By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
If the world were the special place we all would want it to be, that tornado never would have roared through the streets of Moore, Okla., tearing apart both buildings and families with total disregard for all that is sacred in this world of ours.
But in this world you get no do-overs.
You play them as they lie, and so it is that West Virginia University’s baseball team heads home not as Big 12 champions, but instead as Big 12 heroes, a team that is a winner without a championship.
The Mountaineers’ coach, Randy Mazey, knew they were special from the beginning, right from the first day as a new coach heading into a new league that he met with them. That is why, on Saturday evening in a game they had to win, Mazey was able to believe that they would survive despite a 5-0 deficit to Oklahoma State in a game they seemed intent on giving away with five errors.
“I got that sense (that this was a special group) back in September when I got to know these guys as kids and watched them practice and compete out on the field and grind it out academically,” Mazey said after turning that 5-0 deficit into a 6-5 victory that gave them hope which would die when Kansas beat TCU.
“You guys heard me talk about the 12-mile hike we went on in the beginning of the season,” he continued in the post-game press conference, about to reveal an incredible story.
“The very first thing we did, I told these guys in our first team meeting is that tomorrow morning we’re going to wake up and go for a 12-mile hike to signify our entering the Big 12,” he said. “When I told them that, they all looked at me like I was crazy.”
A 12-mile hike?
“When we got to the trail head, the idea was to give them something that, when you first hear it, you think it’s insurmountable,” Mazey explained. “But the more you think about it, if you just put one foot in front of the other, you’ll get 12 miles … if you just keep going.”
So there they were at the Rail Trail, gathered to do something they never imagined they’d be doing to get ready for a season when Mazey took a moment to have them speak.
“We all took a moment to share what is going to motivate us this season. Each guy on the team had 30 seconds or a minute to tell us what would motivate them,” Mazey said.
Those statements were filed away, put in the memory banks to be called on as the year went on.
“A few nights ago, when we met in the hotel room after doing all the community service, we decided as a team that with the tornado and all the victims, all the kids and all the T-shirts we wore, we were playing this week for a little bigger cause than the individual player,” Mazey said.
Going out to Walmart and purchasing supplies, delivering them to those who had lost their homes, their loved ones, that action had superceded the baseball goals.
“We were playing for the people here,” Mazey said.
As evidence of it, Brady Wilson wrote something on his wristband.
“In honor of the victims,” it read.
So there it was, bottom of the 10th inning, Bobby Boyd at second base, Jacob Rice hitting a single and Boyd racing to the plate, the play close enough that either team had an argument no matter how it was called, but Boyd just narrowly sneaking his toe in under the tag with the winning run.
Remember, “In honor of the victims,” it read. Boyd remembered. Mazey remembered.
“When you’re playing for something bigger than yourself, maybe that’s why Bobby ran a little faster from second base home,” Mazey said.
So much this team had been through, picked last in the conference, playing its home games across the state but not at home, breaking in a new coach, breaking in new teammates, playing in a new league, a more prestigious league.
It had survived all that, somehow finished third in conference play and still alive for the conference tournament championship when it seemed it all caught up with the Mountaineers, leading to five early errors for five unearned runs.
And then they thought back to that 12-mile hike and found something extra.
“It’s kind of ironic I would sit up here and credit winning that game to the defense,” Mazey said. “You look at the box score and we made five errors, but we turned two double plays with the bases loaded. Brady made a great catch with two out in right center, then made a great catch over his head. Bobby laid out for a ball in center field late in the game.
“Defense really helped us win the game. It helped us get behind, but it helped us get back in when guys became focused and realized if we don’t do something pretty quick we’d be on our way back to Morgantown.”
Well, they are now back in Morgantown, having won their last game, perhaps at the end of their season but just at the beginning of the equivalent of a 12-mile hike through the rest of their lives.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.