By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
But Jim Brock's health is failing.
His bad liver and the strong medicine he's taking have knocked the starch out of him. In the fourth inning, the coach asks equipment manager Cindy Fulton to fetch him a chocolate-chip cookie and some ice water.
"Feel like crap," the coach says hoarsely. "Having a little trouble concentrating."
He musters a smile. "Wish we'd blow them out. Then I wouldn't have to think so hard."
But the game is a barnburner between equally matched teams. ASU southpaw Jason Bond turns in an inspired performance, but it's his first outing since injuring his elbow a few weeks earlier, and he tires in the late innings.
Noah Peery replaces Bond, but soon fidgets his way into a bases-loaded jam. He wriggles out of it with a clutch strikeout of Cardinal first baseman Dusty Allen.
Bill Kinneberg leaps in the air after the big out, an uncommon public display of emotion. Coach Brock clenches a fist.
But Peery rushes home plate after the strikeout, rather than into the dugout. He says something to Allen. Infuriated, the Stanford player attacks Peery.
The fight escalates into a bench-clearing brawl. ASU pitcher Jason Verdugo floors a Cardinal with an uppercut. A Stanford player sideswipes Billy McGonigle and bloodies his face.
As the dust settles, Coach Brock walks to home plate for a meeting with the umpires. Brock tosses enough scatological phrases to get booted out of a game for the umpteenth time in his long career. It will be his last game at Packard.
Stanford scores four runs in the 11th inning off the depleted ASU pitching staff to take a seemingly insurmountable 7-3 lead. Earlier in the season, some players may have rationalized, no big deal, we're going to a regional tourney, win or lose this game.
But the team is showing newfound mettle.
"Hey," shortstop Randy Betten said minutes before the three-game series had started on Friday night, "what's so hard about us playing a little harder when we see Coach pushing himself to the limit? We've all got our health. There's no excuse for not pushing it."
The Sun Devils score two runs and have the bases loaded with dangerous leadoff hitter Scott Shores at bat. The ASU dugout is the loudest it's been all season. Even the team's quieter guys--Jeff Rensmeyer, Mike Corominis and Mike Heidemann, among them--are hollering encouragement.
But Shores strikes out swinging. Final score: Stanford 7, ASU 5.
The Devils, however, have proved something to themselves, even in defeat. They know now that they do have the will to win Brock has spoken about so often.
It's the day after the Stanford loss. Coach Brock has slept fitfully, and he's having trouble keeping his food down. But he's determined to keep a longstanding speaking engagement.
It's the 40th anniversary of Brock's senior year at North High in central Phoenix. His alma mater's baseball team asked him to speak at its postseason banquet. A closet nostalgic, Brock keeps his date.
The event is held outside, under a ramada in the middle of the spruced-up campus. After an Italian meal Brock picks at, he walks over to a nearby microphone.
The coach is rejuvenated by the memories that are flooding through him.
His audience is rapt.
"I could make you people laugh tonight, but I don't feel like being funny. We lost yesterday, and I'm damned mad about it. Losing isn't easy for me. From the time I was a sophomore here, I wanted to be a baseball coach--a winning baseball coach. In my senior year, a teacher here--she'd be 140 by now--told me I could be a lot of things in life, but that a college graduate wasn't one of them. But I had to finish college to coach at any decent level. So that's what I did."
Brock stifles a cough that's become nagging in recent weeks.
"You know," he says, "it just doesn't matter what people think you are or what you can be. Who cares, anyway? It comes down to how well you think you can do and how well you do, and are your goals important enough for you to reach them. To me, the goal of coaching was overwhelming. That's it, men."
Brock moves away from the microphone, but returns with a final thought.
"You might wonder, why was it baseball for me?" he says. "Simple. No sport in the world comes close to it."
The Sun Devils are having their last practice at Packard before the long trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, for the regionals. The NCAA has rated ASU third-best of the six teams there, behind host Tennessee and North Carolina State.
Coach Brock knows Tennessee will be tough to beat at home. But he's confident his squad can do it.
His long-maligned pitching staff is peaking.
Noah Peery is still Noah Peery, exasperating but tough to beat. Kaipo Spenser, a walk-on freshman from Hawaii, is unbeaten in nine decisions. Billy Neal is rock-solid, as is Jason Bond. And senior relievers Eric Vindiola and a fellow with the all-world name Travis Gribbler have provided quality innings.
Perhaps best of all, catcher Todd Cady is hitting the ball solidly again after struggling following his in-season knee operation.