John Anderson tried hard not to cry. He really did. But this was a father’s moment, and anyone with children could empathize with what Anderson, for 37 years the coach of the University of Minnesota baseball team, was going through.
The Gophers had beaten UCLA last Sunday night to win an NCAA Regional title for the first time since 1977, when Anderson was student assistant to iconic Coach Dick Siebert, and a wispy Paul Molitor led the Gophers to their last College World Series. Anderson arrived late to the postgame press conference because he was on the phone with his daughter Erin, who works for a medical device sales agency and missed the game to fly to Baltimore for a work obligation.
Earlier, Anderson said, Erin called him in tears on the way to the airport, upset that she might miss out on one of the greatest moments of her father’s career. So Anderson did what any dad would do: He promised the Gophs would win and advance to the next round, the Super Regionals. Then she could come to that.
Anderson has won more than 1,200 games at Minnesota, and he never promised a victory to anyone before. But what else could he do? When it’s your daughter, you say what you need to say. Anderson cried, too. He was such an emotional wreck he needed Rick Aberman, the U’s sports psychologist, to calm him down.
Eighteen times previously Anderson’s teams qualified for the NCAA Regionals, but until Sunday the Gophers had never advanced to the next round. Once Anderson sat for the press conference, the gravity of the moment overwhelmed him. He took a deep breath.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said. “I’m not very often speechless, but all I can say is, wow. What a three days” — he stopped there for another deep breath — “bringing a regional back to Siebert Field. I wouldn’t want to have done it with any other team than the team that’s here with me today. Just a wonderful group that has taken up every challenge.”
Then Anderson mentioned Erin and the promise, and that was it. He cried through the whole story as the three players next to him — shortstop Terrin Vavra, center fielder Alex Boxwell and designated hitter Toby Hanson — averted their eyes and tried not to tear up themselves.
“That’s what’s great about Coach Anderson. He’s not afraid to show his emotions,” said Vavra, a junior and the son of former Twins coach Joe Vavra. “We came through with his promise.”
And that sent Minnesota (44-13) to Corvallis, Ore, to meet West Coast power Oregon State (47-10-1) in a Super Regional this weekend. The winner advances to the College World Series.
Building a program
Anderson’s character, loyalty to the U, and devotion to his players make him the most respected and admired coach on the Dinkytown campus. College baseball operates far from the spotlight except at this time of year, when ESPN broadcasts the NCAA Tournament. What Anderson, a silver-haired Iron Ranger, has done with limited resources and support is nothing less than magic.
In a way, the 63-year-old Anderson is the father to so much at the U: A program that persevered through financial and competitive challenges while others in the Midwest were shuttered; the reinvigorating of Siebert Field, packed with standing-rooms crowds of more than 2,000 all three nights of the regional; and a group of freshman he entrusted three years ago to put the program back on course when his upperclassmen failed him.
Siebert Field was falling apart when Anderson set out to raise money for a renovation. Gifts from the Pohlad family, former Gophers players, and athletics boosters like John and Nancy Lindahl were key to the $7.2 million project. The new Siebert Field opened in 2013, and improvements are ongoing. The Glen Perkins Family Baseball Performance Center, an indoor batting and training site funded by former Gopher and Twins pitcher Glen Perkins and his wife Alisha, opened earlier this year.
Sun Belt teams, blessed with warm weather and premier facilities, dominate college baseball. Since 1966 only three teams outside the Sun Belt won the College World Series — Wichita State in 1989, and Oregon State in 2006 and ’07. Since 1984, only one Big Ten Conference team even qualified for the CWS: the 2013 Indiana squad with future Cub Kyle Schwarber and Twins pitching prospect Aaron Slegers.
Playing and practicing in the Metrodome, and now U.S. Bank Stadium, kept the Gophers competitive. Last weekend’s Regional victory, televised on ESPN, plus the new campus facilities, reestablished Minnesota as a destination for Upper Midwest kids. Twenty of Anderson’s 33 players are Minnesotans.
“It didn’t hurt us to be on television,” Anderson said. “Our email boxes are filling up with people sending us videos of recruits. That’s a good thing. No question it has a big impact, at least in terms of the perception of the program.”
Anderson is charmingly old school about discipline and commitment. He demands academic excellence. Almost everyone on his team graduates, and this season 17 players made Academic All-Big Ten. On the field, he can’t stand anything that slows the game down. Most college teams signal in every pitch from the bench, but not the Gophers. The late pitching coach Todd Oakes trusted his catchers to call the game, and Anderson continued the practice in Oakes’ memory. (Catcher Eli Wilson is the son of retired major league catcher and former Gopher Dan Wilson, which helps.)
“Our job is to teach them how to play the game,” Anderson said. “We’re not trying to create robots here.”
‘This is your team now’
Anderson made a startling admission Sunday night about his seven seniors, Hanson and third baseman Micah Coffey among them. The Gophers endured a rare losing season in 2015, when those seniors were freshmen, and Anderson felt the upperclassmen weren’t committed enough to the program. Following a 19-7 loss at home to Northwestern, Anderson pulled the freshmen into a hallway outside the locker room and told them, this is your team now. Lead it.
“It was pretty eye opening right away, having that conversation,” Hanson said. “We looked around at each other and said, the future is in our hands. Everyone bought in.”
That group — Hansen, Coffey, Boxwell, second baseman Luke Pettersen, and pitchers Reggie Meyer, Fred Manke and Jeff Fasching — form the core of the current team. Vavra, the Most Outstanding Player of the regional and a third-round draft choice of the Colorado Rockies this week, arrived in 2016.
It’s a tight group. Early in Coffey’s career, batting coach Pat Casey nicknamed Coffey MC Hammer, a play on his initials. In a Secret Santa exchange over Christmas 2016, backup first baseman Jacob Herbers went to Home Depot, bought a sledgehammer, gift-wrapped it and gave it to Coffey — as Vavra wryly noted, the heaviest gift of the lot. For two seasons now, any Gopher who homers is presented the sledgehammer.
The Gophers packed the sledgehammer with their bats for Corvallis, where a monumental task awaits. The second-ranked Beavers feature three MLB first-round draft choices in outfielder Trevor Larnach (Twins), second baseman Nick Madrigal (White Sox) and infielder Cadyn Grenier (Orioles), and might have had a fourth in pitcher Luke Heimlich if his criminal background hadn’t scared teams off. Oregon State is 56-6 at home the last two years and 10-2 since 2005 as a Super Regional host. And they average better than 3,500 fans at Goss Stadium.
Vavra’s response? “Bring ‘em on,” he said. “We know we’re capable of beating anyone in the country, and we’re excited for the opportunity.”
Multiple job offers over the years tested Anderson’s loyalty to the U. He stayed, he said, because he felt the university might kill the program if he left. Molitor, the Twins manager who helped Anderson with the Siebert fundraising, could not be happier Anderson remained. Saturday night Molitor brought his son out to watch the Gophers play, in an atmosphere he never could have envisioned five years ago.
“They’ve got a tall order this weekend, but I’ll take the chance over not being here,” Molitor said. “John, there’s been a couple of time through the last 30-plus years where he’s gotten a little bit of his due, but it seems like it’s more than it’s ever been. I’m happy for him, because I don’t know how much longer he’s going to be there.”