Michigan has fielded baseball teams for 146 years. Each of those teams had anywhere from 15-35 players. And out of those 4,000-plus combined seasons, there was not one finer than outfielder Casey Close’s in 1986.
The Columbus native batted .440 his senior year with 19 home runs and 72 RBI en route to being named the Baseball America National Player of the Year. In that season, he broke the all-time Michigan home run record (46) and recorded a Triple Crown performance in Big Ten play.
Nowadays, Close is better known for representing professional baseball players like Derek Jeter and Ryan Howard, but 25 years later, he still represents the best years of the Wolverine baseball program.
Though the 1986 team missed out on the College World Series, Close made the CWS in two different years, including 1984 — the last time a Big Ten team made it that far.
The Michigan Daily caught up with Close to get some insight on his historic season.
TMD: You were a good player before your senior year, but what do you think made the difference in making you sensational in 1986?
CC: One of the big benefits was that my senior year I was able to concentrate primarily on just being a hitter and an everyday player. Going back and forth as much as I did my first three years as a pitcher and outfielder, it helped me get everything straight in 1986. It helped me prepare for a season in which I wasn’t able to previously.
TMD: When did you realize that it would be a special season for you?
CC: I think it was early on in the year, we were on a spring trip down in Florida and we played some good teams over at Rollins College, like North Carolina and South Carolina. And I was fortunate enough to hit a couple game-winning home runs or hits during that time and things just seemed on a roll. When you get off to a hot start like that and you maintain that consistency, you build that confidence, you build that momentum and it just helps you carry through the season. So it was early on down in Florida where it got started and I was fortunate enough to carry it through for a lot of the year.
TMD: What are some moments that stick out from that year?
CC: One of them was the hit I had at the Metrodome against University of Miami, who was a big powerhouse at the time. I hit a home run to win the game off their star reliever and that was a big moment the way it happened, in a major league park. It was a great moment for our team and our program. I hit some home runs with my parents in attendance and setting the all-time record for the University, having my folks be at those games was a really meaningful moment for me in my career.
TMD: Off the field, what was the team like and how did you get along with the group of guys?
CC: Great year. I had some of my best friends and still some of my great friends today. A number of the guys I came through the system with, I’m still very friendly with today. We had a tremendous group of people who are not only great players, but great people who’ve gone on to be very successful in their own right and all their different places after baseball. It’s rare that you have so many guys in a common place going after a common goal. It’s just a great collective group of people who all set out to accomplish the best they could. I just felt very fortunate to be part of a great collection of people.
TMD: Being from Columbus, what drew you to the University of Michigan?
CC: I was drawn largely by the great athletic and academic combination that Michigan had. They were a tremendous baseball school which is why I sought to go outside of Columbus. And having the ability to get the best of all worlds, both academically and athletically, and at the same time, have it within relative driving distance of my parents down in Columbus, that was the ultimate decision maker for me in going to Ann Arbor. I’m very happy I made the right choice. It’s been something that I’ll forever remember.
TMD: What was your experience in professional baseball and why did you decide to leave it? (Close was drafted in the 7th round by the New York Yankees in 1986)
CC: I played several years for the New York Yankees and the first summer I actually struggled quite a bit. I’m sure part of that was the adjustment to professional baseball, part of it was the adjustment to wooden bats, and part of it was just the natural adjustment because the type of senior season I had, there was just probably no way to keep it going. I spent the next couple seasons in the Yankees organization going up and down. Then I spent my final two years with the Seattle Mariners playing in Calgary for the AAA affiliate. I felt like I was a good player, but as I got into pro ball, I realized I might not have what it takes to be an everyday player. As I started to come to that realization, I knew that it was time to move on with my life and go to the next stage. Just to be around the game to be on the bench or putting on a uniform but not playing, that wasn’t something that interested me. The moment I recognized that, it was time to move in a different direction.
TMD: What got you into the agent industry?
CC: I had played professionally and when I got out, I wasn’t really thinking about going into the agent industry. I was working for a small sports marketing group in Columbus, Ohio and I was introduced to a firm down in Washington, D.C. that was looking to get into the baseball representation business. It was just through happenstance that we entered into conversations and I ended up taking the job as opposed to going back to business school or law school. I just said, ‘let me give this a shot,’ and the career just developed and I’ve never looked back since that point.
TMD: How did you form the relationship with Jeter and become his agent?
CC: He was a Michigan native and when he was a senior in high school, I went to one of the games and introduced myself and made the connection that way. Over time, we established a formal business relationship. It was through that Michigan connection that helped form the bond that gave us a common trait in our love for Michigan.
TMD: Did you gain any other clients through that Michigan connection?
CC: The other person I had a long relationship with was Drew Henson. Drew and I worked together for a number of years before he left the baseball scene. We were able to share some common experiences which is so helpful in this business. Drew and I worked together for a number of years before he ultimately made the decision to go to the NFL.
TMD: How much do you keep up with Michigan baseball and how much are you in contact with the University?
CC: I’m in contact with them, I follow the team closely. I try to get back at least once a year, baseball- or football-game related. I have contact with a lot of my friends that I’ve gone to school with there. I follow things pretty closely. You never can give back quite as much as you want to, but it’s always great when I can get back on the campus and either attend a football game or a baseball game and see the guys.
TMD: You went to the CWS twice in your career, but since then, the Big Ten has fallen off and is not very competitive with the rest of the NCAA. Why do you think that is?
CC: There are plenty of great baseball players. The real critical element to this entire process is getting the players from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania. We didn’t have a single player, that I recall, from my time, that were from Texas or Florida or California. Every kid that was a great player in high school wanted to go to Michigan because it had the tradition. If you wanted to stay closer to home, that’s where you went to go play baseball. Now those kids, either they’re signing professional contracts, or there are other options. The real critical element is making sure that Michigan is able to get the kids that are 60-100 miles away. There are plenty of great players in Cincinnati or Columbus or Detroit or Western Michigan. There’s enough players to build a great program if you get those guys.
TMD: You were inducted into Michigan’s Hall of Honor this winter. What did that mean to you?
CC: It was a tremendous feeling. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, so it was a very surreal feeling when I was presented with the award that day. To be a kid growing up in Columbus surrounded by Buckeyes all my life to being inducted into the Hall of Honor was a very special moment. I feel very grateful for the opportunity to be an athlete and a student at Michigan and it has served me very well. It was a very grateful and emotional day for me.