Friday, May 25, 2012

'Etta Express keeps on rolling

For a small school from a small town in southeastern Ohio, Marietta College sure makes a lot of noise every May. The Pioneers are at it again this spring, advancing to the Division III World Series after winning the Mideast Regional over the weekend, giving the defending national champs their 22nd regional title and a shot at their sixth Division III crown.

Longtime coach Don Schaly earned legend status for building the 'Etta Express into a powerhouse and winning three championships in his 40 years at the helm. What will that make Brian Brewer if he can guide Marietta to a third title in just his ninth season as Schaly's replacement?

Even ardent fans of college baseball may not be familiar with either man, given that Marietta's fiercest rivalries are with Ohio Athletic Conference challengers Otterbein and Heidelberg and not Florida State or LSU. The Pioneers don't see a lot of air time, at least not until the postseason, when they show up almost annually in the D3 World Series.

But those who follow small-college ball know all about them. Veteran writer Gary Caruso, who graduated from Marietta in 1971, felt their story deserved telling, particularly after the Pioneers captured a D3-record fifth championship last spring. So with the encouragement of the school and the cooperation of countless former players, he wrote Marietta College Baseball: The Story of the 'Etta Express.

The book is an oral history of the program, with much of the text coming straight from the mouths of those who participated. Caruso weaves long block quotes, some running a page or more, to chronicle the school's success on the diamond, focusing on the era since Schaly took over as coach in 1964. The first half could almost serve as a biography on the chain-smoking disciplinarian who never had a losing record in four decades while compiling a 1,442-329 mark. In addition to winning three titles, his squads also finished as runner-up seven times and won 27 OAC championships.

Schaly played for Marietta in the late '50s, returning several years later as head coach. He cast a wide recruiting net, sending letters to potential players throughout Ohio and neighboring states. Long before the advent of baseball showcases, he relied on a network of contacts and a manual typewriter to pound out invitations to young men who had often never heard of him or the college. Then, as now, the school offered no athletic scholarships (no D3 schools do). His vision of building a winner sold enough boys that he soon had a track record to advertise. Their parents were won over by his no-nonsense demeanor. Of course, they weren't the ones who had to run laps-and lots of them-for every on- and off-field infraction.

Schaly intimidated more than umpires and opponents. The players' fear and/or hatred of their coach proved a powerful bonding agent in building a cohesive roster. Marietta faculty, including coaches of other sports, were loathe to take on the only man on campus with his own reserved parking space. Underneath that gruff exterior, however, there was a heart and a softer side most of the players saw better once they'd graduated.

Kent Tekulve pitched in the major leagues for 16 seasons and helped sell the program as one of its most successful graduates. He, however, was subject to the same treatment as everybody else back in his Marietta days.

"Schaly was a dictator," Tekulve says. "He was someone that definitely had an idea of where he was going and how he was going to get there. And you were either going to be in the boat or out of the boat. There was no room for compromise. There was a definite plan in place.

"This was the mid-'60s. We had the hippie generation going on around us. Well, the first thing you learn from Schaly is the hair thing. We were all going to look like him with a crew cut. That was part of the deal. Boy, did we stand out on campus! No one had long hair."

Brewer, a rough kid who survived a difficult youth, benefitted from the tough love as much as anyone else. And when the time came to name a replacement for Schaly in 2003, he wasn't afraid to step into that shadow.

"It's not easy to replace a guy like Schaly," says Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy, who played two years at Marietta before incurring the old coach's wrath by turning pro after his sophomore season. "Brian's case, on a much smaller scale, is like stepping in to replace Bear Bryant as the football coach at Alabama. And he's won two national championships already, which is absolutely incredible."

By passing down the lessons he learned from his predecessor, Brewer has maintained the string of winning seasons that dates back more than 50 years. It's only a matter of time before he matches Schaly's trophy collection, but he's got more than a thousand wins to go before he catches him on the all-time victory list.

Of course, another title may necessitate an update to Marietta College Baseball. That could allow for the cleanup of a few typos and misspellings to make this anecdote-rich introduction into an overlooked small-college powerhouse even better.

1 comment:

  1. Great book - a must read for anyone wanting to get the feel of a small college atmosphere and the building of a baseball machine!