot of the guys that we wanted to sign, and that went well and continues to go well. Butch Thompson, Matt Myers and actually Karl Nonemaker, because of a special NCAA waiver, he was able to get out and recruit so we still had three guys out, banging on the road. I could text message recruits and recruits could call me while I was with Team USA. I was not allowed to call recruits because Karl was active, but I could text and they could call me. I stayed in constant communication with those guys on a daily basis and they did a tremendous job of running our camps here along with (Director of Baseball Operations) Scott Duval.
How much contact did you have with the current players while you were gone?
Through text messaging, a lot. Mike Bianucci started with me at the trials so I was with him every day for a week and then I was in constant contact with most of the guys that were playing this summer. We would text each other just to keep up with each other. Then we had eight of our incoming freshman here in summer school along with some of our older guys, all of which I stayed in touch with. When I went to Cuba that was over because I had no communication for two weeks, but my assistant coaches did a tremendous job with them while I was away.
Talk about some of the returning players and the summers they had.
Paul Burnside was an all-star in the Valley League, leading the league in virtually every pitching category. Bianucci had a good summer and swung the bat really well up in the Cape after leaving trials. Luke Greinke also did really well at the Cape. Josh Donaldson made the All-Star game in the Cape as a catcher. Bryan Woodall had a really good summer in the Northwoods League. Ryan Jenkins is another guy in the Valley League. Actually the team that Ryan and Paul played for, an assistant coach for the team was Mike Hnytka, who is a former player from here. I talked to Mike a few times over the summer and he said that Jenks was having a really good summer catching and actually got a chance to pitch some.
Finally, take us through the fall schedule.
School started last Wednesday (Aug. 16) and I was still in Havana but we flew out on Wednesday and I got back into Auburn about 1 a.m. on Thursday morning. We had our first team meeting Thursday afternoon and then guys took physicals on Sunday. This week has been a conditioning week with (strength and conditioning) Coach Levy and we will start four-on-one work next week for three-and-a-half weeks. We will start team practice on Wednesday, Sept. 20, and go approximately three-and-a-half weeks with that before getting back to four-on-ones in mid-October.
We feel very good about our incoming class, which is our second recruiting class. It should be highly rated just like the first one was. We feel real good with where we are. The returning guys all went out this summer and improved themselves and when we combine that with another solid recruiting class, the future is so bright for us.