OMAHA, Neb. — To the gods of college baseball . . . .
OK, folks, it’s your last chance. Are you going to finally be nice to the kindly grandfather from Florida State, or not? You remember Mike Martin, the guy with white hair and 2,028 wins. At 75, he’s older than Hawaii and Alaska as states. When he became head coach at Florida State, most of today’s major league managers were in elementary school. He’s seen seven U.S. presidents from his office in Tallahassee.
How long has he led the Seminoles? His win total is 900 more than the victories of all other Florida State coaches combined.
And he’s spent more time in Omaha than some governors of Nebraska. He has 16 previous trips to the College World Series. In his 40 seasons, he’s won at least 40 games and gone to the NCAA tournament all 40 times. “My brain can’t really wrap around that in a world that I feel like we live in,” Auburn coach Butch Thompson was saying Friday.
But in the end, it’s always been someone else’s team piling on the championship victory heap in Omaha.
Aren’t you ashamed?
Martin might come from a school where the senior citizens stay active — Bobby Bowden coached Florida State football until he was 80, Leonard Hamilton is still going strong in basketball at 70 — but he thinks it’s time. So you’ve got another chance to make it up to him, after all the times you dropped a piano on his team’s heads.
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You know his history, right? How his first college job was coaching basketball? How he and an assistant once had to get control of the team bus and steer it to the side of a California freeway when the driver keeled over dead from a heart attack?
You know what Omaha means to his program? How every living, breathing man on the staff has played in the College World Series?
You’ve still rained on so many of his Junes.
And now, one last chance. If Florida State wins, it’s a fairy tale. There wouldn’t be words for it. Or probably enough hankies.
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 14, 2019
Still undecided? We have here some character witnesses. Let’s start with the former Carol Dellinger. Nearly 60 years ago, she was leaning over the water fountain at school and bumped heads with this school jock named Mike Martin. He invited her to watch one of his basketball games. The rest is matrimonial history. Now she’s in Omaha for the 17th College World Series, just like her husband of 55 years.
If anyone understands what the game means to Martin, it’s her.
“It started when he was like seven years old playing Little League. I’ve got an article where they did an interview with him because he won most valuable player or something, and it’s in the paper that he said, ‘Baseball is my game.’ That says it all. At a young age, he knew what he wanted to do.”
Flash forward a few years.
“We came to Florida State on our honeymoon. That’s exotic, isn’t it? We drove to Tallahassee on our honeymoon because he had been offered a scholarship. We came down to see the campus and fell in love with everything about Florida State. We were so in love and so thrilled with him having an offer. It was heaven to us, but everybody else laughed. They would never take their honeymoon to Tallahassee.”
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More years forward, as Martin built a legacy, while his wife raised three children.
“I used to take the kids to every ballgame and some of the practices just so they could see their father. But I never looked at it as a sacrifice. It was just a wonderful, exciting lifestyle. And people loved Mike wherever we went. We were on a tram at Yosemite Park and some people ran up to him and asked for his autograph.”
Along the way they spent time together when they could. Mike loves golf. They had the idea once they could do that as a couple.
“He’s outfitted me and given me lessons three times, but they never took.”
Now she’s here, and like everyone else, wondering if it is finally his time to win — but knowing him well enough to understand he will not be haunted if it isn’t.
*holding back tears*
— FSU Baseball (@FSUBaseball) June 10, 2019
“What he said recently, when they asked him, doesn’t it bother you never having won the national championship? He said, ‘When you think about it, I’ve got a lot more things to worry about, and I’ve got a lot more things to be thankful for. I’ve got a wife who loves me, I’ve got a great family, they’re all healthy, I’ve got grandchildren. You think I’m going to lose sleep over not winning a national championship?”’
Here’s the son, Mike Jr. who has been a Florida State assistant for 22 years — and is a possible successor. His father said Friday 95 percent of this roster was recruited by Mike Jr. Let him talk a bit about what the game has meant to his father.
“It’s a platform to mold men. He’s big on the whole person, always has been. People say what’s the key, how’s he different from anybody else? I say he takes pride in the whole person; mentally, physically, spiritually, socially.
“I am concerned about (how Martin will handle retiring). The only time I hear mom and dad bicker is when he’s around, and wondering why a picture’s in a certain place or furniture is in a certain place. They’ve never traveled, they’ve never really had time together. He’s never been on a cruise ship. Think about that. He’s 75 and never been on a cruise.”
There must have been a time when Mike Martin has felt assaulted by foul fate in Omaha. Maybe his son knows.
“He flips it and says look at how blessed I am, look at how blessed we are as a program. Looking at things positively instead of negatively, I think society would be in a better place if people did that. Nobody wants one more than he does, he’s also not going to be so obsessed with it that he’s a miserable, mean human being.
“He uses this stuff to help kids learn. Look, you’re not always going to get what you want. In this day and age, that’s hard to find. Everybody wants instant gratification.”
— FSU Baseball (@FSUBaseball) June 14, 2019
Martin is renowned as a wondrously affable man, win or lose. But his son remembers when he used to take defeat with an icy silence.
“Back in the days when I was growing up, he was a different guy back then. But that fire’s still in there, I can promise you that.”
His peers in baseball just call him 11. That’s his number. His son calls him that, too. 11.
“We get one month a year where I call him dad or even look at him as a dad. That’s December. That’s our month off.”
But what about the night this ends in Omaha, win or lose? He’ll be dad that night?
“I hope. I can’t guarantee it. It’s been 22 years of 11. But it would be nice to call him dad again.”
Here are his competitors in Omaha this week. If they can’t win it all here, wonder if a piece of them would like to see 11 do it — though it’s counter to coaching nature to be thinking about another team’s chances when you’re about to open a College World Series.
Arkansas’ Dave Van Horn: “A real small piece.”
Texas Tech’s Tim Tadlock. “There was a time where absolutely you’re thinking about it being 11’s last year and you’re going, until you qualify, it would be really cool if he could win this deal. And then you qualify and you’re like, no, that wouldn’t be cool.”
But they also understand the story at hand.
Van Horn: “I won’t be coaching baseball when I’m 75, I’ll be watching it. That’s amazing. Those days are gone.”
Tadlock: “For a guy to get into the game 40 years ago and to leave it better than he found it, that’s something I think we all aspire to do.”
Mississippi State’s Chris Lemonis: “There’s been so many great coaches that have walked before us, to get the game where it’s supposed to be, and he may be the greatest.
“Every time we go to Florida State, your eyes are wide.”
Louisville’s Dan McDonnell: “You know if you beat him, he’s going to be complimentary, and if he beats you, he’s going to be gracious and never make you feel bad. It’s one of the neatest handshakes you can have after a game, win or lose. You can tell it’s a genuine, sweet, kind person and I think the older we get, the more we realize we can be successful because we’re pretty good with X’s and O’s, and we can recruit and work hard, but there’s more factors that go into being successful. You can learn from a guy like 11 — how you treat people goes a long way.”
Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin: “It will never be done again. He’s coached generations and adapted with each generation. He’s a gem. He’s real. It’s almost like when you sit next to him, you feel like he can’t go anywhere. He’s still vibrant and sharp, mind works quick.”
And finally, the man himself. Mike Martin was talking Friday about having his son by his side for so long.
“To see him with that smile on his face, like he had when we were at LSU is priceless. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. To see your son and think, heck, tomorrow is Father’s Day. I’m entitled to get emotional. Wait a minute, tomorrow is Saturday, isn’t it?
“It’s been challenging sometimes, but overall I’m a very blessed man to have had my son with me for 22 years.”
Surely, you’re not going to turn your back on this guy again, are you? Oh, he’ll handle it if you do. Back home in Tallahassee, his wife will start packing for a cruise. She and 11 are taking one to the Mediterranean in the fall. Except, he’ll be dad by then, not 11.