- The Washington Times - Friday, January 9, 2009

MIAMI | Ask Urban Meyer about his days in baseball, and his eyes narrow, any trace of a smile disappearing.

No warm, way-back-when yarns of playing infield with future stars Ron Gant and Mark Lemke. No tender, coming-of-age tales about riding a rickety bus, making do with $5 in meal money at McDonald’s.

Drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1982 ahead of Jose Canseco and Bret Saberhagen, the Florida football coach spent two seasons in the low minors.

His stats tell part of the story: a .182 batting average, 17 errors in only 44 games. Meyer fills in the rest, and it’s easy to hear a teenager’s torment.

“I was completely overwhelmed,” Meyer said this week before his No. 1 Gators faced No. 2 Oklahoma for the BCS championship Thursday night. “I came from a small town where they threw the lob ball to you and they gave you a big aluminum bat. Then they give you a wooden bat, and you see an 88 mph slider.”

“I didn’t draw much from that experience other than I was very unhappy,” he said. “I wanted to quit, and I had great advice from home not to quit - in a very direct manner.”

In fact, Meyer’s dad put it this way: Go ahead and walk away if you want, but you won’t be welcome in this house again.

“It can be a torturous game,” Lemke said last week.

Overmatched, Meyer did his best. Slowed by a shoulder injury, he got cut in his second season of pro ball. He then went to college, became a defensive back at the University of Cincinnati and later started his rise through the coaching ranks.

At Florida, he won the 2006 national title. And every year, he tells incoming freshmen what he learned on the diamond.

“The only thing that I got out of that experience that I share with my players now is when they come to some big situation like Florida and they feel like they’re overwhelmed, I can share with them what I went through because I was them,” he said.

Lemke, a second baseman who helped Atlanta reach the World Series four times, remains close with Meyer. He plays in the coach’s annual golf tournament and has stood on the sidelines for a Gators game.

Gant is still a pal, too, and the coach is friends with former slugger Fred McGriff and Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon. When the Rays clinched the American League East, Meyer sent Maddon a bottle of wine.

Lemke clearly remembers the first time he met Meyer.

“Anytime a guy walks into the clubhouse with the first name of Urban, it wasn’t a name you’ll forget,” he said. “He was very talented, probably a lot more so than he gives himself credit for. We all struggled. It was a tough time for everybody. Most of us went straight from high school. Many of us were away from home for the first time.”

Wide receiver Riley Cooper played right field for the Gators last season and was well-aware of Meyer’s baseball background.

“He came to a workout and stepped into the batting cage and hit off the curveball machine. He had a good stroke. He could hit,” Cooper said.

“What did he hit in the minors - .300, .270?” Cooper asked. Told it was .182, he grinned.

“Oh,” he said, “Coach is going to hear about that.”

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