No triumph after tragedies for Georgia baseball team

semerson@macon.comApril 27, 2013 

ATHENS -- Every day after a loss, and there have been a lot, Georgia shortstop Kyle Farmer should get a perspective jolt when he gets home to his room. But that only makes it worse.

Farmer’s roommate is Chance Veazey, the paralyzed former Bulldogs player. He should be part of an uplifting story, the Georgia baseball program winning for Veazey, and winning for Jonathan Taylor, another paralyzed former teammate.

“It’s not on Showtime. If we were winning, that’s what the story would be,” Farmer said. “But it’s not. And it’s tough.”

Once a perennial national contender, these are sad times for the Georgia baseball program, which is not only enduring a losing season bordering on terrible but has had to dismiss two players after arrests and is still shadowed by not one, but two catastrophic injuries.

The Bulldogs lost again Saturday, a hard-luck 2-1 loss to Arkansas. It dropped the team to 16-28 overall and 4-16 in the SEC, the worst record in the conference. The games at Foley Field have been sparsely attended, with a few dozen Arkansas fans almost as loud as Georgia’s on Saturday.

Barring a late turnaround that would border on miraculous, Georgia will miss the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years. It’s a far cry from when the team made three trips to the College World Series from 2004-08 and has led to increased speculation about head coach David Perno’s future.

Just last week, freshman first baseman J.T. Phillips was dismissed from the team a day after being arrested on a DUI charge. It was the night before a doubleheader. That followed the dismissal last fall of shortstop Kyle Carter, who was Phillips’ former teammate on Columbus’ 2006 Little League World Series team.

Prior to this year, the story was of more tragic losses.

Veazey was paralyzed from the waist down in a scooter accident in October of his freshman year. He never played a game for Georgia. Taylor suffered a paralyzing neck injury in an outfield collision during the 2011 season.

Last year, athletics director Greg McGarity cited the injuries when he announced Perno was returning for his 12th year. Many around the team say the injuries to Veazey and Taylor still cast a shadow over the program.

“It did kind of take a toll on Coach Perno,” Farmer said. “I remember him telling me that he was a guy that wanted to win and win, win, win. And that happened to him, and he was like, ‘There’s more to life than winning.’ It changed his whole perspective. It changed mine, too. Life is important, and you’ve gotta take every day like it’s your last.”

Perno won’t say that it has changed his perspective on losing. When asked if everything he has gone through (his mother also passed away last July) has made it hard to look at losing as life or death, Perno shook his head.

“Oh it stinks,” he said. “It’s hard. It’s never -- because you put so much in it, and you’re so passionate about it, and you love being here. That’s the one thing about this group, and I’ve told them from day one, I love coming here. I hate that we are in the position we are. But I love being around these guys. … They still believe we can win. I’m proud of them for that.”

But Farmer says the Veazey and Taylor injuries not only still loom over the program, but they take away from how good this team would be right now. While Taylor’s eligibility would be up, Veazey would be a senior this year.

“I was thinking about it the other day. He could be playing second base with me and it’d be a whole different story, because he was a great player,” Farmer said. “I mean he was probably one of the best that was in my class.”

That Georgia is struggling this year isn’t surprising. It was picked to finish sixth in the SEC East in a preseason coaches’ vote. But that it’s struggling this much is still startling.

“David Perno is a good coach; he’s a good evaluator of talent,” Baseball America national college analyst Aaron Fitt said. “Yeah they’ve underachieved. It makes sense that this program should be able to contend, with the talent base that they have. But hey, they’ve been to Omaha; they’ve almost won a national championship. And they play in a really tough league.”

Fitt says the outside perspective is that while Georgia should be much better, Perno has shown in the past he knows how to win.

“It’s gonna be interesting to see how this plays out,” Fitt said.

McGarity, who has known Perno for a long time, is doing what an athletics director typically does with a coach on the hot seat. He’s saying Perno will be evaluated after the season.

“I’m sure David is making sure that he and his coaches are being as positive as they possibly can,” McGarity said. “And I think the leadership on the team has to adopt that same attitude, to where we can turn this thing around. That’s the only way you can approach it.”

At its simplistic core, the problems for Georgia this season -- and for that matter last season -- have been two-fold:

• No pitching ace, someone the team could put out on the mound the Friday of every series and count on a great outing.

• No big bat in the middle of the lineup that other teams fear and pitch around.

Everything kind of goes from there, and Perno agreed.

“When you’ve got a go-to guy -- and even last year, we didn’t hit a lot more, we hit about the same, but we had (Alex) Wood on Friday night. And so we were in every Friday night game and won most of them,” Perno said. “So you had something to fall back on. Just like when you had (Gordon) Beckham, if everyone else stopped hitting, you still had him. That presence, unfortunately, we don’t have.

“We like what we have. They’re good kids. They’ve just gotta get better these last 15 games. I haven’t given up hope from this situation. I’m proud of this team, because they have given it to us every day.”

Still, the overall talent also appears to be down. There aren’t major league scouts at Georgia games as there used to be.

But there is some talent. Baseball America rated Georgia’s signing class (the current batch of freshmen) among the best in the nation.

“I still think they’ve got a good foundation there,” Fitt said. “Now they’ve just got to develop them.”

For those who say the program can’t rebound under Perno, he points out that they’ve done it before.

“We’ve gone the worst to first twice,” Perno said. “In ’03 we were one of the worst in the league. And we won it in ’04 and went to the College World Series. In ’07 we were one of the worst in the league, in ’08 we went (to the CWS). It’s never as bad as it seems; you’re never as far away when you play in this league. … What you need is these guys to grow a little bit. You’ve got some really good players in that group.”

Outfielder Jared Walsh and pitcher Sean McLaughlin are “special,” according to Perno. Three other players are hurt: sophomore outfielder Connor Welton, junior catcher Brandon Stephens and sophomore pitcher Pete Nagel.

“Those were three kind of rocks in our lineup. And none of them are available this year. They’re all back next year,” Perno said. “What I worry about is I don’t want this team to go away easy. A couple new recruits, a couple guys getting healthy next year and getting back in the fold, we’re going to be fine.”

The question is whether Perno will get a chance to coach them.

One moment illustrates, for Perno, how close he feels his team is. During Saturday’s game against Arkansas, Brett DeLoach reached down and clubbed a shot to left that looked like a home run. But a breeze pushed it down. The left fielder, hugging the wall, hauled it in a few steps away from a banner that commemorates Georgia’s appearance in the 2008 College World Series.

Georgia is a long way from five years ago, and a long way from Omaha.

“Chance, I remember him telling me he wanted to go out to Omaha his last year,” Farmer said. “And I did, too.”

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