We go along thinking there are no surprises left. We think we have seen it all. And then a baseball coach like Jim Brock comes along. Without sermonizing, he teaches us a whole new definition of courage.
Jim Brock was an uncommon man. He was not, however, a private man--and many times, by his own design, not exactly a lovable man. But there was never any doubt that he was his own man, and would live his life by his own standards.
He sought excellence. He treasured the limelight. He was willing to pay the price for both.
For the past few weeks, Brock's truly valorous battle with cancer has mesmerized us all. He has shown the fortitude that many coaches only talk about in their pregame perorations.
I come from an era that has long since become cynical about pleas to "win one for the Gipper." We know from experience that life isn't like that.
But when Jim Brock's own life was on the line, he demonstrated the chutzpah to battle death right down to the wire. In doing so, he did not deliver brave speeches or pep talks. He merely showed up in the dugout at Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series. The only bow that this man who belonged in the intensive-care ward gave to death was to sit in a slightly more comfortable chair.
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It is common for sportswriters to illustrate courage in terms of a batter homering in the ninth inning or a quarterback throwing a last-second touchdown pass. What they are addressing, however, is only fun and games. They like to pretend these games are a preparation for real life.
Jim Brock's record shows he was one of the greatest college-baseball coaches of all time.
But the members of this last team that he coached into the College World Series won't remember Brock for anything he said to them about hitting behind the runner or the importance of being in top physical condition. They will remember him as a man who thought enough about his job to hop on an airplane and fly to Omaha even though he had only days to live. He showed them that there are things in life that are important enough to risk your life for. Many of this year's Arizona State University players won't make it to the major leagues. But they certainly learned from Brock some qualities of life they will never forget. He taught them how to die like major leaguers. There was nothing the ASU baseball coach enjoyed more than expressing irreverent thoughts into a radio microphone after an ASU baseball game. Most coaches specialize in platitudes. They are plodders. They do not dare rock the boat. Brock was more like a modern Casey Stengel. He disdained becalmed waters, and did everything he could to make waves. He spoke wittily and often acerbically. The words came fast, because he was amazingly quick-witted. Many people missed the point. But if you listened, there was always a wild skein of the humorous about everything he had to say. He was Archie Bunker with a heart. Jim Brock strode his own path on this Earth, and willingly accepted the consequences of his actions. I remember when he became embroiled in a battle with the Arizona Republic back in 1985 about reports that he had hired a psychiatrist to treat ASU baseball players who had trouble hitting the curve ball. It was reported that the doctor had been prescribing a substance named Nardil for hitters whose average dropped below acceptable levels. The story, when you thought about it for a few minutes, was much ado about nothing. These days, we have become just as excited about people taking a feel-good drug named Prozac. Brock, however, decided to strike back at the powerful Republic, because no one else in the ASU administration dared to do so. Later that week, when his Sun Devil baseball team went out to play at Southern California, Brock refused to put on his baseball uniform or sit in the dugout with the players. He announced that he was not going to take any more abuse from the newspaper. He referred to the Republic as the National Enquirer and described it as "a yellow rag." After ASU won the game, Brock admitted, however, that even though he didn't get into uniform, he had run his club from behind the scenes. There was one thing you had to understand about him: He was never a man to hide his achievements. He was quite willing to take credit when he felt it was his due. Later that day, Brock announced that he had no intention of ever putting on an ASU uniform again. "I'm going to go home and mow my lawn, trim my bushes and sit in my Jacuzzi," Brock announced with finality. Once again, Brock's remarks made the front page of the newspaper. He enjoyed making calculatedly outrageous statements, but he had the spirit to back them up. Brock's determination not to put on his uniform was short-lived. It lasted only until that evening, when Bill Denney, the television sports guy, stuck a microphone in his face. By that time, Brock had totally changed his mind. He was staying on the job. "As far as I am concerned," Brock said, "if I lose my job, it will be because I am fired, and I will go out screaming and yelling." We now know how Brock eventually went out. He marched off the stage only after providing college baseball with its most memorable World Series of all time. I may be stretching, but in some respects, Brock was the George Bernard Shaw of college-baseball coaches. He did not win a Nobel Prize or write acerbic plays and prefaces in which he excoriated bunkum and pretense. What Jim Brock did was assemble incredibly gifted high school athletes and turn many of them--63 by the latest count--into major league baseball players. And while they were under his tutelage, he ran their lives with an iron hand, bending them to his will, convinced that his way was the proper one. Some things must have surprised Brock. He must have wondered sometimes why his salary was never higher than it was. During all those years at ASU, he was the coach who achieved true excellence over the longest period of time. But baseball is not a big moneymaking sport. So his remuneration was always truly modest when you consider he was--by any measurable standard--just about the best baseball coach in the entire country.
Jim Brock was the last of the Golden Age of coaches at ASU that consisted of Frank Kush in football, Ned Wulk in basketball and Baldy Castillo in track. When all four were working on the campus at the same time, the Sun Devils were truly something special. Kush was the first to go. Then Wulk and Castillo. And now Brock. Our memories are short. Already, all we can visualize is that empty chair in the dugout at the College World Series.