They are scattered around the country, successful professionals who have spent the last few weekends connected to each other through a group text on their cell phones as they watched the Michigan baseball team advance in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines are in Omaha now to prepare for the College World Series that begins Saturday when Michigan plays Texas Tech.
This is the program’s first trip to the World Series since 1984, and the team’s biggest fans, no doubt, are the men who played on that team 35 years ago.
“It’s hard not to get nostalgic, I’m not going to lie,” said Ken Hayward, voted the Wolverines’ Most Valuable Player that season as the cleanup hitter and closer. “You think about how long ago it was and it’s amazing to think. These guys are in for the experience of their lives. Thirty-five years from now they’re going to be talking about it with their teammates and staying in touch with them and talking about this special run.
"That’s what’s great about sports."
Michigan made back-to-back appearances in the World Series in 1983 and 1984. The Wolverines were a baseball dynamo at that time with a roster in 1984 that included future Baseball Hall-of-Famer Barry Larkin, plus Hal Morris, Scott Kamieniecki, Hayward and Casey Close. Future major-league star Chris Sabo played on the 1983 team.
“It’s something you’ll never forget,” said Close, the Baseball America National Player of the Year in 1986, and a sports agent who represented Derek Jeter during his major-league career. “The teammates, the experience, the competition, just the whole sort of way Omaha goes about hosting. Both years, '83 and '84, we were fortunate to make it, and it’s not like you remember it like it was yesterday, but you have very vivid and fond memories of it all.
“I’m excited this team has a chance to not only experience it but hopefully do what we didn’t do and come back with a title.”
'Thrilled for these guys'
They’re all connected because they were on those great Michigan baseball teams, but they’re also bonded to this team because teammate Derek Kerr’s son, Jimmy Kerr, is the starting first baseman for this year's team. Tommy’s grandfather, John, was on the last Michigan team to win a baseball national title in 1962.
“I’m thrilled for these guys,” said Morris, a freshman in 1984 who went on to a long major-league career, won a World Series with the Reds in 1990 and was director of scouting for the Angels. “I do keep a pretty close eye on what they’re doing. Derek’s boy Jimmy Kerr is playing, and you get a lot of vicarious pleasure watching your friend’s son play. It’s a heck of a lot of fun.”
Erik Bakich, in his seventh season coaching the Wolverines, has gotten this program close to this point with two previous NCAA Tournament appearances, but with a strong pitching rotation and clutch hitting, not to mention some gut-check play in the regionals and Super Regional, including upsetting No. 1 seed UCLA, they made it over the proverbial hump.
The '84 players have been taking note.
“I’ve had a chance to watch and admire their grit, their tenacity,” Close said. “It’s one of the things I told Coach Bakich before the UCLA series — I felt like they had a really good chance to beat them just based upon how they go about playing their game, having a very strong pitching staff led by some very veteran people that are backed up by clutch, timely hitting and great defense and speed. That’s what wins in any postseason in any sport.
"I think they have a great thing going, tremendous chemistry. Their odds are about as good as anybody’s going into to Omaha.”
(Tell that to the oddsmakers, who have Michigan the longest shot of the eight teams, at 14-1, to win it all. Then again, Michigan was 50-1 before beating UCLA.)
Because they all have busy careers, the members of the '84 team don’t always have time to stay in touch. But with this team’s deep run, they have reconnected, mostly via text messaging.
“What it’s done, it’s brought a lot of us together through technology,” Hayward said. “We’ve got a big group text going and everybody’s watching the game and everybody starts talking about different stories (from their playing days) and bringing things up. We’re reliving it a little bit, which is kind of fun. When you’re there and you’re doing it, you’re so zoned it on what you’re doing. It’s when you look back, you think about the fun stuff and the goofy stuff that happened.”
Kerr, a backup catcher in '84, has been to most of the games this season to watch his son. But the tournament run has been enjoyable for him on a different level.
“It’s been really fun to get back with all these guys,” Kerr said. “It’s such a good group of people. You always remember that. I don’t remember the baseball as much. I remember the friendships you get out of it.”
“Many of us are communicating via group text and watching and going back and forth during the course of a game,” Close said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s certainly something we’re hoping they can continue and move through this, because they do have a real opportunity. Most people shouldn’t be surprised now with some of the people that have been beaten and obviously knocking off the No. 1 seed and most importantly the pitchers they have. They really can beat anyone.”
Close said the reminiscing hasn’t gotten out of hand. There have been no exaggerated stories or tall tales, because there’s no need for polishing stories that were already so memorable.
“I’ve said this once, I’ll say it 100 times, I was fortunate enough to play with arguably the greatest group of guys that played at Michigan,” Close said. “I’m not saying this as it relates to the baseball. We had exceptional experiences and we were fortunate enough to win some games. I’m talking about people. The people that were part of those classes. We had a lot of people who were tremendous players, but they’re better people, higher-character people and people who have gone on to do some amazing things in their lives just out of that group.
“No one is living in the past, because, frankly, most of these people have lived in the future and no one feels the need to embellish the story or make it sound like they did something way back because everyone has gone on to do some amazing things.”
'Stay in the moment'
Michigan had a deeper run in 1983, but in 1984, the Wolverines had to play in the Mideast Regional hosted by Central Michigan.
“They gave a regional to Central Michigan because it was Dave Keilitz’s last year coaching and we had to go to Central to play in a regional and it rained like four days straight,” said Hayward, the executive vice president and managing director of The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. “By the time we played and got through, we came home and went to Omaha the next day. We had no turnaround time, and it wasn’t the transition you normally like to have.
“Not to make excuses but it was kind of weird. It rained and rained and rained. The two choices at the movie theater were 'The Natural' or 'Indiana Jones' to tell you how long ago that was. You saw one of them three times and one of them twice. What are you going to do with a bunch of 18- to 21-year-olds cooped up in a hotel for four days? That put us in a weird spot. We played and bused back that night and the next day flew to Omaha. It kind of screwed up our pitching a little bit. We’d been the year before, most of us, so that part of it, we knew what we were getting into. That’s the challenge of the team is to stay in the moment and stay focused on what you have to do.”
The Wolverines would lose to eventual national champion Cal-State Fullerton in the first game and then fell to New Orleans in the losers’ bracket.
They finished the season 43-20.
“I remember when we played Fullerton in the first game we were culturally two different teams,” Morris said, laughing. “Coach (Bud) Middaugh was a real disciplinarian and the Fullerton guys were pretty loose out there. I don’t think they had a curfew, let’s put it that way.”
Back in that era, Michigan’s roster featured players from this state, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Morris said from his experience with the Angels, he has seen how recruiting has evolved. And how even more impressive it is for a “northern” team to make it to the World Series.
“I think it’s a fantastic accomplishment,” Morris said. “It’s much harder for the northern schools to recruit these days There’s so much information about players and younger players, that a lot of the kids from Michigan get poached by LSU and Arizona State and the southern and west schools. Having worked in baseball for a long time, I really respect and appreciate what they’ve done. When I was school, we got a lot of best players in the Midwest. It’s a lot more challenging to recruit those guys now. It’s tough when you take a recruiting trip in January or December.
“But that being said, having played in the north, given the facilities we have in Ann Arbor, I don’t think you’re disadvantaged being up there. Frankly, it could be an advantage because you drill a lot more and certainly it’s a phenomenal school.
"That’s my plug for UM.”
Michigan fell a half-game short of winning the Big Ten regular-season title this season and was one of the last four at-large teams into the NCAA Tournament.
These Wolverines and Indiana in 2013 are the only Big Ten teams to reach the World Series since 1984.
“That’s a mark against the Big Ten,” Close said of the Wolverines being one of the final four in. “That has nothing to do with Michigan because they were a top-25 team for most of the year, had a little bit of a cold spell at the wrong time and it’s just very easy to be swayed by the Southeastern Conference or the ACC for that extra team or two. It’s just very easy to go down that path. Michigan could have been a regional host if it played to its ability all season. They’d be a top-16 team.
“They chose the wrong time to get cold and the right time to get hot. That’s what happened. The wrong time to get cold for seeding, but right now is all that matters. They’ve gone out, which is a very difficult task, to win not just one but two series on the road on the west coast. Regardless of competition, I think that’s extremely hard and says a lot about their preparation and talent, and, frankly, a lot of their leadership.”
The '84 team players are rooting for Michigan because they’re alums, they’ve got a personal connection to this team because of the Kerr family, and they all admire what Bakich has done with the program.
Now they want the Wolverines to enjoy the process as they did all those years ago and build on this experience.
“Take this for what it is, it took 35 years to go back and in '83 and '84, we expected to be like the Golden State Warriors now, ‘Oh, we’ll be there every year,’” Close said. “And then in '85, we were the best team in college baseball in my opinion, we didn’t get there, and '86, my senior year, we were really good and probably could have got there but we didn’t get there, either. And then all of a sudden it’s over. Your college career is over.
“It happens in a blink of an eye, and that’s why it’s really cool for them to get this shot. Hopefully they’ll do more than just be a visitor. They’ll realize, ‘Hey, we’ve got a shot at this thing. We can do this.’
"That would be really special.”
College World Series schedule
At Omaha, Nebraska; Double Elimination; x-if necessary
Saturday, June 15
Game 1 — Michigan (45-20) vs. Texas Tech (44-18), 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2 —Florida State (41-21) vs. Arkansas (46-18), 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Sunday, June 16
Game 3 — Louisville (49-16) vs. Vanderbilt (54-11), 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4 — Mississippi State (51-13) vs. Auburn (38-26), 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Monday, June 17
Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 6 —Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Tuesday, June 18
Game 7 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 2 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
Wednesday, June 19
Game 9 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Thursday, June 20
Game 10 — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 loser, 8 p.m. (ESPNU)
Friday, June 21
Game 11 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 2 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
Game 12 — Game 8 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Saturday, June 22
x-Game 13 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 2 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
x-Game 14 — Game 8 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN2)
Monday, June 24: Pairings TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Tuesday, June 25: Pairings TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
x-Wednesday, June 26: Pairings TBD, 7 p.m. (ESPN)