By Scott Robertson
I believe the opponent was Lincoln Memorial University on opening day in 1991. The Tennessee Volunteers baseball squad was opening the season and I was in the press box at Lindsey Nelson Stadium. Each weekend that year, I would call play-by-play on the radio. John Ward didn’t do baseball.
The first game of the season for the Vols was always a midweek affair against a small in-state opponent, so I was in the press box, not the broadcast booth. Early season, mid-week affairs were the kinds of games tailor-made for the Vols to win.
Rod Delmonico, a brash young guy who’d made his bones as a recruiting wizard at Florida State, coached the Vols. The word on the street (likely put there by the coach himself) was that Delmonico had been the reason Deion Sanders had chosen to play his college ball at FSU. This would, years later, come as a surprise to Bobby Bowden, FSU’s football coach.
Delmonico had the kind of personality that rankled folks in humble-natured East Tennessee. By way of illustration, Delmonico would later, while coaching the Dutch National Baseball Team (because no name says The Netherlands like “Delmonico”) (except maybe Eenhoorn), call the U.S. team “classless” and declare his own squad’s upset over the Dominican team to be the biggest upset in the history of baseball. He also said baseball was “supposedly” invented in America.
Suffice it to say Delmonico, by virtue of being a brash, non-stop self-promoter, had failed to ingratiate himself among the beat writers in Knoxville. Those guys preferred coaches who would consistently give them the aw-shucks quotes they already knew how to write a story around.
Delmonico’s brand of baseball matched his personality. The Vols were constantly stealing bases, hitting and running, daring the opponent’s pitcher, catcher and middle infielders to make the defensive plays to stop them. Often it paid off, as the throw from the catcher went sailing into center field, or the Vols would turn a walk into a double. In his first season, however, especially in Southeastern Conference play, the opposing players were good enough to make those plays, and Delmonico’s reputation as a riverboat gambler took the element of surprise completely out of the running game.
Eventually, in the mid-1990s, as Delmonico worked his recruiting magic, he would get players fast enough to make his brand of ball work, and the Vols would win three straight SEC championships. But as 1991, his second season, dawned, Delmonico was already under fire for his non-traditional approach. His players’ legs were heavy toward the end of 1990, his detractors said. Other teams knew the hit-and-run attack was coming, and were ready for it.
So before the first pitch of 1991, Delmonico had been talking about toning down the running attack a bit and choosing his spots more carefully. He was paying lip service to his critics, some of whom wrote sizable checks to the athletic department.
Turned out that lip service was all it was. The first two Volunteers reached base in the first inning when, as I recall, Delmonico called for a two-strike hit-and-run. The batter swung through the pitch and the catcher threw out the lead runner at third for a strike-‘em-out, throw-‘em-out double play.
Nick Gates of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, who defined the term “crusty old sportswriter”, leaned back in his seat one row in front of me, tossed his pencil down next to his notepad, put both hands behind his head and said, “Looks like the same old Delmonico-ball B.S. again to me.”
Now I was just a kid, but I had done radio play-by-play for that team’s games the year before and I knew a little something about the game myself. So I waited a beat and defended the coach who had given me the shot at broadcasting his team’s games.
“Yeah Nick,” I said. “I usually like to wait eight or 10 pitches into a season before I judge how it’s going to play out too.”
Generally when someone zings someone else in a press box, everybody plays it cool. There may be a snicker or two here or there, but we all share a code about acting like nothing’s ever too big a deal. So when the press box erupted in laughter, I felt pretty good. When Nick dropped his head for a second, then turned around, looked at me and nodded as if to say, “Yeah, okay, you got me on that one,” I felt even better. I’d go on to make my own gaffes, I knew, but in that one moment, a call for taking a measured, sensible approach instead of making snap judgments was clearly the right thing.
I say all that to say this. I have heard enough about how bad 2016 was to make me worried that too many of us are entering 2017 with a Nick Gates-like attitude. So instead of waiting for the first opportunity to complain, let’s wait more than eight or ten pitches into the game before losing faith this year.