OMAHA, Neb. — In a way, Mike Martin’s last bow as a baseball coach began the night before, in an Omaha steakhouse. His family gathered around the table — he, wife Carol, their children and grandchildren — as the courses came, and the clock ticked on his final Florida State season.
It would be natural to say there was deep reflection, and shared memories of a career well spent. They all had to understand that Texas Tech would be a difficult opponent the next night, that the end might be near. Natural, but wrong.
“He was too busy teaching manners. They listen to him more than they listen to me,” son Mike Jr. said, meaning his own kids. “Thank goodness I didn’t have to reach for the check, because it was a big number.”
Well, about that.
“He ordered a dadgum calamari plate that cost me 50 bucks,” Mike Sr. said of his son. “I ate half of it, though.”
So much for the melancholy of goodbye. He chose to leave the baseball landscape smiling, and complaining about the price of squid, rather than the 4-1 loss to Texas Tech that ended his career.
Here is what Martin wanted Wednesday, if it had to be the last night.
“I thought about this moment. I prayed hard that I didn’t lose my cool because there were a couple of things tonight where I got attitude. But that’s baseball, that’s life. There’s a lot of things we go through in life we have to learn to live with, and this is one of them.”
In defeat, he wanted to be able to march right over and shake the hand of Tim Tadlock — the Texas Tech coach who was 11 years old when Martin coached his first game at Florida State. He wanted to offer sincere praise, and hearty congratulations. “Not go out there with a frown on my face and display a part of me that’s not there.”
That’s what happened Wednesday, first to last. Everywhere he went on this final night.
There No. 11 was in the shadows of a Nebraska evening, standing at home plate, exchanging lineup cards, shaking hands, savoring another night in Omaha, not wanting to be in any other place in the world.
There he was in the dugout with his Florida State team, exhorting the Seminoles for this elimination win-or-he’s done game. “Have fun,” he said to them, “and let’s play baseball!” Fun and baseball. Two words connected for most of his 75 years. Actually, throw in one more word, and you have pretty much the triumvirate of Mike Martin’s professional life. Fun, baseball, coaching.
There he was, leaning serenely on the dugout rail three hours later when it was all over — the game, the College World Series for Florida State, his career. The Seminoles offense had never really arrived in Omaha. They scored two runs in three games, had eight hits and went 0-for-17 with runners in scoring position. Oh, the irony of that last number, for he ended 0-for-17 in Omaha himself. What Wednesday confirmed was that he will always have Hall of Fame renown, legendary stature, a heart of gold and 2,029 victories. But he will never have a national championship.
And still, he aimed to leave happy.
There he was when it was over, telling ESPN on the field, “Boy, this is where you want it all to end.”
There he was in dugout, as the Florida State fans broke into a steady chant. Eleven! Eleven! Eleven!” He came out and smiled and waved, of course. “Thanks so much for being here,” he told them. “Love you all.”
Later, he would say, “When they started calling for me I wasn’t about to ignore that, because I owe that to them to go back out there.”
There he was, walking into the clubhouse to tell his players how proud he was of them, and how losing was part of living. His losing, too.
“He told the guys in there, look, you don’t get everything in life you want,” Mike Jr. said. “It was tough. You spend so much time with these guys, you care so much about them, to see them bawling their eyes out, it’s tough.
“They loved him. Well, we shouldn’t act like he’s dead. They love him. But it’s hard on everybody.”
There he was, hugging his wife in the hallway, while down the way, young Florida State players tried to describe what it meant, to be under the care of this septuagenarian.
Reese Albert: “It’s something I’m going to look back on for the rest of my life, the chance to play for Mike Martin.”
Mike Salvatore: “Not many people get to say they were a part of his journey, and especially these last two years, how meaningful they were. How much I learned as a baseball player and as a person will really stick with me for the rest of my life.”
Drew Mendoza: “Just to be with him day in and day out and just know the kind of person he is and to grow as a man with him at the helm, it's been everything I could have dreamed of.”
There he was, headed for his last press conference.
He would answer if the reality had hit him yet: “I’m sure in the next few days it will, when I start cleaning out the office and looking at old pictures, and maybe even myself when I didn’t have gray hair.”
And if he would dwell on this loss and the others in Omaha, too: “I think if you start looking for excuses, you’re just doing nothing but sitting in a corner twiddling your thumb.”
And what he would miss the most: “The teaching part. I mean, for the last at least 30 years, when the guys take ground balls, I'm in the outfield watching. It was as recent as six hours ago when I was right there. and they were taking ground balls.”
And how would like to be remembered: “This is the only time it gets hard. I want to be remembered as a guy who did it right. I want to be remembered as a guy who played the game hard but made others around me feel good when they whipped my fanny.”
He assured he would be in the stands next season for Florida State games, and then listed off all the trips Carol has planned. “That’s a lot of golf I’m going to miss, woman,” he said.
AUBURN'S YEAR IN REVIEW: Despite two losses, Auburn walks away from Omaha as winners
There he was, smiling again. He was happy for Tim Tadlock — “I’ve never heard anybody say a bad word about Mike Martin,” the Texas Tech coach said — and he was happy about the state of college baseball, and he was happy to be in Omaha, and he was happy about what the past 40 years gave him, and what he gave back.
And come to think of it, he was happy about that dinner the night before, no matter what it cost. For if this had to be the finish line, how much better could it get, than be with family — in Omaha? This city has always been the epicenter of his baseball dreams, even if those dreams never completely came true.
“It was a meaningful experience,” he said. “One that I will always remember.”
There he was at the end, a man comfortable with his last night as a coach, and all the nights before. But now it was time to go home.