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Key Changes Saved Diamond Reputation

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

July 10, 2002 ATLANTA – After several years of fielding talented teams that underachieved, Georgia Tech baseball coach Danny Hall finally did more with less this year, leading the Yellow Jackets to the College World Series for the first time in eight years and just the second time in school history.

Hall was the wunderkind when he arrived from Kent in 1994, a 39-year-old Midwesterner who took over a program brimming with major league talent. All of the school's literature says Hall took Tech to the CWS in his first season in Atlanta.

But let's be clear: It was future big-leaguers Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, Jay Payton and Brad Rigby who took Hall to Omaha in 1994. In fairness to Hall, he was able to take that collection of talented individuals and mold them into a team that first year, when egos were checked at the clubhouse door.

But Hall seemed to lose that ability over the next seven years. He continued to recruit and sign some of the country's best players, but many of them had their eyes on the major league draft and their ears tuned in to their "advisers" (can't call them agents until they take money from them) from the minute they set down in Atlanta.

Hall had made his reputation in Kent for fielding blue-collar teams that weren't afraid to take the extra base, bunt a man over and get dirty diving for balls in the field. But the Tech teams Hall trotted out the last few seasons have been decidedly white-collar, and some didn't appear too interested in messing up their look. The phrase "too cool for school" comes to mind.

Former third baseman Mark Teixeira and ex-second baseman Richard Lewis were immensely talented players, both taken in the first round of last year's draft. (Teixeira was the fifth overall pick to the Texas Rangers, and Lewis was a supplemental first-round choice of the Atlanta Braves.) But neither was a leader.

When Teixeira broke his ankle early in the 2001 season, he spent the next couple of months slowly rehabbing it along, more concerned with his draft status than re-joining the team. Lewis, cocky and aloof in the clubhouse, wasn't liked well enough to fill the leadership void. So most of the Jackets just went about their business individually, piling up some impressive statistics except in the most-important category – wins. Tech, the preseason No. 1 pick in almost every poll, was bounced out of the NCAA Tournament by Coastal Carolina and Georgia in the Athens Regional.

One opposing ACC coach said even from the other dugout, his team could tell the Jackets thought way too highly of themselves.

"You could just see it," he said. "The way they carried themselves."

Hall sensed it, too, saying repeatedly that he "just couldn't push the buttons" with the 2001 team. Rather than continue to keep churning out teams that sizzled in the draft but fizzled in the postseason, Hall decided to do something about it.

After Mike Trapasso left to become Hawaii's head coach, Hall hired fiery pitching coach Bobby Moranda away from Wake Forest, a scrappy team whose inspired play reminded Hall of his former Kent teams. Moranda wasted no time helping Hall set a workmanlike tone. During one of the first team meetings last offseason, Moranda wrote the words, "Talent Is A Myth," on a dry-erase board.

Hall changed the way he conducted practices, adding more structure and high-energy drills to the traditional two hours of shagging balls during batting practice. The result: Tech won many games in an old-school fashion, behind pitching, defense and baserunning – despite counting 17 freshmen on its 34-man roster. The Jackets ended up setting a school record with 52 wins, and they did it without a single star. Tech's only semi-famous player was freshman second baseman Eric Patterson, the younger brother of Cubs center fielder Corey Patterson. If Eric keeps stealing 40-plus bases, he may eclipse his big brother.

Whereas the 2001 Jackets had a record nine players drafted last year, including eight in the first 15 rounds, this year's team had only six players chosen, none higher than the sixth round. Upon Tech's arrival in Omaha, Hall sounded almost apologetic when he announced to the media, "We don't have any stars on this team."

But for the first time in a long time, Hall had a team – and not even a 1-2 record in Omaha could change his mind about it.

"I can't say it enough," the coach said. "This team played as good together as any team I ever had."

Home Opener: Bring Hard Hats?
The million dollar question – or, more precisely, the $70-million question – around the Tech athletic department these days is whether the Bobby Dodd Stadium renovation will be done in time for the Jackets' home opener against Vanderbilt on Aug. 31.

"You're asking the wrong guy," head coach Chan Gailey said recently. "I don't care about what's on the sides (of the stadium). I care about the middle, and the middle's getting there."

Work on the first phase of the two-year, $70-million project began only hours after the Jackets lost to Georgia in their home finale last November. With less than two months remaining before the opener, there definitely has been a lot of progress. The stands in the south end zone are complete, and the concrete has been poured for the east stands. Work continues on the north stands, as well as on the playing field, which has been shifted 30 feet to the north and 15 feet to the west.

Still, it's hard to believe that the facility will be ready to host a game in less than two months. But a senior athletic department official insisted that there are no plans to move the Vanderbilt game to the Georgia Dome, the 72,000-seat stadium located only two miles from Tech's campus.

"We're not playing in the Dome," said the official, who compared the situation to the Scott Stadium renovation a few years ago at Virginia, which played at home through its own construction project during the 1999 season.