From Athens to Athens: Stricklin’s baseball journey

semerson@macon.comJuly 2, 2013 

ATHENS -- Scott Stricklin, who just became a rich and important man, and just had a big press conference to welcome him to Georgia, is at this moment on the phone with the tech department. His e-mail doesn’t work.

“Ludlow, do you think you can come up here?” Stricklin is saying, in a mixture of hurry and exasperation. “It’s my desktop. The e-mail isn’t popping up.”

A few minutes later Ludlow shows up, and the e-mail gets fixed. The bigger question is whether Stricklin can fix the ailing Georgia baseball program.

The once-proud program is now in the hands of a man whose mother told him that he always seemed to make the right big decisions: Going away for college. Quitting his playing career at the right time. Going into college coaching rather than the minors. And now, he hopes, waiting for the right job to make him leave his alma mater, where he was a raging success.

Stricklin, now 41, guided Kent State to the College World Series in 2012, and won 65 percent of his games in his nine years as head coach. He passed on some other opportunities to come to Georgia, which has had three losing seasons in the past four.

The following two facts make it seem like destiny: Stricklin was born and raised in Athens, Ohio. And his high school team’s mascot, of course, was the Bulldogs.

He was a baseball kid: He grew up a Cincinnati Reds fan, and in his backyard he would pretend to be Reds shortstops Dave Concepción and Barry Larkin. He’d throw a tennis ball off the garage wall, and pretend he had to get off a quick throw to first to get the out.

“And catching a tennis ball in a baseball glove is hard to do,” Stricklin says, sitting in a chair outside his new office last month. “I think that taught me soft hands, and it taught me the quick release. And I was just playing games in my mind, throwing people out at first base, and 10 years later all of a sudden I get into pro ball and I have good hands and I had a quick release. And I think it all came from me being Barry Larkin trying to get a quick out.”

But his shortstop career didn’t last long. He was turned into a catcher at age 12 on his Little League team, which won the Ohio state championship. They were three games away from making it to Williamsport and the Little League World Series.

“I wasn’t athletic enough to play anywhere else,” Stricklin says, with a self-effacing smile.

(Stricklin does not take himself too seriously, as becomes obvious during a half-hour interview outside his new office.)

He didn’t draw much interest coming out of high school. He wasn’t drafted. His only college scholarship offers were Kent State and Ohio University, his hometown school.

“It’s a very similar town to Athens, Ga.,” Stricklin said of his hometown. “It’s a college town, it’s a beautiful campus. It’s really known as a friendly campus. But I really wanted to get away from home, that’s why I decided to go to Kent State. I just decided I wanted to not go to the place where all my high school buddies were going, and decided to go out on my own.”

It was the first major decision that worked out. He impressed scouts enough that the Minnesota Twins made him a 23rd-round pick. It also helped that he was a left-handed hitter, although not a great one.

“I always would joke with my wife that we would live in a bigger house if I could hit a little bit more,” Stricklin said. “Guys that can really hit have that ability to be explosive with their wrists and their forearms, and the ball jumps off their bat. It’s a different sound, when you watch a guy that can hit, it’s a different sound when it comes off the guy’s bat.”

And it didn’t sound like that when it came off Stricklin’s bat, unfortunately. He was good enough to scuff around the minor leagues for five years, but was never much of a major league prospect.

The highest he reached was Double-A, playing for the Greenville (S.C.) Braves. He played on a team with Andruw Jones, who hit 13 home runs in about a month with Greenville before being promoted. Two months later he was in the majors and hitting homers in the World Series.

“The best player I’ve ever seen. Just a natural gifted athlete,” Stricklin said.

Stricklin, on the other hand, returned to Single-A for the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, for what turned out to be his final minor league season. He had a good season, and heading into spring training in 1998, he felt like his career was on the upswing. He was invited to big league camp and had a good spring training, and thought he had a chance to make the Triple-A roster. He would have been in Durham.

But that didn’t happen. In fact, the Devil Rays wanted Stricklin to go back to Single-A, because they still didn’t have a Double-A team that year. And the prospect of going back to Single-A, at 26 years old, was too much for Stricklin.

“I knew I was a longshot because I didn’t hit enough,” he said. “But I could catch and throw enough to be a backup catcher, that if I could get a break and get there (to the majors) I might be able to stick. But that was when reality hit me.”

He had looked up to Greg Olson, a career minor leaguer who finally after 12 years made it to the majors, with Atlanta. Now Stricklin decided that wouldn’t happen for him. It was time to retire and get into coaching.

The Devil Rays asked him to stay with the organization in some off-field capacity. It would have been a good way to eventually be a manager or coach at the pro level, but he preferred the ability to develop players at the college level.

“In pro ball you get a player for six months and he moves on,” he said. “In college you get to watch them develop a little bit. You get to watch a freshman turn into hopefully a junior and get drafted, but possibly four years. I just felt like that was more my niche.”

It turned out to be one of those key decision points in his life, and as he looked out at his new office at Georgia, he can reflect and know he made the right call.

His coaching career began at Georgia Tech, where he was a volunteer coach under Danny Hall, who had been his head coach at Kent State. He spent two years there, then became a full-time assistant at Vanderbilt, where he spent two more years before returning to Georgia Tech as recruiting coordinator. After three seasons there, he was named Kent State head coach.

As the wins piled up, the interest from bigger programs increased. It increased exponentially when the Golden Flashes made it to Omaha last year. The most high-profile school to come calling, at least publicly, was Michigan last year.

Stricklin won’t get into whether he turned down Michigan or any other school. But after Kent State missed the NCAAs this year, he told Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity that Georgia was one of the few, if not the only, job that would cause him to leave his alma mater.

McGarity had not planned on offering Stricklin the job during their interview. But he ended up doing just that.

“We could tell after the first hour that it was very obvious that it was a good fit,” McGarity said.

Stricklin retains some contacts in Georgia from his time at Georgia Tech. The first event he went to after being hired at Georgia was an event at the Lovett School in Atlanta. The first three pro scouts he saw were the same three he had seen during his time with the Yellow Jackets.

As for the near future, Stricklin feels he has enough to make the NCAA tournament in his first season. He said he “feels very good” that five players that signed with David Perno, the previous head coach, who were drafted by the pros will opt to come to Georgia. If that happens, Stricklin feels Georgia will have one of the best recruiting classes in the country.

Add in the returning talent base, including players who were injured, and: “I think this team should have expectations of being a regional team. And if you get to regionals anything can happen. Now certainly we want to do better than that, we want to host a regional. But you’ve got to take some steps along the way to get there. But I don’t think there’s any reason that we can’t have the expectation to be in the postseason in 2014.”

When he was at Georgia Tech, Stricklin saw Georgia up close enough that he believes firmly Georgia can be a consistent national power. Kent State did reach that stature, but Stricklin realized that maintaining that would be difficult.

“Looking at the big picture, this is the best conference in the country. I think Athens, Ga., is the best college town in the country,” Stricklin said. “There’s really no reason the University of Georgia can’t have a national power with its baseball program, year in and year out.”

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