Dec. 18, 2014
This is the second inning of my blog, “9 Innings”, which will be featured on RollTide.com. My purpose for writing this is to allow fans an inside look into the Alabama baseball program. When I thought of putting this blog out, I wanted to be sure that each installment would cover a wide range of topics, giving fans an inside look at things that only people close to the program can personally provide. I feel responsible for making sure that people involved with the program, past and present, are well-represented as we move forward together and continue to grow the Alabama baseball tradition.
The weather is changing, the semester has ended and the holiday season is nearing. As we move towards time with our family members and loved ones, I wanted to let you in on what family means to me, including my immediate family but also the Alabama baseball family. This program has a storied past with a bright future ahead, but I feel like our history and those that are a part of it mean just as much to Alabama baseball as those that will come along in the years ahead.
Crimson Tide Pros
I am so proud of the past players from this program who spent time in the majors this past year. It’s always great to see our former players succeed on the biggest stage, and it means a lot to me knowing that they represent this program at the highest level. Guys like Tommy Hunter, Jimmy Nelson and Wade LeBlanc all saw time with Major League Baseball teams that were in playoff contention during the 2014 season. Many of our other former players had success in the minors as they work their way up to the big show. For example, Taylor Dugas, who played at Alabama from 2009-12, had an excellent season in the minors for the Yankees. Dugas began 2014 in Double-A but eventually made his way to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he hit a solid .305 (53-174) with 17 RBI, 17 runs scored and 24 total walks over 57 contests for the Rail Riders.
One of the things I’m most proud of are the men who work their way to the MLB and then cement themselves in the starting lineup day in and day out. Guys like Alex Avila, Josh Rutledge and David Robertson are perfect examples of what I mean – players who can really get after it to put in the hard work, show what they’re worth to a club and make themselves valuable to a big league team. All three of them have been pretty active this offseason.
Avila finished 2014 with the Detroit Tigers, completing his sixth season the team’s primary backstop. The Tigers held a club option on Alex to keep him in Detroit for one more season, and they exercised that option on November 17, ensuring that the former All-Star and Silver Slugger would remain in Motown.
Rutledge proved his worth to clubs last season after he helped stabilize the Colorado Rockies’ infield following a season-ending injury to perennial All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Although Josh had huge shoes to fill, he made sure to help out wherever he could, playing second, short and third, as needed, across 105 games. His versatility and exceptional defensive skills made him a hot commodity at this season’s Winter Meetings, where he was eventually traded for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and will likely get a chance to start for the Halos come spring training.
Robertson has made a name for himself after taking on one of the hardest challenges in all of baseball: replacing a New York Yankee legend. David came on as the Yankees’ primary closer last season following the departure of all-time great Mariano Rivera, and established himself as one of the game’s top closers. Throughout the 2014 season, he maintained a 3.08 ERA and collected 39 saves. Known for his ability to hold a lead, Robertson decided to try his hand at free agency and that move paid off for him. The Chicago White Sox took note of David’s efforts during his time in the Bronx and signed the righty to a four-year, $46 million contract, which is the highest-paying deal an Alabama baseball alum has ever signed.
Regardless of the level of play or the amount of success guys have, anyone who came from this program represents us in a class way once they leave Tuscaloosa and I’m proud of that. The Alabama way and tradition that is a part of this program is something that means a lot to me, and I know this city, University and team mean a lot to our former guys. Many of them continue to come back regularly each year.
Former Players Return to the Capstone
Just as recently as November, those same guys who were a part of major off-seasons were right back here in Tuscaloosa. Robertson came back on November 21 to help give some hope to a veteran in Tuscaloosa. Through High Socks for Hope – a charity that he created to help with tornado relief efforts following the devastating storm that ripped through Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011 – David helped furnish an apartment at Valor Grove, a new transitional housing complex for homeless military veterans. With his donation, he helped change the life of someone who served our country, and it’s acts of kindness like this that make me proud to call David a member of the Alabama baseball family.
Following David’s visit, Avila and Rutledge returned to Tuscaloosa for the Iron Bowl. While here, both guys took some time out of their busy weekend to film a few quick videos to help sell tickets for this year’s 2015 team. Both were kind enough to find a couple of minutes to help out this year’s squad, a bunch of players they have never met, just because they know how much it means to the success of the program going forward. Helping out the whole program no matter the circumstances is what family is all about. Having that Alabama spirit and heart that has been preached over the years is what makes this program so great.
I’ve been lucky enough to partner up these past few years with former Alabama players in my offices and in the dugout, alumni who get what that “Alabama” across the jersey truly means. These coaches and personnel are the people who I consider my “family” that I get to come and work with each day. There is no one person or era that represents Alabama baseball; it’s a community of all the players from all eras that make up this great program.
My Baseball Family
Our entire baseball staff have very close ties to one another. As an assistant coach at the Capstone from 1995-2001, I was able to coach Dax Norris (1995-1996) and Andy Phillips (1996-1999), two guys who were All-American, standout players. That group of players we had here in the `90s had a lot of success and led us to three College World Series appearances. I saw the pride and passion those two had for the University, and when I returned in 2008 and became the head coach in 2009, having Dax and Andy alongside as assistants was a key to making sure we continued to preach the Alabama way. The other day, Dax told me that playing at Alabama was a dream come true for him as a player, and now we as coaches have the opportunity to show our players what it means to represent Alabama baseball. I know Andy feels the same way. Even after all his accomplishments as a professional, he still talks about how the great pride he took in representing Alabama as a player.
With some recent vacancies, I decided that I wanted to bring on more former Crimson Tide players who had a passion for the University and Alabama baseball. Nathan Kilcrease (2008-11) and David Kindred (2010-11) are just two more extensions of this Alabama staff that I am comfortable with because I know what their time here meant to them. In my first year as a head coach at Alabama, I had the opportunity to coach Nathan and David as players. Nathan was a standout pitcher who now serves as our volunteer assistant coach, and David was a key positional player in the lineup who is currently our director of baseball operations. Each day, both guys came to practice and put in the work that we expect while doing everything we asked of them. Their attitude and motivation is what made me want to bring them back to be a part of this family, and all of these coaches and staff are guys I am proud to work with.
The attitude and work ethic we bring to the office and field each day is something that we try to instill in our players. We want to build a culture with the new guys that helps them to not only recognize this program’s past, but also to create their own future. We’re always trying to build this team and help the guys mesh into one big family. From our yearly Christmas party to all the charity work we do in the offseason, each thing we do, we do as a unit. To me, building a belief in one another can create a strong bond within the team and help us to mold ourselves into a product anyone would be proud of. This whole staff understands that moving forward, the expectations and legacy of former players means a lot to this program, and continuing to stay connected with them is key. I believe we are all a part of this family, and I want our current guys to take ownership of this opportunity that they have to make their mark in Alabama baseball history.
Progress on the New Stadium
As we move forward with the development of the new baseball facilities, my staff and I hope that we can find ways to include anyone and everyone in the future that lies ahead. The construction outside continues each day, and the progress has become obvious. Moving into the winter break, our brand new hitting facility looks near complete. January 15, 2015, is our target date for the building’s completion. It is on that date that we should be ready as a team for indoor activities. The new facility will provide us with four lanes – one for pitching and three for hitting – while also giving us a game day workout area and new team offices. The multi-functional facility will feature retractable netting to allow for team gatherings and other functions to be hosted inside the structure, and we know that this new piece of the campus will only add to the beauty of Tuscaloosa and The University of Alabama.
The hitting facility is something that is not commonly seen at other college baseball stadiums. It is something that will provide us an edge in recruiting, in ticket sales and most of all in preparation to become the best possible team we can be. Our preparation is key and this hitting facility will give us a head start on the season as the weather gets colder. I have seen what these guys can do, and I can only hope that fans will get to witness those special things as well. I want you, the fans, to become a part of this Alabama baseball family. Although we will be in Hoover, nothing will change about the way our players play the game and the energy we bring to the field. This team will provide entertainment, playing each night with a passion and determination that is unparalleled. I ask that the fans come be a part of this team and help in creating an atmosphere around Alabama baseball that makes a special experience for the players, while also demanding respect from the other teams each time they come to visit Alabama.
Now that the fall semester has finally come to a close, the baseball season seems right around the corner. Before things get too wild with the new baseball year, I am most looking forward to taking some time off and spending this holiday season with my family at home. My wife Kim, along with my two daughters Brae and Paeton, mean the world to me. Although the Alabama baseball family is close to my heart, nothing can ever take the place of the ones I love the most. I hope that you, too, share these same feelings about your family, and get to have a joy filled holiday. Please take advantage of your time with loved ones this holiday season, and be sure to remember how blessed you are to have all those people in your life. I am thankful each and every day for the people that have come into my life, and I hope that you are too.
Please be safe as we move into the New Year. Nothing is more exciting than the new era of Alabama baseball that is upon us. This next season and following year will be nothing short of amazing, and I cannot wait to share it all with you. From my family at Alabama baseball as well as the Gaspard’s, happy holidays and Roll Tide!