By Jack Williams
Two weeks before the start of a new baseball season, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets already are making headlines-in grand slam fashion. And get this! The bases are loaded. Maybe the best is yet to come.
For starters, Tech earned the nation’s No. 1 ranking in three separate pre-season polls, those conducted by Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball and the USA Today coaches’ poll.
Then Tech assistant coach Mike Trapasso scored with a headline of his own when he was ranked No. 1 by Baseball America on a list of the nation’s outstanding assistant coaches.
Meanwhile, Jacket head coach Danny Hall, looking ahead to the season, said the No. 1 ranking-considered a hex by many coaches-suits him just fine.
“The only pressure from a ranking is that which you put on yourself,” Hall said. “The polls create a lot of publicity for our program, and that is just fine with me.”
The Yellow Jackets won 50 games last year and finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation. They return almost their entire club, led by reigning College Player of the Year, third baseman Mark Teixeira.
“I like our team,” Hall said. “I don’t see any real weaknesses. The key, however, will be chemistry. We have good depth and every time we post a lineup, some players are going to be disappointed. How well our players react for the team’s sake will be a key.”
The Jackets will kick off a new season Feb. 9 against Lamar in the Rice Invitational at Houston, Texas. Tech also plays host Rice and Nebraska, both ranked in the top 10 in the country, in that event.
Prior to that competition, the Jackets will get things going on the home front with the annual Baseball Benefit Dinner at the Atlanta Hilton on Feb. 2. Popular ESPN major league baseball analyst Peter Gammons will be the featured speaker. Cost for the banquet is $65 per person or $585 for a table of 10, and ticket information is available by calling 404-894-4400.
Also scheduled that weekend is the annual Georgia Tech Alumni Game and cookout at 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 3 at Russ Chandler Stadium. Admission to the game is free, but there is a charge of $7 for the cookout.
As Tech continued preparations for the new season this week, Hall took time out to hail Trapasso’s selection as the nation’s best assistant. “He’s very deserving,” Hall said. “People in college baseball have taken notice of how well he recruits and evaluates players.”
Trapasso serves as Tech’s recruiting coordinator and pitching coach. He’s a former star pitcher at Oklahoma State who twice led the Cowboys to the College World Series and later pitched in the Braves’ and Cardinals’ pro organizations.
He calls the Baseball America honor “really humbling. I know a lot of the other coaches on that list,” he said. “I see them at professional showcase camps and see how hard they work. It was a surprise to be selected, but a really outstanding honor.”
There is no question that Trapasso’s work in the field of recruiting has paid rich dividends for the Jackets. Tech’s recruiting class of 1998 (today’s juniors) was rated the best in the country, and the Tech recruiting list has been ranked 16th or better each of the last five years.
Trapasso thinks the newest recruiting class, which will enroll next fall, could possibly be one of the best. “We have signed 16 players, eight from Georgia and eight from other states, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, California, Arizona, Tennessee, Ohio and North Carolina,” he said. “I’m proud of this group. A few of them may decide to sign instead with the pros. If on the day classes start, we get 11, 12 or 13 of those committed, it would be similar to the class when Mark Teixeira and the other juniors came in.”
In his recruiting assignment, Trapasso estimates he spends 55 of the roughly 75 summer days on the road, visiting showcase camps conducted by the pros, and summer league games. “There are so many showcases, you could hit one every weekend,” he said.
Trapasso says Tech, after talking with players and their parents, concentrates its efforts on players who show interest in academics and the college experience. “The key is to find guys who are ultimately going to attend college,” he said.
Hall says, “I tell prospects Georgia Tech is their insurance policy-that an education here will serve them well for the next 40 or 50 years. We try to stay away from the players whom we feel will be a first or second round draft pick. They obviously are going to get a lot of money to sign. We go after players at the next level.”
One of Tech’s most promising new recruits is one who initially got away. Right-handed pitcher Brian Sager transferred to Tech last August from Stanford and is expected to be in the Jackets’ starting rotation.
“He’s a fine addition who eventually will be a first round draft pick by the pros,” Hall said. “He has worked hard here and is a Dean’s List student in the classroom.”
Trapasso points out that Tech recruited Sager out of high school in Brandon, Conn. When he chose Stanford. “He pitched well for two seasons at Stanford, then we read in Baseball Anerica that he might transfer to Noirth Carolina,” Trapasso said. “We contacted him after getting notice of his release from Stanford. He ultimately visited Carolina, Georgia Tech, LSU, Texas and South Carolina. Then he chose Tech.”
Trapasso says Sager is capable of replacing Cory Vance, last season’s biggest winner at 13-3 and one of the only key losses from 2000. “Brian has that kind of talent,” Trapasso said.
All of Tech’s pre-season accolades actually will mean very little when the season gets under way and the Jackets go to war in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference.
“The ACC will be a shootout again,” Hall said. “Clemson has most of its leading players back from a team that went to the College World Series. Florida State is Florida State. Wake Forest had great pitching last season and all of them are back. Also, some one may come out of the pack and challenge for the championship. Last year, our Georgia Tech team was not picked to finish first. But we won both the regular season and the tournament championships.”
“It doesn’t matter so much where you are slotted to finish,” said Trapasso. “You have to do it on the field.”
Tech hopes to do it with a fine array of talent. The list of key players is long-starting with Teixeira, and going down the line to second baseman Richard Lewis; catcher Bryan Prince; shortstop Victor Menocal; first baseman Derek Goffena; outfielders Jason Basil, Brad Stockton and Matthew Boggs, returning from the injured list; and pitchers Rhett Parrott, Steve Kelly and Jeff Watchko.
Baseball at Georgia Tech has been a headline sport for many years and has produced some of the game’s greatest stars. Proof positive – current major leaguers Nomar Garciaparra, Kevin Brown, Jason Varitek, Jay Payton, Marc Pisciotta, Jim Poole, Darren Bragg and Kris Wilson all attended Tech.
Now comes a new team with new stars, shooting for the same old goal– a trip to the College World Series where champions are crowned.