OMAHA, Neb. – One of the busiest guys from the state of Michigan has a few minutes to chat, but first, he must turn off his cell phone. Or else the thing will be blinging non-stop.
“After the last out yesterday there were 147 texts in three minutes,” Wayne Welton says. “It has literally been breath-taking, on and off the field for us.”
Who’s trying to reach him? Could be an administrator, could be an alum, could be Barry Larkin or Tom Brady. Michigan-mania has exploded, with the Wolverines in the College World Series finals. And Welton is the man they need to talk to.
Born and raised in Michigan. A successful high school baseball coach for 33 years — a state title, more than 700 victories. Then he took the job on the Michigan staff. A year later, Erik Bakich came in as head coach, and the two had a two-hour lunch to discuss players.
When they were done eating, Bakich looked at Welton and said, “You’re in."
“In for what?” Welton asked.
“I want you on the staff.”
Seven years later, he’s the director of operations for Michigan baseball, and boy, has that been a hectic job, lately.
The Wolverines’ amazing journey has been well-documented, how they’ve been home five nights in five weeks, bouncing around the map on the Road to Omaha. The man who has had to do all the logistics leg work, all the hotel and meal and travel planning, all the ticket requests, and now the inquiries from the great and not-so-great who want on the bandwagon? Wayne Welton.
This pilgrimage has seemed to go on forever. “I think our guys have actually thrived on it. It’s brought us closer because we’re here and it’s just us,” he says, sitting in an empty hotel meeting room that will soon be filled with Michigan players eating lunch. “We look back often. We were one video replay in the Big Ten tournament from probably having no opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament. Then after that replay overturned a safe-out call, we got a two-out, two-strike double in the gap to extend our season, and it’s been a magical ride since then.”
Oregon State held a special graduation ceremony last June for its seniors in a hotel ballroom in Omaha. Welton has caught a break there, with Michigan’s academic calendar. Classes and graduation were over before this trek ever began. “We like to tell our guys they have two full-time jobs, a student and a baseball player. The student part ended for almost all our guys the first week of May.”
But he’s had to deal with plenty else. Meals to plan, buses and flights to ensure are on time, schedules to maintain. And don’t even get him started about the maladies such as strep throat that can spread through a bunch of guys packed together this long. The trainer, he mentions, “has had plenty to do.” Also, Bakich likes his players involved in public service activities, so Welton has included that in the itinerary.
“We’ve tried to keep that theme going as we’ve been in Omaha. We visited the Nebraska medical pediatric center the other day. We’ve had people reach out to us all the time for one-on-one relationship building kinds of things. We had a young gal meet our team the other day at practice who had had 40 different back surgeries, and she’s only eight years old. We enjoy reaching out to others and helping others. Right now, we’re a hot item so people like to reach out to us.”
Alums are all over him, wanting to be in on this. “I’ve probably answered texts from six different alumni this morning. We’re all getting it. Coach Bakich is probably wearing it the most.”
And then there are the interested icons. When the Cincinnati Reds swept the Oakland A’s in a shocking 1990 World Series, three of their first six hitters were Michigan men – Barry Larkin, Chris Sabo and Hal Morris. Jim Abbott became a legend as a major league pitcher born with one arm. Brady made his way in another sport.
“They’re all in,” Welton says. “Barry Larkin and Jim Abbott have sent the guys video pump-ups. Tom Brady has sent us a get -fired-up and gave us a challenge that every step you go, it gets tougher and the challenge is steeper.”
Any special message planned for Monday, when the Wolverines open the finals against Vanderbilt?
“I’m sure coach has something in his mind. He doesn’t always tell us, either. We’ve had a motivation speaker every Thursday night before each segment of our season.”
It’s frantic. It’s non-stop. By now, between the Big Ten Tournament and College World Series, it feels like it’s Omaha, Michigan. “I could get in a car and drive around pretty good. Our staff has joked if we stay here much longer, we’re probably going to have to pay taxes. My wife and I ran to the laundromat the other day just to make sure we had enough clean clothes to wear.”
But he’s loving it. Here’s a guy who once interrupted his baseball career to study landscape architecture at Michigan. That didn’t last long. “One day I woke up and said, what are you doing? I think my landscape architect work got transferred to the baseball field. You’re mowing and you’re edging and you’re doing all the things to take care of a ballpark, and I still love doing all those things today.”
His home is still a half-mile from the high school where he coached the Chelsea Bulldogs all those decades. His life has been baseball and the state of Michigan, so imagine what this season has meant to him.
“To have lived this dream the last six weeks,” he says, "it’s beyond your wildest dreams.”
But now Wayne Welton has work to do. He turns on his cellphone.
Any texts during the brief break from a frenzied Wolverine nation? “There’re 10.”