College Baseball: Rice Owls buy into season of growth, survival
To hear Wayne Graham tell it, his exquisitely penned lineup cards are not a work of art but an homage to survival.
That struck a chord this season.
"There's nothing more fun if you're a teacher or a coach -- and I went into this business because I wanted to teach -- than watching people grow," Graham said. "This year -- more than any, probably -- has been a year of growth for people in our program."
Rice's coach -- an octogenarian now in his 26th year leading the Owls -- has led quite the baseball life.
Counting his time coaching at San Jacinto Junior College, he has won more than 1,700 games in his collegiate coaching career, including five junior college championships and one College World Series title.
Before that, he was a professional baseball player who played brief stints under Casey Stengel with the Mets (birth year: 1890) and Gene Mauch with the Phillies (birth year: 1925).
His baseball career spans back so far that he, as a professional baseball player, needed to find a job in the offseason to put food on his family's table.
Hence the lineup cards. Search for an image of one on the internet: His penmanship is so crisp and uniform it could easily be mistaken for typography.
It's all block letters, all sharing the same precise slight forward lean, all showing a hand that worked with absolute sureness.
He learned that skill at the University of Texas, then perfected it while working long hours as a draftsman at Texas Instruments in the mid-1960s and uses it to this day as a reminder that life isn't always easy, that the food on the plate needs to be earned.
It's a lesson he imparted on his baseball team this season, a season in which the Owls were at one point 13-25 and looking like a lock to miss the postseason for the first time since 1994.
"In our team meetings halfway through the year, coach started talking about how we need to play every game as if we were trying to survive," said sophomore catcher Dominic DiCaprio. "When you play for survival you play your best."
Surviving was a fitting metaphor, because Rice's chances at even reaching the postseason were on life support.
The Owls had to win five consecutive series to close out the year to even make the conference tournament, and up to that point they only had one series win under their belt all season. Then they'd have to win the Conference USA tournament to make the NCAA tournament field.
And here Rice is, getting ready for its 23rd consecutive NCAA regional appearance.
Not bad for an 81-year-old -- one who has no problems with reminding you of his age.
"Survival is survival; if you go hit the beach at Normandy, you're trying to live," Graham said.
His eyes darted around a room of 20 and 30-somethings. He had to have seen the easy recognition of the French town made infamous by World War II's D-Day invasion, but he needed to drive the point home anyway.
"Y'all don't even know what Normandy was," Graham said. "I was alive then."