With the sun beating down on Creighton’s patchy turf practice field, the Michigan baseball team walked to the left field line and waited in the ranks for practice to begin.
Slowly after them came the man who would run practice, dressed in the same clothes as each of the players — distinguishable by only a bright yellow string around his neck. He blew his whistle, and the players were off.
While other coaches were mingling about the infield or watching the players warm up from afar, Michigan coach Erik Bakich was amidst the players, with them every step.
On Saturday morning, three hours prior to the Wolverines’ first game in the Men’s College World Series since 1984, Bakich was given the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association’s Coach of the Year Award.
“It means we’ve got great players, great coaches, great support staff, great player’s parents, great coaches wives. We talk about deflecting individual honors all the time because they’re not done by any one person,” Bakich said. “All the credit, in my opinion, goes to all the other people that make this team great and that touch our program. So it’s a nice award, and I said this when I accepted it, I accept this on behalf of our team and all the people that I just mentioned because they’re the ones who did it.”
It’s always been about making something bigger for this team. In the team’s mind, this isn’t the 2019 Michigan baseball team, it’s team 153 — just another in a long line of baseball teams for the program. But don’t let Bakich’s deflection take your mind off him. He’s the one who created that culture, who sets the tone.
He’s the one who tells freshman left-hander Walker Cleveland after his first collegiate win, “Remember, it’s about the team.”
He’s taken those steps to make this team bigger than a group of 35 students.
“You know, the first year I was here, there were no minority players on our team,” Bakich said. “Maybe this is just a personal philosophy or preference, but I just feel that at this school, especially given its legacy, our roster should look like the United States of America.”
Bakich’s talents go beyond culture setting, though, and throughout the year he’s made tough calls and spent days working with his team to put them in the position they’re in. In the middle of the Big Ten season, he switched left-hander Tommy Henry to a Saturday starter after a few games of struggling, and Henry settled back down in his new role.
As the playoffs began, he dropped season-long closer, freshman right-hander Willie Weiss in favor of one of his two starting pitchers. He also dropped senior outfielder Miles Lewis from the starting lineup, who started 59 games this year, in favor of a hot-handed Christian Bullock.
The Wolverines may have gotten hot at just the right time. They may have caught “lightning in a bottle,” and shocked college baseball with their run, but as Bakich alternated between hitting fly balls to the outfield and gently knocking ground balls to his son twenty feet away, it was clear that Bakich was the one who put the bottle there.