CARY, N.C. -- A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away known as minor league baseball, Randy Betten and Joe Urso were teammates.
They were together in 1996 on the Lake Elsinore Storm, an advanced single-A affiliate of the team now known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Their lockers sat next to each other, and they even share the same birthdate -- July 28. Urso is one year older.Though both young men played a variety of positions, each spent time at second base. The bus leagues can sometimes be brutal and cut-throat as players try to move up the minor league ladder and maybe even someday to "the show," "the bigs," the majors.
These two? That wasn’t their style. They were teammates; friends, even.
“That’s where I think me and Randy were different than a lot of guys,” Urso said. “We were team first. Even though it was a professional team where a lot of guys do possibly root against their teammates as competition, I think me and Randy always pulled for each other.
“We always pulled for everybody on the team. We were more organizational guys … we weren’t considered prospects, so we just played the game hard, played it the right way, played it for the right reasons to try to win a ballgame, which in the minor leagues is not always the case.”
Baseball can be a funny game sometimes. Sunday, they’ll be looking at each other from opposite dugouts in the NCAA Division II Baseball Championship.
Urso’s Tampa squad is a perennial DII powerhouse, while Cal Poly Pomona and Betten are in contention for the first time. Their relationship is like this: When it came time for Betten to interview for the Cal Poly Pomona gig five years ago, he called Urso for advice.
He liked what he heard.
“Right before I accepted, I called him and said, ‘Hey, what have we got here? Tell me what Division II baseball is all about,’ ” Betten said. “I didn’t know truly what the game level and speed was about. He filled me in and said it was great.
“I have a young family, so it was important to have that family life as well as have my competitiveness with baseball. When I called him, I asked him, ‘Can I still be a husband to my wife, a father to my kids and still enjoy a high level of baseball?’ ”
Urso’s answer was a resounding yes, that being the head coach of a DII college baseball team was the best job in America. Sold. Betten has been with the Broncos ever since.
Life in the minor leagues can be interesting thanks in no small part to movies like Bull Durham. Long bus rides and one game after another in ball parks far removed from any semblance of luxury can lead to boredom. And boredom can sometimes lead to no good.
That wasn’t Urso and Betten's style either.
“Randy played the game hard, played it the right way,” Urso said. “There’s no crazy stories with Randy at all. He may have some crazy ones with me, but, no, he’s just a class act. In pro ball, there’s a lot of cursing that goes on, and he doesn’t do that. We would always tease him a little bit on that, but he was raised the right way. He’s a great role model for anyone who watched him play.”
Likewise, Betten couldn’t remember any shenanigans that Urso might or might not have gotten himself into. And instead of a cut-throat competitor for playing time, Betten appreciated the fact that Urso always seemed to be there for him and willing to help improve his game.
“His role was more of a player-coach,” Betten said. “It wasn’t really to compete with you for the job. It was more like, ‘How can I help you get ahead?’ I think that’s just his personality. I think he knew his limitations of where he was and how far he was going to go in professional baseball. I think he knew that eventually, coaching was going to be in his career path.”
Whoever wins Sunday will be one more chapter in a long history together.