Every morning, upon entering his office located directly under the stands of Ray Fisher Stadium, Michigan baseball coach Rich Maloney encounters his deepest desire: Perched directly over the skipper’s desk, a poster-sized print showcases a location that, upon viewing, causes anyone who has ever touched a baseball to salivate. A venue that annually displays amateur baseball’s finest talent. A ballpark that drives Maloney forward each day. What is this mecca of America’s pastime? Omaha, Neb.’s own Rosenblatt Stadium – host of college baseball’s World Series.
“That’s the plan, that’s all part of the plan, that’s the dream,” Maloney said as he endlessly gawked at the print. “I want to go to Rosenblatt. I want to take a team there, and I want to be a part of that. I’m a dreamer.”
Taking over a program that hasn’t enjoyed a winning season this millennium (1999 was the last time the Wolverines finished above .500), many may consider Maloney’s Rosenblatt-dreamin’ wishful thinking. But Michigan’s new field-general carries a mystique on the diamond that commands respect. As senior infielder Jordan Cantalamessa simply puts it, “Wherever this guy goes, people start doing well.”
Currently in his first season with the Wolverines, the 37-year-old Maloney has already led the Wolverines to a 14-15 record through 29 games (a three-game improvement from last year’s 11-18 record through the same amount of games). Although progress in his inaugural season is important, Maloney knows that the rebuilding process doesn’t happen overnight.
“We are going to lay the foundation this year for future success in the program,” Maloney said.
Michigan players fully support their new coach and share his confidence in the coming years.
“You can definitely count on the future of Michigan baseball being positive,” sophomore pitcher Matt Collins said.
After a minor league playing career and his first head coaching stint at Ball State, Maloney hopes to utilize his experience, knowledge and player-friendly coaching style to rebuild a once-revered program that has recently fallen on some tough times.
As Kelle Maloney (Rich’s wife of 13 years) will tell you, her husband developed a passion for baseball at a very early age.
“From what his mother tells me, he grew up with a mitt and ball in his hand at the age of two,” Kelle said.
But, raised in the Detroit suburb of Roseville, Maloney’s sporting interests as a youth expanded beyond the diamond.
“Being a Michigan kid, typically because of the weather, we all play many sports,” Maloney said. “I loved football as a quarterback; I had an absolute passion for football.”
Feeling that he should concentrate on one sport, though Maloney factored his short stature into the decision and ditched the gridiron.
“With my size, (baseball) was a no-brainer for me ,” Maloney said. “I wasn’t going to be a John Navarre type of guy.”
Maloney flourished on the sandlot, and as a high school senior in 1982, he decided to take his talents to Western Michigan University.
“I always grew up wanting to play for Michigan, but unfortunately I didn’t have that opportunity (as he was not offered a scholarship),” Maloney said. “The year before I went to Western Michigan, they had nine players drafted. So I told my dad that besides Michigan – because they were the premier program at the time – (Western Michigan) was where I had to go.”
During his career as a Bronco, Maloney earned three varsity letters (1984-86) and served as team captain twice. Following a third-team All-America season as a senior shortstop, Maloney was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the 13th round of the major league draft. Maloney spent six years in the minor leagues, earning minor league all-star honors twice.
After finishing up his playing days, Maloney wasn’t ready to leave his beloved game. After recalling the superb tutelage he received throughout his career, Maloney found a way to stay in the game.
“I think of the coaches who I played for, even when I was young. I had several wonderful human beings breathe fresh air into me; they really inspired me to become the best I could be in baseball and in other endeavors,” Maloney said. “That’s where I derived my coaching career from.”
In his first coaching assignment, Maloney served as an assistant for his alma mater from 1992 to 95. Not sure whether his newfound passion would work out, Maloney returned to school in 1993 to earn his teaching credential. Although he did add an English degree to his communications/journalism undergraduate degree, thanks to an enticing job offer, Maloney’s teaching aspirations went on hold – permanently. Ball State of Muncie, Ind. gave Maloney his first head-coaching job, and he ran with it, showing the enthusiasm that would eventually find a home at Michigan.
“(At Ball State) we changed an attitude, and when we changed an attitude, the program changed,” he said. “We used the motto, ‘You gotta believe,’ and they bought it, hook, line and sinker – they went for it.”
The last two years prior to Maloney’s hiring, Ball State had finished a combined 48 games under .500. Maloney swiftly transformed the program from Mid-American Conference bottom feeders to perennial contenders. In his seven years at Ball State (1996-2002), he compiled a 256-144-1 record. Maloney won two MAC championships (1999, 2001) and two MAC Coach of the Year awards (1998, 2001).
As a Cardinal, Maloney prided himself on being fully dedicated to his players.
“While I was at Ball State, I had great relationships with the players across the board, and they sold out for me because I think they knew that I sold out for them, too,” Maloney said.
Boasting a major league draft sum of more than 20 players in his tenure at Ball State, Maloney enjoyed many special moments. One of the most rewarding events of Maloney’s life occurred with an outfielder named Larry Bigbie. The Baltimore Orioles selected Bigbie with the 18th pick of the first round in 1999, and Maloney received the honor of delivering the news.
“I walk into (Larry’s house) and I said, ‘Hey Larry, I got some news for you,’ ” Maloney recalled. “And he goes, ‘What’s up coach?’ And I said, ‘Son, you’re a millionaire.’ He cried in my arms like a baby, (and that’s) something I’ll never forget in my entire life.”
Another player who enjoyed Maloney’s instruction at Ball State, pitcher Bryan Bullington, became the first MAC player ever to be drafted first overall when the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him last season. Bullington credits his success to Maloney and his supportive coaching approach.
“On the field, he’s got a lot of baseball knowledge, and he works really well with his players,” Bullington said. “Off the field he’s a class guy, and he’ll do anything for his players to help them advance in their careers – academically or on the baseball field.”
Maloney’s stay at Ball State was ideal, but when Bill Martin offered him the chance to become the 18th head baseball coach at Michigan, the coach had to fulfill his lifelong goal of wearing the block ‘M’.
“I came here because I felt in my heart that this was a special place, and that this program was a sleeping giant waiting to happen,” Maloney said.
Kelle Maloney, who grew up next to Rich in Fraser, has always strongly supported her husband’s decision.
“We knew that (Michigan) is where we needed to be,” Kelle said. “We have family here in Michigan, and we both grew up bleeding maize and blue.”
The coach still misses the small university in Muncie, but looks forward to spawning another successful program in Ann Arbor.
“It was very hard to leave Ball State; it’s still a struggle at times because I miss the players that are still currently in the program,” said Maloney. “But, they know I love them, care about them and wish them the best, and that I would give the shirt off my back for them to do well. They’ll always be a part of my family.
“But now I get an opportunity to start a new family, and that’s a great thing, too.”
Only two months into his career at Michigan, Maloney has already connected with many Wolverines on an intimate level.
“Coach is almost like a role model figure, like a father figure, because he’s always there with a helping hand, he’s always there when you’re down,” junior catcher Jake Fox said. “(With Maloney’s family atmosphere), you feel like you have a lot more to play for.”
Maloney’s influence for the close-knit relationships with his players comes from his strong situation at home.
Rich and Kelle – “the backbone of our family” according to Rich – have three children (Alex, Nick and Natalie) that take precedent over everything.
“My real passion is being with my kids, so any time that I really have, that isn’t related to what I’m doing here at the University, is really dedicated to my wife and kids,” Maloney said.
Besides the “family atmosphere,” Maloney looks to incorporate many things into the Michigan program that he successfully utilized at Ball State.
“We’re repeating most of the steps and taking it a little further with the experience of seven years (at Ball State),” Maloney said. “When I had got that job, I was just a brand new head coach, with no experience as a head coach, and so I was acting instinctively – now I’m acting more on experience.”
One of the key things Maloney wants to integrate into the Wolverine game plan is a blue-collar style of play. Maloney spoke of this desire in the third person as if he were viewing the team.
“When (people) watch one of Maloney’s teams play, it’s all about hustle, character and drive – it won’t be a lack of those things that will determine our success because we’ll have those ingredients,” Maloney said.
Maloney strives to establish very well-rounded student-athletes who enjoy success off as well as on the field.
“I value education very highly,” Maloney said. “If we win on the baseball field, but we lose in the classroom, then we’re not really winners. You want to excel at everything you do.
“Bill hired me definitely with (education) in mind. We’re all at the same accord here, we believe that the Michigan degree is a very important thing in these kids’ lives.”
Although Maloney’s goals at Michigan are vast, the coach refuses to lower his lofty expectations.
“When you’re a dreamer and achiever, you get after it, that’s all we know,” Maloney said. “We don’t know any different, and we don’t settle for mediocrity – it’s not a part of who we are.”
So, Maloney’s Omaha fantasy lives on. Michigan’s last trip to the eight-team College World Series – which represents the last Big Ten team to play in Rosenblatt – occurred in 1984 under the leadership of shortstop Barry Larkin.
Maloney knows that the rebuilding process at Michigan will be a long, hard procedure. But, he continues to dream, gazing into the Rosenblatt print …