A PHOENIX FROM THE ASHES: JOHN GRISHAM AND THE RISE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA BASEBALL PROGRAM
Only four teams remain in the hunt for a national title at this year’s College World Series in Omaha including: The Vanderbilt Commodores, the Texas Longhorns, the Ole Miss Rebels, and the Virginia Cavaliers (or “‘Hoos” as they are affectionately known to their fans). Sitting at 2-0 on their side of the CWS bracket, Ole Miss would need to beat Virginia on Saturday and again Sunday to prevent the ‘Hoos from reaching next week’s best-of-three championship series. The Virginia Baseball Program is at the pinnacle of college baseball and knocking on the door of immortality.
Whether it opens or not remains to be seen; however, the fact that Virginia is even in the vicinity of that door is an incredible resurrection story that has been authored by many individuals over the past 13 years. One of those authors is John Grisham. Yes THAT John Grisham.
In the fall of 2000, I was entering my second year of junior college baseball at Sacramento City College. Sac City was a nationally recognized baseball program that Baseball America tabbed as its Junior College Team of the Decade for the 1990’s. Unfortunately for me, I suffered from an extremely rare, unnamed disease that severely affected my playing time. The symptoms of this disease included going to class, a high GPA, and an even higher ERA. As such, much of my experience at Sac City was spent on the bench.
In October that year, I took several recruiting trips, including one to the University of Virginia. I didn’t care that the baseball field didn’t have lights, or that the stands and backstop resembled an abandoned little league diamond. After three days and two very late nights on the beautiful “grounds” of Thomas Jefferson’s University in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was hooked.
In November, I signed my letter of intent and prepared myself to depart in the summer of 2001. In the spring of 2001, however, I received a frantic call from Virginia’s pitching coach at the time, Chip Schaffner, letting me know that there might not be a baseball team at Virginia when I arrived on campus. I was 20 years old at the time, and would have to decide whether to forego my last two years of college baseball, and most likely of my life, to go to a University where I had spent less than 72 hours. Thanks to an unlikely source, I never had to make that difficult choice.
A Time to Kill
Around the turn of the century, the state-run University of Virginia was looking to make some budgetary changes. The University determined that its Athletics’ Department was operating at a deficit that was expected to reach upwards of $50 million by 2010. A task force was assembled by then University of Virginia President John Casteen to determine how best to handle that problem.
In 2001, the task force, which was composed largely of academic faculty, recommended arranging Virginia’s varsity sports into four separate tiers. Top tier sports, such as football, and men’s and women’s basketball, would continue to be fully funded and supported by the University. However, in lower-tiered men’s sports such as wrestling, golf, tennis, cross-country, and track and field, funding would be cut to only “need-based financial aid,” if not cut all together. Included on the task force’s chopping block was Virginia’s Baseball Program, which was relegated to the fourth-tier.
After some public uproar against the task force’s proposal, instead of cutting the baseball program, the University’s Board of Visitors chose instead to go in the exact opposite direction. The University set out to find donors to keep the baseball team alive in Charlottesville. The question was: Would any donors come forward?
As a child, American novelist John Grisham dreamed of being a professional baseball player. Although he never realized that childhood dream, his love of America’s national pastime permeated through his novels, his charitable donations, and even to his son, Ty. Ty Grisham was a two-sport star in high school, including being all-state in football, at St. Anne’s Belfield in Charlottesville, Virginia, where his family owned one of their two homes. The family’s second home was in Mississippi, where John went to college (Mississippi State) and law school (Ole Miss). At the time the University’s task force’s proposal to cut funding to the baseball program came out in 2001, Ty had already signed to play outfield for the ‘Hoos starting that same fall.
The Virginia Baseball Program was on life support. John Grisham, however, would not let it die before his son had a chance to play the game he loved since childhood. Just months after the task force’s proposal was shot down by the Board of Visitors, the University announced it would break ground on a new multi-million dollar baseball facility thanks in part to $2 million in “anonymous” donations. To those in the know, there was nothing anonymous about those donations. John Grisham stepped up to the plate and saved Virginia’s Baseball from certain death. What happened next, no one could have predicted.
Virginia’s state-of-the-art baseball stadium was built with urgency during the fall and winter of 2001 and 2002. Davenport Field was completed just in time for the start of the 2002 college baseball season, where it was named and dedicated in memory of former Virginia Baseball coach, and former executive director of the Virginia Student Aid Foundation, Ted Davenport, a close friend of head coach Dennis Womack. The team practiced on the field as the construction was ongoing. I remember seeing the concrete being poured and the giant beams going up. The construction workers did more than just set the foundation for the stadium, they set the foundation for the program for years to come. Virginia Baseball finally had a place it would be proud to call home.
In 2002, the team went 25-32, in part due to the inflated 15.12 E.R.A. of its star recruit from Sac City. In 2003, my last year at Virginia, the team finished with a 29-25 record, and I was able to finish my career with a more respectable 3.20 ERA. My last year also marked the end of Coach Womack’s tenure at Virginia as well, as he retired in June having lead the ‘Hoos to 594 victories in 23 years at the helm. Coach Womack not only left a winning team for the next coaching regime, he also left some MLB talent such as Joe Koshansky (All-American, 2004 ACC Player of the Year, Colorado Rockies), Mark Reynolds (Milwaukee Brewers), Mike Ballard (Baltimore Orioles), and Ryan Zimmerman (All-American, Washington Nationals, 3rd overall pick).
Head Coach Brian O’Connor was just 32 years old when AD Craig Littlepage, in a somewhat surprising move, tagged him to be the next head coach at Virginia after nine seasons as an assistant at Notre Dame under current LSU coach Paul Mainieri. “Oak,” as he’s known to his players, and his phenomenal assistants Kevin McMullen (Mac) and Karl Kuhn (K’s) arrived together to Charlottesville in July of 2003. To say the trio hit the ground running is an understatement.
In O’Connor’s first season, the Cavaliers recorded a 44-15 overall record, collecting 18 wins in a loaded ACC. At the time, the 18 ACC wins were the most ever by a Virginia ball club. That same year, Virginia also hosted its first ever NCAA regional.
Before Oak, Mac, and K’s came to Charlottesville, Virginia had appeared in the NCAA tournament only three times in program history. Since his arrival, the ‘Hoos have made three trips to the College World Series, won five NCAA Regional championships, two ACC tournament titles, two ACC Coastal Division crowns, and tallied more than 500 wins. 59 of Virginia players have been selected in the MLB Draft since Oak and Co. arrived, including eight more draft picks in 2014. Nine of those 59 drafted during this stretch have reached the Major Leagues, including Koshansky, Reynolds, Ballard, and Zimmerman mentioned before, as well as Brandon Guyer, Michael Schwimer, Sean Doolittle, David Adams, Phil Gosselin, and Zach Crockett.
More amazing than all the success might be the fact that Oak, Mac, and K’s are still together 11 years later.
More than 13 years have passed since John Grisham’s anonymous donation saved the Virginia Baseball Program and sent it on its eventual path to the zenith of college baseball. Ironically, the only team that stands in the way of Virginia heading to the National Championship Series and a chance at an NCAA Championship is Grisham’s own law school alma mater, Ole Miss. It’s a story not even Grisham himself could have imagined back in 2001. Amidst all of the fictional masterpieces he’s created, this real-life tale might be his greatest work of all.
By BLS contributing author, Agent Spooner.