JIM BROCK LIVED FOR BASEBALLIN HIS FINAL DAYS, HE GOT ASU TO THE COLLEGE WORLD SERIES
Editor's note: Staff writer Paul Rubin followed Arizona State University's baseball team from opening day in January until the last out at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, three weeks ago. Coach Jim Brock--who died of cancer on June 12, four days after his team's season ended--allowed New Times unprecedented access to his program. Rubin's first story (Brock Solid," May 25) told of Brock's life. This piece describes the 1994 season, in which the Sun Devils tied for third in the nation.
The old baseball coach sits motionless in his chair, appearing sadly fragile. He is running on fumes now, his body wracked with liver and colon cancer that will snatch his life in just eight days.
But one inning into Arizona State's opening game at the College World Series in Omaha, Jim Brock senses things aren't right with his team.
He gestures the Sun Devils to his side before they bat in the second inning against Miami, a team rated the nation's best.
"Guys," the coach says in a raspy whisper, "just because you're here and you're excited doesn't mean you're up for this."
Everyone is packed in tight, but only those closest to Brock can hear him.
"We're coming off the big win at the regional, and it's tough getting back to that level of intensity," he continues. "But don't assume because the stakes are so high here that you're ready to go. You're not where you have to be yet. Move it up a notch."
The coach leans back and closes his eyes, spent by the effort.
The story of Brock's illness has gone national, transcending the games at beautiful Rosenblatt Stadium. It's straight out of Hollywood: Coaching Legend With Cancer Takes Team to Big Tourney.
After months of slow recovery from cancer surgery in July 1993, Brock's health took a nose dive in March. Those close to him wondered privately how much more his ravaged body could take. But the coach willed himself to make it to Omaha. Now that he's here, he wants badly to take the title, as he did in 1977 and 1981.
The 14,041 in attendance on this humid Saturday afternoon and those watching nationwide on CBS are caught up in the drama. They know what it means for the 57-year-old coach to have returned to his mecca once more.
In his talk with the team, he has conveyed a simple but sophisticated concept. While Brock may be sick, dying even, his mind remains agile. The players take his instruction to heart. Shortstop Randy Betten, for one, recognizes he has to focus on the game--not on the big crowd, not on the thrilling fact that he's playing at the College World Series and not on Coach Brock's plight.
Energized, ASU scores once in the second, then blows the game open in the fourth. Catcher Todd Cady hits a two-run homer, and first baseman Damon Lembi follows with a solo shot.
Left fielder Billy McGonigle wows the crowd by throwing out a Miami runner trying to score in the sixth. Billy Neal hurls shutout ball for seven innings. In the eighth, however, pitching coach Bill Kinneberg goes out to replace the tiring Neal with ace reliever Noah Peery.
The Devils mill around the pitcher's mound as Peery jogs in. One of them is third baseman Antone Williamson, an all-American who is a mix of Dennis the Menace and Pete Rose. He says something that causes his teammates and the usually stoic Kinneberg to crack up.
Later, the pitching coach and some of the players told what went on. Williamson, a lantern-jawed wise guy, had looked around at his teammates and then blurted out, "You know, I'm the best-looking son of a bitch out here."
As Brock looked on, a small smile played across his sunken face. He knew the Devils had found their focus.
ASU beats Miami 4-0.
Brock's wife of 38 years, Patsey, and their two grown children head down to the dugout immediately after the game. Pat Brock helps Jim up the steps into a waiting golf cart, a poignant and painful moment for those who see it.
Four decades and some 2,000 games after he first coached an American Legion team in Phoenix, Jim Brock leaves a baseball diamond for the last time.
Opening day is three weeks away, but the Sun Devils are hungry to get started.
Sportswriters have pegged ASU for the middle of the Six-Pac conference, not a glowing prediction for the college-baseball powerhouse.
Hitting the ball shouldn't pose a problem. Antone Williamson, center fielder Jacob Cruz and catcher Todd Cady will surely put up big numbers if they stay healthy. The Sun Devils are also counting on Scott Shores, Todd Delnoce and Sean Tyler to improve after inconsistent years in 1993.
The infield appears solid, with Williamson, Cody McKay at shortstop, and highly touted junior-college transfers Randy Betten and Damon Lembi at second and first base, respectively.
But doubts surround the pitching staff. Of the 13 pitchers on the 1994 roster, only Noah Peery won for ASU last season, with six of the team's 46 victories. The Devils will seek a starting rotation from a group that includes a freshman from Hawaii named Spenser, a junior with an iffy shoulder named Neal and three guys named Jason.
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.
"We've got 55 games to go, and I'm just totally embarrassed with this team," the coach says, loud enough for those in nearby seats to hear. "We've got nine players out there--or most of them--who aren't into it. We've got three times the physical talent of that team, and you know it. That doesn't mean shit. If baseball isn't something that turns you on, get out of it now, before it causes you a lot of grief. It's sunny out, goddamnit!"
The game ends in a 22-5 ASU blowout.
The Six-Pac opener against preseason favorite Southern Cal is a day away. League play is when the games really start to matter, and Jim Brock tinkers with a few things at a Thursday-night practice.
He warns the squad about USC's hidden-ball trick, which works about once per year. And he says he'll be giving the hitters their signs this weekend in place of third-base coach John Pierson.
"I didn't know if I'd be strong enough," Brock tells his team, outside the ASU dugout at empty Packard. "For now, I am.
"Okay. This is an extremely competitive conference, and no one runs away with anything. A game is one of 30 we're going to play, not the Super Bowl. Some ball games you just can't win. Some games you play terrible and still win."
Brock states the obvious--that the Sun Devils are riddled with injuries. Cody McKay's arm isn't getting any better and Todd Delnoce is on crutches with a torn ligament. Todd Cady hurt his right knee in a collision at home plate the previous weekend at Florida State. And the pitching staff is in flux.
"If this has to happen, I like it happening early in the year," the coach says, trying to put the best spin on things. "We'll get better, I promise you."
Brock pauses--he's a great one for theatrical pauses.
"I could get you sky-high and charging out of here."
"But I won't. What was that saying we came up with in fall ball?"
"Oh, I remember. 'One at a time.'"
Brock seeks out pitcher Jason Verdugo, also a quarterback on the ASU football team.
"Yes, I know, Jason, we stole that one from our esteemed football coach."
"Well, he's 12-10 over the last two years. I know we can do better than that."
His team feels comfortable enough with its coach to laugh.
Coach Brock meets with Todd Cady and orthopedic surgeon Norman Fee in the ASU dugout during an afternoon practice. Cady's knee has continued to bother him, even though he played on it gingerly during the USC series.
Dr. Fee has come to Packard with bad and good news: There's torn cartilage in the knee, yes, but it's not as bad as it could be.
"As an athlete, will I need the operation at some time?" Cady asks the doctor. He's a 220-pound power hitter who had expected to turn professional for a substantial sum after a showcase junior season.
"Yes," the doctor replies, "though I never outright recommend surgery. I put out the options and we discuss them."
Brock scans his team's upcoming schedule. The next three weeks include games against lesser teams, at least on paper. He asks Fee if Cady could be back at full strength in, say, a month.
"Without complications, certainly," the doctor says.
Brock turns to his player, who is trying to maintain his composure.
"If we're going to win this, Todd," the coach says, "we need you--simple as that."
He is referring to the national championship. Cady is a laid-back Southern Californian, but he's also a team leader with maturing baseball tools.
"Catchers with bum knees don't make it long on any level," Brock continues. "We can make this the best of all possible worlds for all of us. I want to talk with your dad. This is a very important time for you professionally. I know you're thinking of going out there to make a living after the season. This way, you clean the thing out and start fresh."
Afterward, Cady sits alone in the dugout, a towel draping his head. The next day, he undergoes arthroscopic surgery and is out of the lineup for just three weeks.
But it will take Cady until the end of the season to truly get his hitting stroke back.
The ASU coaching staff meets at Jim Brock's office after most weekends during the season to assess its team's recent performances.
Present today are Brock, assistant coaches Bill Kinneberg and John Pierson and recruiting coordinator Scott Goldby.
The Sun Devils are coming off a difficult weekend in Palo Alto, California, where Stanford beat them in two of three games at Sunken Diamond. ASU's record stands at 11-7, 3-3 in the Six-Pac.
A prime concern is left-hander Jason Bond, a poised freshman out of Phoenix St. Mary's High. Bond had to leave early in a game versus Stanford because of soreness in his pitching shoulder. If it's serious, an already shaky staff would be decimated.
There have been bright spots among the pitchers. Noah Peery carried ASU to its win at Sunken Diamond with six innings of shutout ball.
A senior from Glendale, Peery is straight out of the cuckoo's nest. He paces the mound after each pitch like an expectant father, trying, he says, to psych himself up. But he will soon become the most-hated player in the Six-Pac, because the other teams are convinced he's trying to show them up.
Brock has tried to tame Peery. He ordered the right-hander to run 40 miles in ten-miles-per-day increments a few weeks earlier after Peery taunted a Southern Cal player after getting him out. But Peery remains a feral creature on the mound whom the coach will tolerate as long as he keeps pitching well. Coming off shoulder surgery, junior right-hander Billy Neal has also been a pleasant surprise. He is much quieter than Peery, but is just as fierce a competitor.
"Could Billy give us maybe five to seven innings?" Brock asks Kinneberg. "Are you thinking of starting him?"
"I'm going in that direction, Coach," Kinneberg replies. "It depends on Bond's condition."
"I think we have only a few guys at this point who should seriously be considered starters," Brock concludes. "Billy Neal is one of them."
Brock soon turns to John Pierson.
"Who do you feel good about and who worries you?" Brock asks the hitting coach.
"Right now, I don't feel good about anybody, Coach," Pierson replies, not kidding. "This team has to get better at execution. We don't have the strength with this bunch to count on doubles and homers. That's in the past."
Brock mentions a few things that happened at Palo Alto.
"I heard three excuses this weekend that were all-timers," he says. "The hit-and-run with Jake [Steinkemper] that he misses because, quote, 'My head was down.' 'No, it wasn't. It was up your ass.' And Randy Betten, who I love, almost gets caught off base on a drag bunt because, quote, 'I saw the ball on the down angle,' not realizing it was on a down angle into the catcher's glove. And there's Vindy [pitcher Eric Vindiola] saying he was throwing poorly because the pitching rubber was crooked."
Brock's wry delivery is like that of a standup comic, but no one's laughing. Pierson's analysis concludes with Antone Williamson, a player with intense pressure on him to perform well because of his national reputation.
"I still think the best is yet to come with Toner," Pierson says. "He's no great shakes yet, but he's holding his own, and he was nails at the end of last season. I think he can do it again."
Pierson, as it turns out, is on the money.
The Sun Devils' record--24-10 (7-5 in the Six-Pac)--is on the upswing, even with the wafer-thin pitching staff. But Coach Brock's health is fading as his team gains strength.
Brock attended the three weekend games at Packard against the University of California. But he was too ill to give much input, and he left with his wife immediately after the last pitch of each contest.
Since the coach's new health problems have come to light, his top assistants, Kinneberg and Pierson, have taken on added responsibilities.
"We all have to do our jobs whether he's here or not," Kinneberg says after a practice. "Coach low-keys it, but the team senses how he's feeling probably as much as anybody. Our job is keep them focused on baseball, because that's the way it is. I just wish he'd beat this damned thing."
The top assistants' relationships with Brock are strictly professional, built on mutual respect and not friendship. But the two men didn't consider bailing on Brock after he got sick with cancer in the summer of 1993.
"I didn't know what his status would be for this season," Kinneberg says, "but I wasn't going to leave him behind. It would have been unfair and wrong."
Assistant coach John Pierson is an ex-minor leaguer who has made the science of hitting a baseball his life's work. Though he is capable of memorable tantrums, Pierson is usually a patient technician who dissects and improves his batters' swings. This season is his second at ASU after a dozen years in a similar capacity at Grand Canyon University.
Bill Kinneberg has been an accomplished head coach in his own right. He piloted the University of Texas--El Paso to the best mark in the school's history in 1985, then won almost 60 percent of the time in seven seasons at the University of Wyoming.
Jim Brock first came into contact with Kinneberg in the late 1970s, when Kinneberg pitched against the Sun Devils as--gasp--a University of Arizona Wildcat.
Kinneberg recalls those days of trepidation:
"You have an image of the ASU program, and it's one of respect and fear. I grew up watching the UA-ASU series, and I wanted to play in it since I was a little kid. In 1978, ASU was really good--scary good. When I went to the mound that first time at Packard, I couldn't perform. I still remember how my body felt, shaking and quivering."
The position of ASU pitching coach opened up in the fall of 1992, after Kinneberg's predecessor was arrested in a bizarre burglary episode. Kinneberg jumped at it, though it meant a return to an assistant's role.
"It's an invaluable learning experience in a longtime topflight program," Kinneberg says. "Beyond that, I desperately want to win a national championship, and ASU has a legitimate shot at it every year."
Kinneberg has studied Brock's coaching methods intently.
"There's so much more detail than just putting a team on the field," he says. "The thing I most admire about Coach is his work ethic--it's second to none--his organization and his attention to detail. Someday, I'd like to try to run a program like this."
As a head coach, Kinneberg played it pretty much by the book. But Brock has always been willing to take unorthodox chances.
"It's amazing how he'll make a certain call and it will work," Kinneberg says. "His success when he goes against the laws of baseball happens too much to be called luck. "The biggest thing that alerted me to it was last year. It's bottom of the ninth against UofA, and the bases are loaded. Big game. We're down three. He wants to pinch-hit for Todd Cady with Sal Cardinale.
"He says, 'Todd's not gonna do it tonight, and we need a homer.' But Sal? He's the most unlikely guy in the world to hit one. Boom! Over the left-field wall. His one ding for the year."
The Arizona Wildcats are suffering through their worst baseball season since the program started in 1904. But the rivalry with ASU remains intact as the Sun Devils travel to Tucson for a Friday-night game.
Brock, too wobbly to take the bus with his team, drives down with his wife. Before the game at Sancet Field, veteran Wildcat coach Jerry Kindall comes by to check on his old rival's welfare.
"Jim, are you making it okay?" asks Kindall, a genteel man who, like Brock, is a born-again Christian. They have counseled each other over the years during personal crises.
"It's not great, Jerry, not great," Brock replies. "This has been one hell of an experience."
After Kindall leaves, Brock recalls--almost longingly--the days when Arizona fans hurled "liquids, solids, nails and other strange objects" at him when he'd leave the dugout.
That won't be happening tonight. Attendance is sparse, and the ASU fans are making more racket than anyone.
But this turns out to be one of those games ASU is destined to lose. Billy Neal has become ASU's most consistent pitcher. He's not sharp this time out, and leaves in the fourth inning down 4-0.
"Tough night, Bill," Brock tells the disappointed Neal. "Shake it off and put it behind you."
The Wildcats extend their lead to 8-0 after five innings. Brock decides to have a word with his team.
"Guys, there's no excuse for swinging at pitches in the dirt all night," he says testily. "I want you to be aggressive early in the count, swinging at strikes, however this thing comes out."
Designated hitter Sean Tyler promptly takes two pitches over the heart of the plate for strikes.
"That's what I mean," Brock says sarcastically, loud enough for Tyler to hear in the batter's box. "That's real aggressive. Take the first two. C'mon, guys! Make the adjustment! Be the hitters you are!"
After Tyler strikes out, Antone Williamson taps weakly to second. Back in the dugout, Toner angrily clears out the helmet rack. Brock waits a few seconds, then tells him he's out of the game. Williamson throws his glove to the ground and cusses at nothing in particular.
"Try to just slow yourself down, Antone," the coach tells him.
The final score is UofA 8, ASU 2. The Wildcats celebrate as if they've won the national championship. It's the best moment in their sorry season, and the nadir for the Sun Devils'.
Brock orders his team to left field for a postgame chat before the long bus ride back to Tempe. Everyone expects a vintage butt-chewing, but they don't get one.
"I have no big concerns with this," he says. "I don't really have any answers for what happened. It wasn't a dog-shit effort. If anything, you're pressing too hard, though a few of you are going to have to deal with technical things.
"I think you're a group that wants very much to win. You're not failing because you have a brain injury and your motor skills have vanished. You've just turned the pressure up so much, your natural, God-given ability isn't there. I'm not going to yell and scream at you for that. The big picture with this team--and please, please trust me on this--is pretty damned good."
Brock stands there in the outfield clapping his hands as his team trudges by him to the waiting bus.
ASU will win ten of its next 13 Six-Pac games to force a showdown for the league championship against Stanford.
It's come down to the final game of the regular season. ASU and Stanford have excellent 20-9 marks in the Six-Pac, and are in a winner-take-all situation on this blazing Sunday afternoon in Tempe.
A win by the Sun Devils will likely mean they'll host a regional tournament in two weeks. The winner of the regional will earn one of eight coveted berths at the College World Series in Omaha.
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.
Brock talks with Jeanne Redondo as he watches his team work out. She is an ASU fast-pitch-softball player who dates Sun Devil center fielder Jacob Cruz. Redondo is unhappy with her program and plans to transfer to Arizona.
Brock patiently considers her projected move.
"We hate to lose anyone like you at ASU, Jeanne," the coach tells her, "but you do what you have to. Talk to my wife, okay? She'll let you know how much time you'll cost yourself by going."
The coach appreciates the positive influence Redondo has had on Cruz, a junior all-American. It's been a long road for Cruz since he came here from his native Oxnard, California, three years ago. Then, he was a shy, immature, out-of-place boy. These days, it all looks so easy for the now-glib Cruz, with his sweet swing and the way he glides to balls in the outfield.
But at heart, he's an ambitious 21-year-old who hungers for success in pro ball--for himself and for his family.
Jeanne Redondo leaves to speak with Pat Brock, who's up in the stands. Out of nowhere, the coach turns to other matters.
"I've got so much damned chemo in me right now, I can't possibly die," Brock says. "I've made it this far personally, and we've made it this far as a team. May as well take the next step."
He's talking about Omaha, Nebraska.
The final step to the College World Series is, naturally, the hardest.
ASU falls behind unknown Western Carolina 5-0 in its opening game, which takes place over two days because of rain. But the Sun Devils have become a team on a mission.
ASU comes back to beat Western Carolina, then defeats Wright State.
The Sun Devils go on to beat Tennessee 10-5 in the biggest game of the season to that point. Todd Cady hits a monster home run to break a tie in the late innings. Jacob Cruz and Scott Shores add homers.
Now it's Championship Monday, Memorial Day, and a rematch with Tennessee, which has battled back to a spot in the finals.
If ASU wins, it's off to Omaha. If the Vols win, they force a championship game against the Sun Devils.
The score is tied after nine innings. Kaipo Spenser has thrown the game of his life, but Noah Peery blew a 4-0 ASU lead by giving up a grand slam in the eighth.
The blast has mightily revived the Vols and their sellout crowd. Two home runs by Todd Cady earlier in the game are all but forgotten.
The Sun Devils don't want to have to play another game. The momentum would be all Tennessee's. And ASU is out of quality starting pitchers.
With the game on the line, Noah Peery shows why he's won or saved more than half of ASU's wins this season. Somehow, he squeezes out of yet another jam as the game heads into extra innings.
Tennessee stays with its all-American pitcher R.A. Dickey with ASU's Sean Tyler on second base in the bottom of the tenth. Antone Williamson rips the first pitch into the left-center gap. Tyler scores easily.
The Devils win, 5-4.
The regional champions roll around the field in celebration.
They're going to Omaha.
Brock accepts the congratulations of his assistants. Pat Brock rushes into the dugout and embraces her husband. They are crying.
The exhausted coach wants to address his team.
"You showed a lot of heart today and all season, men," Brock says. "I knew you could do this. I'm very proud of you. Thank you."
It is the morning of ASU's second-round game against the Oklahoma Sooners. Jim Brock rests in his hotel room, trying to conserve what little strength he has left.
The coach's personal battle has become the big story of this tournament. The staff at ASU's hotel has placed two bulletin boards in its lobby, and the boards are covered with dozens of faxed messages of support to Brock and the team.
Columnists from magazines and newspapers from around the nation are writing about Brock. Ira Berkow, the wonderful scribe from the New York Times, is on his way to Omaha. He doesn't care a whit about the games being played, he says after he arrives. But the Brock saga is a natural.
Brock is well-aware of the magnet he has become. Normally, he loves the attention. But it's getting to be a bit much for him.
"Don't want this to be a side show," he says. "I just want to win a tournament."
Before going off to nap, the coach takes a moment to discuss ASU's next opponent. Brock rolls his eyes when the name of Oklahoma relief pitcher Bucky Buckles comes up. Buckles is sure to pitch tonight if the game is tight in the later innings.
It irks Brock how close Buckles had been to becoming a Sun Devil this year, signing a letter of intent and enrolling in classes at Mesa Community College.
Buckles knew he had to earn C's to gain admission to ASU, an institution not known as the Harvard of the Southwest. He got D's.
The low grades didn't bother Oklahoma, which welcomed Buckles and his 92-miles-per-hour slider with open arms.
"Dumb kid," Brock says, grunting. "Should have been a Sun Devil. Hope the bastard doesn't beat us."
The game is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. Brock is expected to arrive a few minutes before then. But about 15 minutes before the first pitch, Cathi Brock leans over a railing into the ASU dugout.
"Dad's not gonna make it tonight," she tells Bill Kinneberg, her hands shaking. "Mom got him here, but he got sick and he said he didn't think he could do it. He said to tell them to go out and kick butt."
Kinneberg calls the team over to tell it what's happening.
"Coach is sick and back at the hotel," he says, his voice steady. "It's his new medication. He said to battle your asses off like you never have before. To just keep it going."
Cathi Brock hands her father's lawn chair to someone, who sets it in a corner of the dugout. The coach's empty chair is pictured in countless newspapers, and becomes the most memorable visual image of the College World Series.
The game goes on, and it's a classic. Both teams have opportunities to blow it open, but clutch pitching and remarkable defensive plays keep it close throughout.
Billy McGonigle's over-the-shoulder catch in the first inning saves two runs. A great throw by the scrawny senior saves another later in the game. He has become a kind of folk hero in Omaha, the most popular player in the tournament.
The Sun Devils load the bases in the bottom of the sixth with the game tied 3-3. Scott Shores strikes out, but Sean Tyler rips a line drive into the left-center gap.
If Sooner center fielder Chip Glass can't catch up to it, at least two and probably three runs will score. But Glass stretches out horizontally, sticks out his glove at the last moment and makes the catch.
It's the play of the tournament.
Pitchers Bucky Buckles and Noah Peery are matched against each other as the game goes into extra innings. As usual, Peery is throwing well enough to get by, with a heart as big as Rosenblatt Stadium.
But as Jim Brock had feared, Buckles is magnificent. He may not be a wizard in the classroom, but he knows exactly how each Sun Devil hits.
In the 11th, Oklahoma manufactures a run via a walk, a sacrifice bunt, a passed ball on a miscommunication between Peery and Todd Cady, and a scoring sacrifice fly. The Sun Devils go quietly in their half of the inning.
Oklahoma 4, ASU 3.
The Sooners move to within two games of the national championship. ASU moves to within one game of elimination.
Kinneberg handles the postgame media blitz deftly. The game was as good as it gets in college baseball, he says, and it doesn't come across as a clich. He then goes back to the hotel to mull over the momentous day.
Kinneberg and the other ASU coaches suck down a few beers in a room and try to mend their broken spirits with gallows humor.
One floor up, Jacob Cruz sits on the edge of his bed, crushed by the loss and his own failure to get a hit. He has downplayed the effect of Brock's illness on him in press conferences. But now he admits he's pressing.
"The guy is feeling like shit, and I feel bad for him," Cruz says. "It's on my mind whether I like it or not. He's done a lot for me, and I want to pay him back."
Jim Brock is back in Arizona as ASU takes the field for an evening elimination rematch against Miami.
He's been flown back this afternoon by Air Evac, and at game time is in a bed at Desert Samaritan Medical Center in Mesa.
Family members say later that Brock smiles each time an ASU player hits a home run in the game. That means five smiles--another by Todd Cady and two each by Jacob Cruz and Antone Williamson.
The Sun Devils win 9-5, knocking the favored Hurricanes out of the tournament and earning the team a rematch with Oklahoma.
"Everyone wrote us off after last night," says Damon Lembi, the outgoing first baseman from northern California. "They thought, 'Oh, they'll never come back from such a tough loss and that their coach is gone.' But we don't have any quit in us right now."
The season is over.
Oklahoma has defeated ASU 6-1 to eliminate the Devils from the College World Series. The Sooners grabbed an early lead, and their big lefty, Mark Redman, kept the Sun Devils in check.
A career-best pitching effort by Travis Gribbler kept ASU close until the last inning. But the mood in ASU's dugout was strangely subdued during most of the game, and the Devils never caught fire.
Now that it's over, several players are tearful. Others, such as Jacob Cruz, choose to keep their emotions bottled up in public. The pressure on these young men and their coaches has been relentless. Now they can go home.
Four players and Bill Kinneberg suffer through the obligatory NCAA press conference.
"It's been a difficult time for all of us involved," Kinneberg says cogently. "But we battled, and that's about all anyone can ask for."
The end is near for Coach Brock. He hasn't spoken in the past 24 hours, just nodding occasionally when a family member asks him if he'd like water and ice.
But just after noon on this Saturday in Mesa, he looks over at his wife, who is keeping vigil next to his bed.
"Who won the championship?" he asks her.
Pat Brock reports that Oklahoma is beating Georgia Tech, 13-5, late in the game.
The coach closes his eyes.
Jim Brock soon slips into a coma, and dies peacefully the following evening.
The Milwaukee Brewers selected Antone Williamson as the fourth player in the professional draft. He is expected to become an instant millionaire, or close to it, when he signs with the Brewers. Todd Cady signed with the Florida Marlins for a reported $125,000 after the tournament. Jacob Cruz, selected 32nd in the draft, is expected to sign soon with the San Francisco Giants for an estimated $250,000. Other Devils, including Scott Shores and Noah Peery, have also moved on to the pros.
ASU's next head coach has not yet been selected.
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