Lindsay Meggs, the brilliant and uncompromising Washington baseball coach, was stewing as he drove home last Sunday. The Huskies were one play, one clutch hit, away from winning a tight three-game series at Oregon State, and though they showed they belonged in a clash of top-10 teams, the coach wasn’t satisfied, as usual.
During the four-hour drive from Corvallis, Ore., to Seattle, he was prepared to relive every moment of a rare Washington disappointment this season. But his phone rang. It was his son, Joe, a former Husky now playing in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.
Joe Meggs gave his father some perspective.
“Do you realize that’s the first series in the last 15, dating back to last year, that you guys have lost?” the son asked.
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Of course, Lindsay Meggs didn’t realize it. For all the publicity the streak has received, the skipper had been too focused on progress to revel.
After the call ended, Meggs did something new. He reflected. For the first time in the Huskies’ magnificent 2014 season, he paused to appreciate perhaps the best story in college baseball.
He might have even cracked a smile.
“I do feel pretty good about how amazingly consistent our guys have been,” Meggs said. “And it has been pretty satisfying to see the way our guys have played. They’ve played the game right. They’ve showed up every day.”
For a stern man who likes praise about as much as he likes to lose, this was the equivalent of the average person shouting at the top of his lungs and turning back flips.
But once the long drive home from Corvallis ended, Meggs was done with the mushy stuff.
“When I got home and got out of the car and realized I’m just another guy who lost two of three over the weekend, it was time to get back to work,” Meggs said, laughing. “So reality hit me in the face.”
Let’s just say what Meggs won’t: This is an astonishing rebuilding tale. The Huskies are the No. 8 team in the nation, according to Baseball America. They’re ranked as high as sixth in other polls. In the rugged Pac-12 conference, they entered the weekend with the league’s most productive offense, its best defense and its third-best ERA. Their versatility and well-rounded roster suggests that this is not a one-year flash. It’s the breakthrough season — timed perfectly with the opening of a snazzy new ballpark — of a program with staying power.
This is what Washington envisioned when it hired Meggs five years ago to boost a program that had turned mediocre. This is what Meggs’ career suggested he would do.
Before coming to Washington, Meggs had done stellar work at two other programs. He coached Division II Chico State from 1994-2006, and despite inheriting a team that had won only seven games, he led the Wildcats to a 538-228-4 record (.700 winning percentage), and he captured national championships in 1997 and 1999. In 2006, he took his first Division I job at Indiana State, and over three seasons in Terre Haute, Ind., the Sycamores rose from a losing team to the second-best ballclub in the Missouri Valley Conference.
But for Meggs, a native Californian and a former UCLA third baseman, it was impossible to resist a Pac-12 job. He came to Washington vowing to build a highly competitive team by his fifth season, and the athletic department vowed to turn Husky Ballpark into a gem.
Now, on schedule, the Huskies seemingly have it all. It’s likely that, when the NCAA baseball tournament’s seeds are announced Monday, the Huskies will be one of the top 16 teams. They also could host a regional for the first time.
After what seemed like an inauspicious start, with two losing seasons in Meggs’ first four years and some discontent about his brusque style, everything makes sense now. Meggs never deviated from this plan, and he always saw the Huskies being this good. The players ultimately bought in because their coach is so consistent.
“When you’re losing, it’s hard to stay with it, stay strong and committed to the program,” redshirt junior pitcher Jeff Brigham said. “But when he is so dedicated, you want to stay with it. And then when you finally start seeing the breakthroughs, you understand that what he’s doing is right and what he brings to the program is the right attitude and a will to win.”
Three years ago, Meggs was scuffling through the worst season of his coaching career. The Huskies were in the middle of a 17-37 campaign. On a plane ride home after being swept at UCLA, Meggs found himself seated next to Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
Carroll was early in a rebuilding process, too. He and Meggs wound up talking for the entire flight about the challenge of changing a culture. Carroll encouraged Meggs. He also told him to embrace the ride to the top.
“Building is the most enjoyable part of it,” Carroll said. “Sometimes, it’s hard to stay on top.”
When the plane landed, the two exchanged phone numbers. “I’m going to call you,” Carroll said.
Meggs figured he would forget. But his phone rang one day, and the voice on the other end said: “Hey, it’s Pete. I need some tickets.”
Carroll came to a game and spoke to the Washington players. He also invited Meggs to watch the Seahawks practice. They realized they were similar, only Carroll is more effervescent.
“He saw how beat up I was,” Meggs said. “His encouragement meant a lot to me.”
Now, Carroll is atop the NFL. And Meggs has a quality team that seems well-suited for the postseason.
You hear about the Huskies’ success, and it’s easy to get caught up in some of their incredible individual stories. Pitcher Tyler Davis, the glasses-wearing redhead, has developed into one of the best players in college baseball. Outfielder Brian Wolfe powers the offense. Center fielder Braden Bishop made “SportsCenter” with an incredible catch two months ago.
But while the Huskies have ample star power, they’re far more diverse when you watch them play. Shortstop Erik Forgione and second baseman Andrew Ely are slick middle infielders, and they’re a double play waiting to happen. Catcher Austin Rei rakes and throws out runners consistently. Designated hitter/first baseman Trevor Mitsui seems to get on base all the time. Their starting pitching is good, and their bullpen is consistent.
When Meggs arrived, his challenge was to make the team more versatile. He believes in the short game, in bunting and running the bases exquisitely and moving runners in every way possible. He coaches the Huskies with the vision of how they’re going to come through when they need to score one run, by any means, to win a championship game.
“I’ve seen it all,” Meggs said. “I’ve coached in four national championship games, and whether the score is 16-15 or 2-1, in the postseason, it’s going to be a one-run game that decides whether you advance. And you have to be able to manufacture a run. Even if you’ve hit five home runs, it might come down to scratching to get one last run.”
Meggs is here partly because of a close loss. He didn’t leave Chico State eight years ago solely out of curiosity about the next level. He left because of a heartbreaking defeat.
In 2006, the Wildcats were one out away from Meggs’ third national championship. Heck, they were one strike away. Players were standing on the top step of the dugout, ready to charge the mound. But they couldn’t close the game and wound up losing in extra innings.
Meggs was devastated.
“I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” Meggs told his wife, Teresa, afterward.
For 13 years, he had pushed Chico State, not just the players but the entire university, running his program like a Division I school and demanding that everyone around him do the same. He had built a dominant program. But that painful loss made him realize it was time for a different challenge. So he took the job at Indiana State.
“It was an emotional thing for me,” Meggs said. “It made me take a step back. I needed a change. I never in my lifetime, never thought that I would leave the West Coast. I never thought I would live in Terre Haute, Ind. But it was a good thing. It was great for us, and I don’t know if I’ve ever had a better experience.”
This Washington experience might trump Indiana State one day, however.
As long as Meggs stops to appreciate what he’s accomplishing.
Or better yet, he should take another long drive to reflect. When this season ends, he’ll have plenty of success to ponder.
“We trust him and believe in what he’s trying to do here,” Wolfe says of his skipper. “I don’t know how you couldn’t believe in it after what we’ve done so far this year.”
Maybe the Huskies can even get Meggs to express joy.
“There are occasions when he’ll crack a smile,” Brigham said. “Once in a blue moon.”
Like all great grinders, Meggs will be the last to marvel at what he’s achieved.
|Lindsay Meggs’ record as an Division I head baseball coach:|
|Notable: Meggs coached at Cal State Chico from 1994-2006, where his team was a major national power, winning two Division II national championships.|
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277