By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
If the pitching doesn't sort itself out, all the hitting in the world won't get the Devils back to Omaha.
The players themselves have questions about Coach Brock. Will he be healthy enough to coach? Will he be the same hard-ass as always?
The relentless drills, the coach's stern lectures and the laps they've been running give them their answer.
Of all the major sports, college baseball remains the most untainted, largely because of old-school coaches such as Jim Brock. He's never tolerated "big-leagueing it"--affecting the practiced nonchalance of pro ballplayers.
ASU players who don't hustle run laps in the outfield. Those who miss signs run laps. Those who are late to practice run laps. Those who swear too loudly or throw their helmets run laps. Those who don't help senior citizens across the street run laps.
ASU's substitutes stand at the dugout railing all game long and cheer their teammates. The concept of team is paramount.
Today is a Wednesday, and Brock is recovering from his weekly dose of chemotherapy. He is scheduled to undergo the debilitating treatments for a year. Brock speaks to his players about his health only in the context of what it may mean for them.
"There may be times this year when I'm not going to be 100 percent," he tells them. "That's reality, unfortunately. But we are organized in a way that it really shouldn't matter to you as a team."
The ASU baseball program meets on a chilly, rainy afternoon in the team lounge. Players, coaches, trainers, academic advisers and team managers are present--about 35 people in all.
The subject today is academics. This is something not near and dear to a majority of these student-athletes, especially those who expect to turn pro after the season.
Coach Brock hands the meeting over to his wife, recently retired as a full-time business professor at Scottsdale Community College.
"Your attitude will mean a lot in how your professors deal with your missed time," says Pat Brock, a woman who earned two degrees while raising the couple's two children. "Meet with them one on one. Call them 'Sir' or 'Ma'am.' Don't say 'yeah' this and 'yeah' that. Make sure they understand you'll make up the work."
Brock picks up his wife's theme.
"You've got to play your teachers," he says. "Teachers have an ego like everyone else. When I taught psychology of sport, I noticed those kids who'd laugh at everything I said and appeared as if they were hanging on my every word. Even if you're a phony, a teacher will appreciate it."
The coach looks at junior Antone Williamson, whose oft-stated mission at ASU has been to play ball and party: "Toner," as everyone calls him, is Brock's kind of player. Williamson loves to get dirty, and he isn't stuck on himself, despite his great talent. But it irks the coach--who earned a doctoral degree in educational administration--that he hits the books only enough to stay eligible to hit the ball.
"Every fight me and Toner have had," Brock says later, "every time he's thought I hated him, it's about letting that part of himself down."
Pitcher Jimmy Mancuso, who carries a perfect grade-point average in political science, is a rare bird. The best Brock can usually hope for on the academic front are players such as Jacob Cruz, Billy Neal, Sean Tyler and a few others, who may graduate someday if their pro careers don't pan out.
"To be a complete person, you must do your best in all phases of your life," Brock tells his team. "If you rationalize, 'I'm good in baseball, so what if I'm bad at school?', you're a lesser person. And that's a disgrace."
Only a few hundred fans are present at this early-season game between ASU and Southern Utah. It's a blustery weekday afternoon at Packard Stadium against a team that won only six of 52 games last season.
Brock watches, sphinxlike, as his team takes a lead against its outmanned opponents. But he's deeply into this game.
Shortstop Randy Betten, who's taken over for the injured Cody McKay, lays down a nice bunt and beats it out. It's ruled an error. The coach picks up the dugout phone and calls ASU sports information assistant Preston English in the press box.
"What are you guys smoking up there?" he barks. "No damned way that was an error. Their guy was back of the base. He wouldn't have had a chance in hell to get Randy."
Two innings later, the error turns into a hit on the Packard scoreboard.
Nor is Brock sparing the umpires.
"Hey, our guy isn't seven foot tall," he bellows after a marginal call. "Why don't you accommodate us and get a damned strike zone?"
The umpire glares at Brock, but bites his tongue.
The Devils go up 10-3, but Brock is irate about his team's sloppy play.
"C'mon, Brock," someone yells from the stands behind home plate. "Wake your team up!"
After the fourth inning, the coach calls the Sun Devils to his perch at the far end of the dugout.