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The Rivalry Edition

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In Michigan’s third game of the 2021 season, Griffin Mazur took a short stride and a quick swing, sending the ball skywards before it landed just over the left-centerfield fence for a grand slam. 

Mazur’s teammates charged out of the dugout, swarming him with hugs and backslaps. But Michigan baseball fans watching from home probably didn’t feel as familiar. He was making his second ever appearance for the Wolverines, but he wasn’t a freshman.

The fifth-year senior catcher is one of six transfers joining Michigan this season. In most of Michigan coach Erik Bakich’s tenure, he has almost entirely recruited high schoolers and relied on their season-to-season development, but he elected to add the additional dimension of ready-made graduate transfers this season. 

The Wolverines’ 7-1 start is less a reflection of Bakich’s ability to develop than his ability to recruit, a skill that he’s honed for nearly 20 years. 

***

Long ago, Erik Bakich wasn’t particularly interested in coaching, let alone recruiting. He graduated from East Carolina, where he hit .315 with a 1.000 fielding percentage in 2000, before beginning a short professional playing career with several independent league teams.

In the fall of 2001, Bakich was taking batting practice on the East Carolina campus when Pirates coach Keith LeClair approached him with news that a volunteer assistant coaching position had opened at Clemson. 

“I said, ‘Really, do you think I should have interest in that?’ ” Bakich asked LeClair. 

“And then I took another swing, and immediately after watching me take another swing, he said, ‘Yes, you need to be interested in that.’ ”

Slightly crestfallen, Bakich took his coach’s advice, and soon after, took the position.

Despite poor conditions — he was compensated in T-shirts and Gatorade bars, and the Southern heat often woke him up at night — Bakich loved his season at Clemson. He worked closely with Tigers assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Tim Corbin, a former National Assistant Coach of the Year who shared Bakich’s penchant for long hours and hard work. 

Corbin taught Bakich how to recruit, often by example. 

“He was extremely thorough,” Bakich said. “He made a ton of phone calls, did a lot of digging and background checks and gathered information. He knew a lot about every player before he even went to go watch him play. And then when he would go watch them play, he would be the first one there and the last one to leave, just paying attention to every little thing. So many recruiters just show up at game time, watch the game and leave, and maybe don’t sit in the front row and see the mannerisms and the body language and the interaction with teammates and coaches.

“Everything is a piece. It’s one gigantic puzzle, and every piece of information that you can get determines if this is the right fit for the program or what type of player you’re getting. Getting to know the family and how the kid was raised is such a large dynamic that goes into putting these puzzle pieces together. 

“He was just the best I had seen doing all of it.”

Impressed by Corbin’s affinity for thoroughness, Bakich followed him to Nashville as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator when Corbin became Vanderbilt’s head coach in 2003.

“(Bakich) told me that I couldn’t hire anyone better than him and that no one would care more about the program than him,” Corbin said. “He didn’t say that in a bragging manner at all; he said it because he believed in it.”

The Commodores weren’t the powerhouse they are today. They had been SEC bottom-dwellers for the previous decade, and Bakich, Corbin and pitching coach Derek Johnson initially received far more rejections than acceptances from recruited players. According to Corbin, the coaching staff had to work hard to establish a recruiting foundation.

Modern perspective shows that they succeeded.

A few seasons into Bakich’s seven year tenure, Vanderbilt reached the NCAA Regionals and successfully recruited eventual major leaguers, like Mike Baxter and Ryan Flaherty, with greater regularity. In 2005, the Commodores pulled in the nation’s top-ranked class, led by left-hander David Price.

Price went to nearby Blackman High School, where he starred in baseball and basketball. Bakich noticed his outstanding athletic ability — including a loose, whippy arm that fired fastballs at a higher velocity than nearly anyone — as well as the need for some refinement.

“You could tell that this was somebody who, 25 pounds from now and a couple of birthdays away, is going to be something super special,” Bakich said. 

Price was selected in the 19th round of the MLB draft after his senior year of high school, but he chose to go to Vanderbilt in large part thanks to the expert recruiting ability of Corbin and his staff. Corbin won him over with bold predictions for the future that included an SEC championship and a No. 1 selection in the 2007 MLB draft, both of which came true. Bakich played a key role in securing the left-hander’s commitment by building a relationship with Price’s parents.

“I think once the parents have a mindset of, ‘We want our child to go to school,’ then the child has a mindset of going to school,” Corbin said. “If (it’s) open-ended and the parent allows the child to make a decision … they usually go down a different route. And I think (Bakich) cultivated a good relationship with Bonnie and Deb, in order to get David here.”

Beyond a search for talent, Bakich and Corbin prioritized the recruitment of players with excellent character. Nearly 20 years later, they continue to reap the benefits of those choices. Price made a $2.5 million donation to improve Vanderbilt’s baseball facilities, and Bakich stays in regular contact with several players, including Baxter, Antoan Richardson and David Macias. 

“As coach Corbin would say, those are the paychecks that you continue to get, whether it’s a wedding invite or a birth announcement or a job promotion,” Bakich said. That’s the best part of recruiting — building lifelong relationships.”

***

After a combined eight years as the head coaches at Maryland and Michigan, Bakich’s multitude of experience has shown its value in the prominence of under-recruited players turned Wolverine stars.

In 2018, Bakich sat with stopwatch in hand in the grandstand at Lincoln Trail Community College to watch a guy best known for his high school football abilities. Jordan Brewer went 1-4 — two groundouts, a single and a strikeout. But Bakich was sold, impressed with his footspeed when he put the ball in play, his defense in center field and his high energy. 

The two shared a post-game dinner at Subway, during which Brewer talked about his Native American background and upbringing. Their conversation informed Bakich that regardless of the type of player Brewer would be at Michigan, he would add a lot of value to the program with his personality alone. 

Brewer, who hit .360 with 12 home runs and 73 RBI in his two seasons at Lincoln Trail, had multiple scholarship offers, but his positive interactions with Bakich made the choice easier. 

“He really cares about you and gets to know you super quick,” Brewer said in an interview with MLive. “He knew all about me even before I went up there to visit. I am a huge family guy, and when I saw he knew me and my family already, that was huge. I was already bought in.”

In his one year with the Wolverines, Brewer led the team in batting average (.329), hits (81), slugging percentage (.557), stolen bases (25) and several other offensive categories. But Michigan’s biggest offensive asset in 2019 — who surpassed even Brewer in advanced metrics like runs created and wOBA — was Jordan Nwogu, another lightly-recruited former football player. Nwogu earned an academic scholarship to the University and only committed to the baseball program during the fall of his senior year in high school, quite late in the recruiting process.

Bakich would never have noticed either of these eventual standouts if he strictly recruited through the traditional channels like showcases, or if he evaluated players on the basis of physical skills alone. He had learned the importance of attention to intangibles like work ethic and character from Corbin.

“There are kids all over the country who are very talented physically,” Bakich said. “But you just can never compromise with those intangible skills. Nothing will ever replace old fashioned hard work. And when you start to get to know how these kids were raised, what makes them tick and what drives them, you start to understand very quickly that any deficiencies they may have physically, they’re going to figure it out because there’s a high care level for what they’re doing. But you won’t know that unless you really do the digging to find out.”

***

Bakich’s recruitment of Brewer and Nwogu paid off nearly instantly, with the two leading the Wolverines to a College World Series appearance in 2019. It netted the program long-term returns, too, with more and more talented high school players interested in bringing Michigan back to Omaha. 

“Kids look at that success and want to be a part of it,” assistant coach Nick Schnabel said. “It’s probably made the pool a little bit bigger for us, no question.”

After coming within a game of a national championship, Bakich and his coaching staff are fiending to return to that level on a regular basis. The first step toward that goal is recruiting consistently strong classes. 

The Wolverines lost a significant portion of their contributors to the pros after the 2020 season, so they began an exhaustive search for replacements in the transfer portal. Schnabel took the lead at the beginning of the recruiting process, watching most of the film, making most of the calls and performing background checks. By the time Bakich became involved, Schnabel had whittled about 100 names into a shortlist of contenders. 

These efforts, reminiscent of Corbin and Bakich’s thoroughness at Vanderbilt, have paid dividends, as Michigan’s transfers have impressed on and off the field so far this year. Mazur was elected a team captain and hits for better power and average than former catcher Joe Donovan. Fifth-year shortstop Benjamin Sems has a better fielding percentage than former shortstop Jack Blomgren. Sophomore outfielder Jake Marti hits beyond description.

With the success of his many transfers, Bakich is currently seeing what he hopes will be another in a long line of strong recruiting classes — one that he hopes can play deep into the summer.