Wojo: Harbaugh touches all the bases in sunshine spotlight

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh talks with Tigers manager Brad Ausmus at the start of Wednesday’s game against the Pirates.

Bradenton, Fla — Maybe he’ll run with the bulls in Pamplona next. Or climb a mountain. Or play in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am (oops, already did it). Or attend a State of the Union address (already did it).

Jim Harbaugh likes to go places not many people go, and do things not many do. That’s how he ended up coaching first base for three innings of the Tigers’ exhibition game against the Pirates Wednesday. That’s how he ended up as the most talked-about coach in college football. That’s how, theoretically, he’s supposed to get Michigan back to winning an occasional championship or two.

Harbaugh is an Adrenalin junkie, or an attention junkie, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s real. Based on his history of success and quirky ways, I’d say it’s real. It’s almost as if he’s competing against himself to see how much he can do.

“Why wouldn’t you do it?” Harbaugh said, standing in his full Tigers road gray uniform before the game. “Who wouldn’t do it if you were asked?”

Of course, Harbaugh is willing to do things even when not asked. For instance, there was no formal invitation from the fellas in the Southeastern Conference politely requesting the Wolverines spend the week practicing at the IMG Academy here. And I don’t think there was an overwhelming groundswell for the “Signing of the Stars” celebration a few weeks ago.

Harbaugh savors 'big thrill' coaching 1st for Tigers

But if it’s worth imagining, it’s worth trying, as long as you have the energy and the money. That’s why as snow coated Michigan, Wolverines players were in Florida spending the day at the pool, or playing miniature golf, or watching their coach pat baseball players on the back. Harbaugh coached the first three innings of the Tigers’ 10-3 victory over the Pirates at McKechnie Field and was flawless, and by “flawless” I mean he didn’t get hit by a line drive, didn’t wave a runner into an out and didn’t fall down.

Antics are genuine

“The Victors” blared over the loudspeakers as Harbaugh and most of his team stepped onto the field. The players headed to the stands and Harbaugh headed to the visitor’s clubhouse to change into his uniform. He signed the MLB waiver, donned the mandatory protective helmet and headed to first base to assume the standard crouch, hands on the knees.

It’s a strange way for a major-college coach to spend a few hours, sure, and some might wonder why so many words and pictures chronicled it. At some point, Harbaugh’s antics might become so common-place, they won’t require such dissemination. But the truth is, the spotlight always finds the new and the different, to test its authenticity and gauge its staying power.

“I think it’s great — it gets a reaction, doesn’t it?” said Alan Trammell, who has known Harbaugh about 30 years and finished the game coaching first. “I think the majority think it’s great. He’s a real person. He wants to enjoy it, but he’s serious. I love that about him.”

At least SEC football coaches didn’t object to this one, as far as we know.

Neither did any commissioners. Neither did the NCAA, although, gasp, there might have been a promising football prospect in the stands.

Pirates� Hurdle, a UM fan, heaps praise on Harbaugh

Let’s get two things out of the way. Number one, Harbaugh’s tactics will be celebrated only as long as he wins, and that means his 10-3 opening season is the baseline. And second, no one expects Michigan’s rivals — in East Lansing, in Columbus or in the South — to welcome what he’s doing or the coverage he’s getting.

The odd part is, he doesn’t do it like, say, Donald Trump. Harbaugh doesn’t make outlandish statements or bold predictions. I don’t think he ever declared he’d quickly turn around the Wolverines, or build a wall along the Ohio border. He might stir a publicity storm, but he’s not a blowhard.

Harbaugh does it just by being there, and here, and everywhere. It’s an interesting strategy that flummoxes many. Why did he coach first base Wednesday? Because it was there.

“What a big thrill, just being in a big-league park, being in the locker room, being in the skip’s office,” Harbaugh said. “All very, very exciting.”

Harbaugh said he actually was more nervous when he threw out the first pitch before a Tigers game last season. After all, he’d already coached first base with the Oakland A’s last March at the invite of manager Bob Melvin, so the next bucket-list item will have to be a bit more creative.

Creating buzz

There might come a time when Harbaugh dials it down, especially if Michigan rises to national power status. But he knew the difficult task he inherited in Ann Arbor, after years of getting bashed by the Buckeyes and Spartans, and if he gets an idea, he goes for it. No one has been as dogged on the recruiting trail since Urban Meyer showed up at Ohio State, and that train isn’t slowing anytime soon.

The buzz has even exceeded the results so far, although that could change with the Wolverines expected to be ranked in the top five. The other day, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher weighed in on SpringbreakGate in an interview with the Palm Beach Post. He dinged the NCAA for hypocrisy because it ruled Fisher and three other coaches couldn’t speak at an IMG clinic during the April evaluation period, but he also credited Harbaugh for pulling off the Florida trip.

“He’s doing things he has to do to be successful,” Fisher said. “Jim beat the rules. That’s fine. I applaud Jim for trying to do something different.”

The criticisms seem to have been muted lately, ever since the Wolverines arrived in Florida and somehow the SEC didn’t collapse. Maybe some are learning that ripping the strategy enhances the strategy.

Brad Ausmus said he enjoyed Harbaugh’s appearance and conversation, but wasn’t interested in joining the college football wars. He went to Dartmouth, where there are no football wars, and he wasn’t suddenly pledging loyalty to Michigan.

“No, because that’ll tick off the Michigan State fans,” Ausmus said. “That’s why I’m walking the fence. If I get the word (Mark Dantonio) is here and he’d like to coach first base, we can arrange that as well.”

Getting to first base is the easy part, really. Circling the bases is what this is all about.