OMAHA, Neb. — The man in the white Michigan shirt and cap sitting on the aisle of row 24, section 107 seemed a nervous train wreck. That was his son down there, batting for the Wolverines against Texas Tech in the College World Series, and here he was leaning forward, trying to will something good with shouted advice.
“I know,” Derek Kerr finally said in the direction of his distant son, “you’re not paying any attention to what we’re saying.”
Yep, the TV cameras caught nearly every twitch of Kerr’s anguish.
“That’s what I’m hearing,” his son Jimmy would say later in a hallway – as this rather remarkable family act that Michigan has going added yet another day to remember.
When Saturday dawned, there had been 13,155 days since Michigan last won a CWS game in Omaha. It had been 35 years since the Wolverines had even played in one. In the dugout as a backup catcher both times? Derek Kerr.
Try to imagine, then, what Saturday meant to him. Michigan wins the CWS opener 5-3, his son triples in two runs.
“And tomorrow’s Father’s Day,” he said. “It feels like Father’s Day today.”
But about all that squirming in the stands . . .
“Us dads, we try to find the right spot. Today I was sitting with some of the ’84 guys. We had four of us sitting right there, I didn’t move, we stayed together, just like we were together back in ’84.”
When Texas Tech was down to its last out in the ninth, there he was standing up, holding up one finger to the crowd, making sure everyone knew the situation, looking very much like the catcher he used to be. And after a third strike ended the game, he stood and clapped for The Victors, and then it seemed like he slapped about a thousand hands in the stands, everyone wearing the stickers with the mantra of the 153rd Wolverine squad in history – Team153. We believe.
The Kerr family story has already become one of the centerpieces of this College World Series. Not only son Jimmy and father Derek, but grandfather John, who pitched for the 1962 Michigan national champions. He must be the family member with the rubber arm, since he pitched 19 innings in one day back then to help get the Wolverines to Omaha. He has been along every step of the past exhausting month – from the Big Ten tournament here to the regional in Oregon to the super regional at UCLA; there to watch his grandson and this team defy odds and make new history.
But such travel can wear a guy out when he’s pushing 80, so he’s back home resting in Michigan, planning to get here later in the week. “I don’t want him to miss it because this is so special to him,” Derek said. “It has kept him going.”
John Kerr was surely watching Saturday, and look what he saw: Upstart Michigan making more trouble. The Wolverines beat a Texas Tech team that had swept them three games in March by a combined score of 29-10. Just like they had survived after being one strike away from having their season end in the Big Ten tournament. Just like they had ignored a loss to Creighton to win the regional, and shocked No. 1 seed UCLA in the super regional.
“We have no worries. We’re the underdogs, we have no pressure on us,” right fielder Jordan Brewer said. As evidence, he mentioned the Wolverines’ reaction after the Creighton loss in the regional.
“We got on the bus and the first thing was laughter. We know we’re better than that, there’s nothing to worry about, it happens. Stuff happens in baseball. Baseball is a sport about failure.”
Who was the first to laugh?
Another key face in this long ride is the engineering major who plays first base. Jimmy Kerr, continuing the family tradition of spending June in Omaha, and with his old Wolverine of a father here to see it.
“He’s been there all along,” Jimmy said. “My junior and senior year in high school, he was working in Dallas (as CFO of American Airlines) and even then he would fly back and come to my games. There’s no way I’d be in this position without him.”
Now all the male players in the Kerr family know what it feels like to win in Omaha. It’d been while. The last victory before Saturday was 11-4 over Stanford in 1983, when the Wolverines broke a tie with seven runs in the ninth inning. It included Chris Sabo driving in Barry Larkin – two future Cincinnati Reds – and then a grand slam by Casey Close. He would one day be a prominent sports agent and represent Derek Jeter.
“Casey’s here today, which is special to me,” said Derek. That goes for all the 1984 Wolverines who showed up. “ They’re here to support this team, support my son.
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It wasn’t hard to guess what Derek Kerr would be doing soon after Saturday’s game. He had a call to make to a man back Michigan. John Kerr would be waiting.
“I can’t wait. Later tonight when it’s quiet we’ll talk through the game like we always do, and hopefully I’ll get Jimmy on there with me.”
What about Sunday?
“The best part is I’ll get to spend it with (Jimmy). We won the game, we’ll get to relax,” said Derek.
“Maybe catch a ballgame,” said Jimmy said.
Dad and son, sharing victory and a weekend in Omaha, with grandfather due in town soon. Wolverines, all. Put that into words, Derek Kerr.
“The best Father’s Day I’ve ever had.”