Aug. 4, 2011
By Gregg Bell UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - There are indicators all over that Husky baseball is on its way back.
There are hulking backhoes along the western perimeter of Husky Ballpark building an overdue baseball operations facility.
There are former players pumped that dirt is actually being moved. There is momentum rising for the rest of the job: the complete renovation of Husky Ballpark.
There are NCAA rules changes that have reduced the potency of aluminum bats and bent the game more toward UW's new, small-ball ways.
Most of all, there is the tanned face, the squared jaw and the gritty determination of the man leading this reclamation project. He's the self-described "perfectionist" coach who just finished his second season at Washington.
"Lindsay Meggs raises the intensity level of everyone around him," Ritch Price, the man who gave Meggs his first coaching job 25 years ago at California's DeAnza Community College, told me Tuesday over the phone from Kansas University.
"He's a grinder."
And now, more than ever for UW baseball, is the time for grindin'.
"Lindsay Meggs raises the intensity level of everyone around him. He's a grinder."
With all the buzz over football's revival -- plus the continued excellence of Husky basketball, volleyball, softball, crew, soccer, golf, tennis, track -- you probably don't know much about baseball's renovation at Washington. It's literally in its first days.
You probably know even less about Meggs.
Heck, his players may not even know that their coach not only has played professional baseball but has been to law school. Or that he once worked for a Silicon Valley startup company specializing in semiconductors, back when computers used floppy disks and laptops were still where your little kids sat.
A quarter century later, Meggs is on his fourth startup - his third one in baseball.
He won two Division II national championships while getting a new stadium built during his 13 seasons leading Chico State in his native California. He returned a downtrodden Indiana State program to prominence in less than three years, getting a new stadium approved and going while there, too. Then he accepted UW's offer to replace Ken Knutson in the summer of 2009.
Now he's trying for a personal reconstruction trifecta at Washington.
The machines and fences and dirt passersby can currently see from Montlake Boulevard represent the first, long-awaited step: a $4 million baseball operations facility down the right-field line.
A big-time place befitting a program in a big-time conference.
The start of renovations and the potential it represents are why he wasn't in Terre Haute, Ind., last week but was here on campus. He was running a vibrant youth baseball camp in the morning, checking in on the facility construction in the afternoon and engaging enthused former players and donors in evening.
The former honorable mention All-Pac-10 third baseman at UCLA took the Washington job because he called it "a life-changing opportunity" to lead a team in a power conference, one that has far more resources than what exists inside the Missouri Valley Conference. Indeed, UW gave him a five-year contract that runs through June 30, 2014.
"It was just the opportunity to coach in the Pac-10," he says. "Everybody's goal at this level is to get to the College World Series. And I was in a conference - as talented as we were at Indiana State - where we were going to be lucky to get two teams in (the NCAA tournament each year). And here, we got six teams in this year, eight teams in the year before.
"So, we get this thing headed in the direction we think we can, we'll feel like we'll have a chance to get into the postseason every year."
FROM LAW TO SEMICONDUCTORS BACK TO BALL
"You know, I never really wanted to (coach)," Meggs told me as we stood next to the construction site for baseball's locker room, training center and meeting place expected to be completed around March.
"My dad is a lawyer. My brother is a lawyer."
Kansas City drafted him out of UCLA in the 15th round in 1984 and sent him to Class-A Eugene, Ore. But the Royals released him following an '84 season in which the 5-foot-11, 175-pound infielder hit .238 in 58 games as a 21-year old.
Meggs then followed the family path and attended the California Western School of Law in San Diego.
"After I got released by the Royals, I was kind of like, `Hey, I've had enough of baseball. Let's see go in another direction,'" he said.
But law wasn't the answer.
"I realized after a year that wasn't what I wanted to do to make some money. So I worked for a year in a startup company," he said.
That was Maxim Integrated Products in Sunnyvale, Calif., near where he grew up in the south Bay Area. He was basically in on the ground floor of a semiconductor company that had started a few years earlier - and now has revenues and assets of more than $7 billion, with more than 9,000 employees.
Yet in 1987, baseball pulled him back. Price, then in his second year as the head man at nearby DeAnza Community College, had followed Meggs' baseball career since he left neighboring Saratoga High School.
"I knew he was a very intelligent guy, and when you watch him on a baseball field he brings an incredible amount of passion and knowledge of the game," Price said.
Wasn't it a hard sell getting Meggs out of Silicon Valley and back into baseball as an 8-to-5 volunteer assisting mainly on weekends?
"Oh, no. He couldn't wait to get back into baseball," Price said. "He said to me, `Coach, this business stuff isn't for me.'"
Meggs got his first head coaching job a little more than a year later. Oxnard Junior College in Southern California hired him following the 1988 season.
From there, he became a coaching sponge. He learned directly from the legends of the sport: Mike Gillespie, who is now leading UC Irvine after a national-championship career at USC; Augie Garrido, the national title-winner at Fullerton State and Texas; Price, who used to be at Cal Poly and just finished his 27th year of coaching.
"We are demanding. We are, if you want to call it, perfectionists," Meggs said of his UW staff. "We have an expectation of how this game should be played. So while we know we can't be perfect, our goal is always perfection. That creates the pressure. That creates demands on people. But that's the way we like it.
"Our expectations are high. We want kids who want to be pushed, who like that pressure."
THE TASK AT HAND
Every time a new coach arrives to restore a program, people around it really have only one question: How long?
UW has gone 45-65 overall, 21-31 inside the Pac-10, in Meggs' first two seasons. The roster he inherited was built to outscore opponents with power; Meggs and his staff preach small ball. Their game is about defense, pitching, speed, and pressurized, low-scoring games won in the late innings.
"We walked into a situation where the style of play was completely backwards from what we are trying to preach," Meggs said.
"This fall is really our first full recruiting class. We were here last year for a recruiting class, but baseball recruiting - like football and basketball - has gotten so far out in front the kids we would have been attracted to when we first got here had already verbally committed to other schools. So, for the most part, we sat on our hands and passed on some people so we could have a larger class in the fall of '11.
"We're bringing 20 guys in right now. That, for us, in many respects that is the beginning for us in the recruiting."
Meggs and his staff preach small ball. Their game is about defense, pitching, speed, and pressurized, low-scoring games won in the late innings.
When I ask him if it's been tougher than he thought it would be to turn around the Huskies, Meggs blew air through his lips.
"There was more work to do on the recruiting end than I thought was necessary before I got here," he said.
That's where this construction can pay huge dividends. The top in-state players, ones who have been fleeing south, will see the modern player locker room spanning 1,600 feet facing the playing field on the east side, behind the building's glass-enclosed entrance lobby, when the baseball facility is completed in March or so. They will see a study room, a video room and a 1,400 square-foot meeting area that can serve as a pregame reception area for guests and supporters of the program that will have sweeping views of the field and of Lake Washington behind it.
"We think with the beginning of what we are doing now, we can recruit nationally. We can go to the Midwest, the South, we can go to California, we can bring guys in from everywhere," Meggs said.
I sense that the program's donors will see the new building, feel the momentum from it and the imminent renovation of football's Husky Stadium down the access road, and make the capstone piece of a new Husky Ballpark a reality soon. Initial plans call for the 2,212-seat field to become a 3,000-seat stadium with a permanent seating bowl, chair backs, a half-dozen suites, roof coverage for 25 percent of seating, plus a new press box and permanent concourse and concession areas.
The new, expanded park would increase chances Washington could host a regional or super-regional during Seattle's bettter-weather days of June. That, in turn, would immensely increase the chances of the Huskies reaching Meggs' lifelong goal: the College World Series.
The time for UW baseball's turnaround is now.
I asked Meggs where he envisions himself in 15 years.
"Hosting regionals on a routine basis. Hosting super regionals. Battling for national championships in Omaha," he said, flatly and without hesitation. "Being able to walk into kids' living rooms and have the ability to say, `Hey, you come to the University of Washington you'll have a chance to play in the College World Series.'
"That's why we're here."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.