My saving grace was a volunteer coach who joined the Bearcat staff at exactly the right time for me. Assistant Coach Edward Folli came aboard my sophomore year. He was recently retired from his teaching/coaching job at a local high school and wanted to be part of the program. He threw batting practice for the Binghamton Mets in the summer, but in the spring he spent a lot of his free time with us.
Coach Folli is one of the top two coaches I have ever had. (Biff Schumitz from my hometown is right up there). Both of these guys should have been professional coaches. They understood “it.” The respect the entire team had for Coach Folli was amazing. He earned every ounce of it with a seemingly effortless style. The man taught me a lot about baseball and life in very short amount of time.
Folli got paid a total of $0. He was simply a volunteer. The man loved baseball and his love for the game was contagious. The passion and care he gave to me on the field was invaluable. He probably doesn’t realize the impact he had on me, but he taught me so much more than just hitting. By example, he showed me the importance of having a good attitude and of treating every day on the field as a blessing.
If I do become a coach or manager, I will do my best to model myself after him. I just watched him every day and noticed how happy he was to be on a baseball field. It made everyone else, including me, happy.
He instilled the confidence in me that I had trouble finding. He showed me how to enjoy the game when I hated everything about it. I could be wrong, but I truly believe he knew how good I was and how screwed at times I was getting. Of course he could not say anything like that to me, but I always got this feeling that he was really happy for me whenever I succeeded. He was always so positive and encouraging. It wasn’t fake rah-rah posturing. It was real. There was never a panic attack or temper tantrum from him. He was honest and respectful. And he knew a ton about the game.
Unfortunately, he had little influence on the lineup, on how practices were set up or the team dynamics established by coaches Sinicki and Hurba. I am sure that if he had been head coach, the Binghamton program would have truly excelled. It seemed that everything he touched turned to gold.
After two midweek games were canceled due to snow (no longer a shocker for me), we headed a few hundred miles south to play conference foe UMBC. Thankfully, by the time we got to Maryland there was no more white stuff.
Our Friday game deviated from our original plan for a blowout, but we hung on for a 4-3 victory. I sat on the bench until once again I was asked to pinch-hit – this time in the 7th inning of a one-run game. Having 10 days off in a row without an at bat was a death sentence for me and my pinch hit at bat did not end with the result I was looking for. The first pitch, a fastball away, was called for strike one. Then I swung at a decent curve for strike two and finished my bat off by missing on a dirty curveball. I was angry, but in the 9th inning I righted the ship and hit a solid line drive base hit. I was still above water, if just barely.
Saturday was a doubleheader. I sat out game one and sank lower. I wasn’t sure how much more my foundation could take without cracking. As I stared out at the field between games, Coach Folli took me aside. I don’t know if he saw the pain in my eyes, but he took me to a private area and talked to me man-to-man. He told me very calmly that the “old regime” was out and that players like me wouldn’t “rot on the bench” as we had been. He said that he knew what was going on, and he was fighting for guys like Klee and me.
Never once in my four years did Sinicki or Hurba really talk to me like that and help me understand the situation at hand. The communication I needed was not there. Folli respected me enough to talk to me and for that I am eternally grateful.
I started in game two. In my first at bat I ripped a fastball to right for a single. All game I hit the ball hard. I played game four on Sunday as well, this time in front of my dad, Kathy, Eric, Jaclyn, Mom and Bob. I smashed the ball.
I don’t think that getting hot directly after Folli’s speech was an accident. I felt so light and free at the plate and had this extra confidence. Even with a lefty in the game, I ripped the ball all day long. I did what I had visualized all year. I was relaxed and got good fastballs to hit. I kept it simple and as a result I had the best weekend of the short season.
Timing is a funny thing.
On Saturday night after the UMBC doubleheader, my dad and I went out to eat. Before we went into the restaurant, however, we sat in the car and talked about the season. He then handed me a large manila folder. It was just like in the movies where two politicians pass along a secret packet of papers in an abandoned parking lot.
On the cover was the word “Transfer.” He had gathered all of the papers and information on transferring as well as possible options for me to explore. At this point there was no rule that would have forced me to sit out a year (as long I didn’t transfer to another America East school and as long as Sinicki OK’d my release), so I was taking the situation very seriously.
Every point my dad brought up was correct. There was no way I could have argued against the fact that at Binghamton I was always going to be fighting an uphill battle. But timing is a funny thing.
Out of all the days to go over this, my dad chose the very day that Folli had talked to me. From his speech and my day’s play, I was convinced things were going to be different. I was confident I was going to start playing a lot more. I knew that our designated hitter, Jeff Wertepny, was graduating along with starting right fielder Jeff Monaco. The other reserves were fairly weak, and I was somewhat sure there were an ample amount of slots opening up next year.
Any other day that year I probably would have said, “Yes, I am leaving.” But this wasn’t any other day, and I wasn’t in the same mental state as the day before or, as it turned out, shortly thereafter. My dad couldn’t have picked a worse time to bring up transferring.
I didn’t want to leave my friends, my school, and my life. I was feeling good about baseball (for the first time all season!), and so I took the folder and kind of placed the thought of transferring way back in my mind. If I had just gone 0-for-4 or if Folli hadn’t talked to me¼. I really don’t think I would have graduated two years later from Binghamton University.
After UMBC the season went into ultra-drive. Going into our home series against Hartford, we were 9-2 in conference play. The weeks of school were just flying by. We would get home late Sunday night and, before we knew it, it was Thursday and either travel day or pregame day. It was hard to believe it was May.
Hartford was once again at the bottom of the standings, and these were important games for us to take. After I had committed to Binghamton, I visited BU to watch a game against Hartford. The players looked so much older and bigger then. The game looked faster. As we took the field for pregame that weekend, I realized how natural it was to look at the next level and be intimidated. When I was in 8th grade, I felt the same intimidation watching high school games. Everything looked so daunting. But now being on the field felt natural. Thinking that the Hartford Hawks could ever have made me uneasy was comedic.
I went 1-for-10 against Hartford.
It had nothing to do with “intimidation,” however, and, in fact, it was probably the most valuable 1-for-10 in my career. For the first time in over a year, I got 10 at bats in one weekend. After a double in my first at bat, they peppered me with breaking balls low and away. Even the fastballs were kept off the plate. I couldn’t make the adjustment to sit soft and away and perished as a result.
I was not yet advanced enough as a hitter to see either how they were pitching me or to figure out how to deal with this knowledge during the game. But if nothing else, I got 10 at bats to start to figure this all out. After failing for nine straight at bats, something in my brain said, “You moron, they are killing you with the same pitch. It is time to make an adjustment.”
As obvious as it sounds now, without grounding out five times in a row I just couldn’t see the pattern. Furthermore, not only did I begin to see these patterns in action, but I also got my timing back. Every strikeout and soft groundout on a low and away change-up taught me that much more about what adjustments I needed to make.
I needed the 10 at bats. My season really took off right after the Hartford series (in which we won all four games). It was not an accident. I had finally gotten the reps I had been begging for. Even though I had a bad weekend, I was feeling upbeat after the Hartford series. Our team was performing well, and I thought good things were to come.
The next Tuesday we played at Le Moyne College, in Syracuse. It was dark and cloudy, and all morning I feared the skies would open up. Thank goodness they never did. In an offensive, bloodthirsty, no-holds-barred match, we lost 21-16!
Le Moyne’s field was small, and balls flew out of the place left and right. I did not have any home runs, but I did have a 4-for-4 day. Again, I truly don’t think the timing was an accident. After my talk with Coach Folli and those 10 at bats against Hartford, I felt at peace in the batter’s box. Everything I hitting was hard and in a hole. It boosted my spirits. It was especially gratifying getting two of those hits against a lefty who in high school had dominated me.
All of our pitchers got hit hard at Le Moyne, but for Gino Offerman it was the last straw. Coach Sinicki came to take him out after he allowed all three batters he faced to safely reach first base. Coming off his disastrous BYU performance, Gino was all but done. Coach patted him lightly on the butt as Gino made his last walk off the mound. He never pitched another inning as a Bearcat.