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TGW: Mark of a Champion

By Jon Cooper | The Good Word

THE FLATS — Sometimes, one word is enough to rekindle the fires of great memories.

“Tex” is one such word.

Say “Tex” anywhere on the Georgia Tech campus — especially around Russ Chandler Stadium — and you’ll ignite a bonfire of recollections of Mark Teixeira’s days on The Flats.

From 1999-2001, Teixeira was a switch-hitting, bomber offensively with a smooth glove and powerful arm at third base. He’d win ACC and National Rookie of the Year in 1999, ACC and National Player of the Year the following season, First-Team All-ACC and All-America both years and even Academic All-America in 2000.

“Tex” would, fittingly, be selected by Texas with the fifth overall pick of the 2001 MLB Draft, and continue his excellence over the next 14 years. He’d play in three All-Star Games (including the 2005 Midseason Classic fellow Jackets alumnus Jason Varitek), and a World Series (2009, with the New York Yankees), win five Gold Gloves (all at first base), three Silver Sluggers, and a World Series ring.

Those three years at Tech earned Teixeira, who currently provides sharp, thinking-man’s takes as an analyst on ESPN — he also provides input on the Georgia Tech Board of Trustees and the Alexander-Tharpe Fund — induction into the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame in 2011 (his 14 in Arlington, Atlanta and the Bronx could earn him induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame as soon as 2022).

The best of those three years came in 2000, his sophomore year.

“It was one of the best years of my life,” “Tex” recalled. “I was having a blast. Our football team was great (the Jackets were 9-3, beat Georgia in Athens, 27-15, finished second in the ACC at 6-2, and No. 17/19 in the nation), I started dating my wife, I had an amazing season from a team standpoint and a personal standpoint and then went and played for Team USA that summer. So overall it was a spectacular year for me.”

Spectacular is no exaggeration.

Drafted with the fifth overall pick in 2001, Teixeira would play 14 years in the Majors, earning five Gold Gloves, three Silver Slugger Awards, three All-Star selections and one World Series Championship.

 

He set career-bests in batting average (.427), slugging percentage (.772), hits (103), extra-base hits (43), home runs (18), runs scored (104), runs driven in (80), and even stolen bases (13). His batting average, home runs, runs scored, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage led the ACC. He also led the team in hits, total bases, and tied for the team lead in triples (4), and and his batting average, slugging, hits, total bases, runs, and RBIs still rank in the program’s top-10 all-time — his runs still a program-best. As incredible, the slugger struck out only 23 times. He’d earn ACC Player of the Year, was First-Team All-ACC, Consensus First-Team All-America, won the Dick Howser Trophy (college baseball’s national player of the year), and was a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award (the country’s top amateur player).

All that individual glory was nice but always came second to team glory.

Of course, there was plenty of that, too.

The 2000 Jackets finished 50-16 (a .758 winning percentage that ranked third in the nation and ties for second for a Yellow Jackets team in the Danny Hall Era), 18-6 in ACC play (the .750 stands third among Hall’s teams), won the ACC regular-season championship (Hall’s second of five) and tournament championship (his first of five), spent two weeks as national No. 1 and hosted both a Regional (Tech’s third) and Super Regional (the school’s first).

While they came up short of getting to Omaha and the College World Series, Hall admits 2000 was still quite a fun ride with quite a good team.

20 years ago this year, Teixeira earned the Dick Howser Trophy (national player of the year) after leading the ACC in hitting, home runs, runs scored, slugging and on-base percentage.

 

“You always compare teams to the first team I coached that played for the national championship but I honestly thought THAT team was the best team I’ve had at Georgia Tech,” he said. “That team was so good and they’d worked so hard, they deserved the chance to go to Omaha. We just, unfortunately, ran into a red hot Southern Cal team in the Super Regionals.”

Teixiera was on a mission in 2000, looking to build on a freshman campaign that saw him win National Freshman of the Year, ACC Rookie of the Year, and First-Team All-ACC and a summer where he crushed in the Cape Cod Baseball League for the Orleans Cardinals, earning League Outstanding Pro Prospect.

Yet Hall noticed Teixeira’s biggest commitment had nothing to do with hitting.

“I think the biggest thing that he took a lot of pride in and wanted to get better at was his defense,” he said. “He just got in really good shape, got stronger. You can credit (Player Development Coach) Steve Tamborra for spending a lot of time working with him to get him strong. But Mark honed his craft. Everybody knew that he had a lot of power but he took it upon himself to try to be as good a defensive third baseman as he could possibly be.”

“From Day One, not only was he gifted talent-wise, but he had great work habits, he had great focus,” he added. “We were very fortunate that we got him to Georgia Tech. He turned down a lot of money in the draft out of high school but he knew exactly where he wanted to go and he knew how he was going to get there. He just stayed focused on that the whole time that he was in school.”

Teixeira didn’t need to look at numbers to know 2000 was a great year. He could feel it.

“I felt like I was going to get a hit every single time up. It felt like even the best pitchers couldn’t get me out. That’s just a fun place to be, in the batter’s box when you have that much confidence,” he said. “One of the fun things about baseball is that when you are in a zone or when you’re having success, the game really does become slow and easy. It’s still NOT an easy game but when you’re at the top of your sport and playing against the best in the country and you can perform, it’s a great feeling.”

Teixeira felt as good about his teammates.

“I loved our balance. We had such great starting pitching, relief pitching, our lineup was incredible — I think we had seven guys drafted from our starting nine,” he said. “And we truly enjoyed playing together. We felt like we were going to win every single game. We had that type of confidence. Winning breeds confidence. So when we got on that roll after the first few weeks every single game we showed up expecting to win.”

“Everybody knew coming in how good Mark was but (second baseman) Richard Lewis was kind of under the radar,” Hall said. “Victor Menocal was a high-profile shortstop prospect. We had two pitchers, Rhett Parrott and Steve Kelly, that were just outstanding. So he was surrounded with talent and I think they fed off of each other’s work ethic. They wanted to be the best.”

Teixeira joined ESPN as a baseball analyst after retiring from playing in 2016.

 

The Jackets roared out of the gate, winning eight of their first 10 games, but then experienced their first hiccup of the season. They dropped a pair to Georgia, and, in their opener at the Kia Baseball Bash in Fullerton, Calif., the 10th-ranked Jackets took 1-0 and 2-1 leads against No. 7 Southern California, but then would be handcuffed by Trojans starter Mark Prior, falling, 9-2. Rain would wash out the rest of the weekend.

The three-game losing streak, during which they were outscored 31-7, and a potential seven-day layoff didn’t sit well.

“We came back and tightened the screws on them a little bit to wake them up and get them focused again,” Hall recalled. “I think we hit the ground running once we came back from that trip.”

“We got sent back home on the red-eye and landed in Atlanta and went straight to practice at the ballpark,” Teixeira remembers. “You can imagine just how tired we were. We were cranky, like, ‘Coach Hall, why are you doing this to us?’ But it woke us up. He basically said, ‘We went all the way out there, got embarrassed, haven’t practiced in two days. We’re getting to work.’”

Teixeira calls that practice, and the team’s response to it, one of two defining moments of the season. The Jackets won four of their next five, including beating Georgia on March 14 in an 11-inning thriller in Athens — they’d even the season series with UGA with a 7-3 home win on April 25.

The other defining moment came three days after the Georgia win, in the ACC-opening series at Russ Chandler against North Carolina. The Tar Heels came in 21-0 — still the Heels’ school record for consecutive wins to start a season — with a team that ranks as one of the most potent offensive teams in their history.

The Jackets would sweep, sandwiching one-run wins (5-4 and 8-7) around a 16-3 rout.

“That was the weekend that we knew that we were as good as anybody in the ACC,” Teixeira said. “We knew how talented North Carolina was. That weekend gave us a lot of confidence.”

“They were loaded,” Hall said. “I remember that being a key series. Our guys looked at it like, ‘Hey, we think we’re better than them. They’re ranked No. 1 in the country coming in here and we’re going to prove that we ARE better than them.’”

Following that series, the Jackets won 18 of their next 20 games and headed into postseason on a 27-8 run (.771). They’d reach No. 1 in the country, on May 22 and stay there the final two weeks of the season. Still, they aspired for more.

“We really wanted to host a Regional,” Teixeira recalled. “That was very important to us.”

Teixeira’s terrific 2000 campaign on The Flats also garnered him ACC Player of the Year honors, as well as consensus first-team all-America and academic all-American selections as well as being a Golden Spikes Award finalist.

 

Tech showed that determination in the ACC Tournament, outscoring opponents, 42-21, in going 5-0. But there were challenges along the way, specifically two games with host Clemson.

In the quarterfinal, the Jackets trailed 7-0 after three innings, before forging a comeback and a dramatic, 9-8 walkoff win. Teixeira doubled in Tech’s first run, then doubled in the game-tying run in the two-run ninth. Longtime assistant coach and Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Famer (Class of 2014) Bryan Prince scored the winning run, when Clemson committed an error on a potential inning-ending double play.

The teams met again in the championship game, and, again, Tech came from behind, this time winning, 8-4. Teixeira had a two-run double in the seventh to tie the game at 4-4, redeeming himself for two errors in the field. It was satisfying to take down the Tigers, one of his potential suitors coming out of high school.

“Clemson always had such a great team and it’s an incredible program there,” Teixeira said. “A lot of us had visited Clemson. So I think there’s a little bit extra special meaning when you beat a team like Clemson that’s so close to Atlanta.”

The Jackets would get to host a Regional for the first time since 1993 and stayed on a roll, winning an 11-9 slugfest with Georgia Southern, then blowing away Stetson by a combined 40-12, to win the Regional. It was the first Regional victory since 1994, Hall’s first season at the helm and Tech’s first trip to the College World Series.

The ride would end in the Supers, however, when Southern California came to town and bested the Jackets, 7-2 and 6-3. Teixeira went 3-for-4 in the second game, but the Trojans’ pitching proved too much.

“Unfortunately, we had to face USC in the Super Regionals. It was just kind of a tough draw there with a really good team,” Teixeira remembered. “Prior was their No. 2 starter. Their No. 1 was Rik Currier, who was kind of a Zack Greinke type — just hit the corners, kept the ball down, really good college pitcher.”

Continuing to be involved at Georgia Tech, Teixeira (left) stands with Director of Athletics Todd Stansbury (middle) and head baseball coach Danny Hall (right).

 

Teixeira was rewarded for his season-long heroics by being named ACC Player of the Year, winning the Howser Trophy, and being named a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award. That summer, he played with Lewis on USA Baseball, leading the team in hitting, slugging, on-base percentage, hits, runs, RBIs, and tying in homers, including a pair of game-winning, extra-inning homers against Taiwan. He finished on a 23-game hitting streak and helped the U.S. to a 27-3-1 record.

Teixeira would leave for the Majors after an injury-shortened junior season, but his heart never left the Flats.

In 2014, he financed a $4.5 million renovation of the baseball locker room, in 2014, doubling its size. The new-look “Mark Teixeira Locker Room/Players Lounge” fittingly measures 2,000 square feet.

“I did not know that,” Teixeira said, with a laugh. “But that is very neat.

“Georgia Tech did so much for me,” he added. “Coach Hall believed in me, he gave me a scholarship after high school and put me in the starting line up on Day One. If it wasn’t for Georgia Tech I don’t think I’d be in the position that I am in life and have the career that I had. Because Georgia Tech was so good to me it’s very important for me to give back.”

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