PLAYING BALL AT DU
Big-league baseball may be on strike, but Jack Rose plays on. And on.
When the University of Denver baseball team opens its 127th season of play next February, its fearless leader won't feel many butterflies. In 33 years as DU's head coach, Rose has piled up 743 victories (fourth among active college coaches) against 610 losses and taken his Pioneer teams to the NCAA Division I playoffs five times, the NAIA postseason eight times.
Rose's memories are fond but bittersweet. His 1965 team, which produced future pros Jerry Causey, Steve Blateric and five others, would have moved on to the College World Series in Omaha but for a 1-0 loss to Northern Colorado. The 1970 Pioneers overcame a 7-0 deficit against powerful Arizona to win game two of an NCAA regional 9-7, then outplayed the Wildcats in the deciding game of the series. But DU's 8-4 lead vanished in the bottom of the ninth when five consecutive ground-ball singles slipped between shortstop and third. Final score: Arizona 9, DU 8.
Rose still winces at that, but he got revenge five seasons later. When DU knocked off Arizona in '75, the Wildcats were the nation's top-ranked team. Then there was Rose's 1981 club--the one that hit, let's see here, 111 home runs. In just 51 games. "We usually went for the big inning," the coach deadpans. Must have. That club had a school-best 40-11 record.
Over the years, more than thirty of Rose's players have signed professional contracts, and a few worthies have made it to The Show--none in grander style than left-handed pitcher Dan Schatzeder, class of 1975.
Rose glows when he talks about the best-known player in the school's history, who went on to pitch fourteen seasons in the bigs and won game six of the 1987 World Series for the Minnesota Twins. Schatzeder's catcher, Craig Stimac, played two seasons with the San Diego Padres, and a dozen other ex-DU players got their cups of coffee before returning to the minors.
The newest feather in Rose's baseball cap is Colorado Rockies bullpen catcher Mike Sheperd, a 1992 DU graduate.
Make no mistake, Jack Rose has seen some innings in his 62 years. And he means to see some more: He's shooting for 800 wins before retiring.
"Then I'll consider a few other things," he says firmly.
Firmness is a lifelong trait. As a self-described "scrappy, get-on-base guy" growing up on the sandlots of Seattle, the wiry young infielder fought for all he earned, and he expects no less of his own players.
"I can't understand guys standing around," he says with a level gaze. "I'm a players' coach, but with limits. I'm a fundamentalist. The shortstop has to make the automatic out. My outfielders have to hit the cutoff man. The players have to hustle."
Back in the beginning, it looked like they might not get the chance. In 1961, the year Rose signed on with DU, university officials shocked the region by scrapping the school's expensive football program. The young baseball coach feared his sport would get called out, too.
Instead, he brought DU baseball considerable glory before the next hammer fell. For fourteen years Rose tried to build a College World Series club on the Hilltop, but when Title IX, the gender-equality provision, cut scholarships for DU baseball, the program dropped in 1976 from Division I into NAIA competition. Three years ago, the Pioneers moved back up into NCAA Division II, but that Omaha dream will have to go unfulfilled.
"My only complaint is that there's no equality in the men's programs, either," Rose says. But that's life. He understands and accepts that Division I hockey is DU's big breadwinner, just as big-time football nourishes the University of Colorado.
"You don't get 100 walk-ons here, like you do at Michigan," he says, "and we don't have the depth of Arizona or Arizona State or Southern Cal. But we play good baseball, and we have good kids."
Last year the Pioneers went just 15-25 in the new Mile High Intercollegiate Baseball League --largely because the gods struck down three of their starting pitchers with injuries at the start of the season. Those arms are now healthy, though, and Rose gets first baseman Mike Lubas back for another year. All Lubas did in 1994 was bat .423, hit eight homers and drive in more than a run per game.
While Rose waits for the man to cry "Play ball!" he's got other things on his mind. This fall he'll head up a clinic and league for boys and girls ages thirteen to fifteen. He'll hit the recruiting trail. And he'll contemplate win No. 800, which could come as early as 1996. "Sure, I'm looking forward to it. That'll be a real milestone."
Rose reached another one last year, when he became the only athletic coach to receive DU's Distinguished Service to the University award. He is justifiably proud of the plaque, but he points out that the award has been presented only since 1976. Otherwise, he says, legendary DU hockey coach Murray Armstrong, winner of five NCAA national titles, would likely have been a prime candidate.
As it is, you can't help noticing the impressive bronze statue of Armstrong, standing tall in his skates, just beyond the doors of the DU Ice Arena. Shouldn't they put one of you out there, too? Rose is asked. Thirty-three years is an awfully long time.
"Sure," he says. "My players would like that. They want to throw darts at it."
The U.S. Open Tennis Tournament gets under way Monday, but don't look for order on the court.
The professional game is losing its old aristocratic luster, which ain't such a bad thing. But it's also losing its finesse, TV ratings and corporate sponsors, which hurts. Meanwhile, half a dozen of the world's biggest tennis stars will be conspicuously absent from this year's Open. On all fronts, insiders say, the game now faces its gravest crisis in decades.
Consider. Crowd-pleasers Jimmy Connors, the never-say-die winner of five U.S. Opens, and Martina Navratilova, who's won four, have grown old at last and have gracefully withdrawn. Teenager Jennifer Capriati, once the bright hope of U.S. women's tennis, is No. 1 only on the game's long burnout list. The game's best female player, Monica Seles, was stabbed in the back by a lunatic nearly two years ago and remains MIA from the circuit.
Brash John McEnroe has retired to the broadcast booth, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker are declining, and last week golden boy Jim Courier got knocked out of another minor event amid a deepening failure of confidence. The top-ranked player in the world just two years ago, he has not won a tournament in 1994 and could be another no-show in New York.
"I don't know if it will take one day, one month or one year," Courier said. But he won't be back until he regains the heart that got him to the top.
There's more. To counteract the snooty image that still clings to tennis, ATP Tour organizers recently relaxed the rules governing fan movement in the stands, and they're experimenting with piped-in rock and roll during the changeovers. A nice loosening-up mechanism? Not to hear France's Guy Forget or grunge icon Andre Agassi tell it. Both players brayed long and loud about the distractions--and they were right.
Bad as they are, these problems are easy putaways compared to the game's stylistic woes. As any skinny nine-year-old wielding a $300 Wilson Hammer can tell you, today's high-tech, oversize tennis racquets have evolved into assault weapons. That has transformed young players, especially the men, into hard-bashing automatons with 120-mile-an-hour serves and scorching groundstrokes. The result? Shorter points and less beauty. The well-executed drop shot and the cunningly angled volley are endangered species; the brutal shootout is in.
Believe it or not, the tennis establishment is now considering higher nets, longer courts and a radical first-serve-only rule to bring back the fans and the classic strategies. Good luck.
In the meantime, the U.S. Open will produce the same two singles winners, Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras, that every major hard-court tournament produces these days.
Game, set, match. Kindly excuse us while we tune in the tractor pull.
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