- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

It’s mid-July, and three weeks into a new gig, Erik Bakich glances about his workplace as if it’s his first time in the office.

Of course, it very nearly is. The business of building up one of college baseball’s most woebegone programs won’t occur with Bakich sitting in a trailer in the stifling summer heat of College Park.

This early-hour appointment is wedged into the schedule after weeks on the road, at the start of a day certain to end at a ballpark evaluating yet more players who might - just might - lead Maryland out of a four-decade stupor.

The Terrapins, after all, haven’t necessarily strived for excellence so much as relevance, year after year futilely chasing the school’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1971. Yet in the door walks Bakich, a recruiting maestro who was an assistant at Vanderbilt the past seven years as the Commodores rose from SEC doormat to postseason regular.

But isn’t Maryland… different? The Terps haven’t posted a winning record in the conference since 1981. Their home park is so snug that a visiting slugger once mashed six home runs - in a game. They haven’t reached the ACC tournament since 2005.

All of that, it seems, is B.B. - Before Bakich.

“There’s 26 other sports that compete for championships here, and it’s time baseball starts to join the party,” Bakich said.

If that sounds a bit like youthful pluck, Bakich is 31 and less than eight years removed from the day he showed up at Clemson with a car filled with training equipment and asked to become a volunteer coach. Then again, turning around a program he viewed as a sleeping giant when he played at East Carolina a decade ago is a vision those who know him are certain he can turn into reality.

“He’s just got a different way about him,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said. “He’s a good-looking kid. He’s a chameleon. He can talk to you, can talk to a banker, can talk to a bum on the street and make them all feel good.”

Long-term project

The long list of middling seasons are testament enough to the state of Maryland baseball. There could be just as many explanations for the Terps’ foibles over the years.

Only in the last couple of years did Maryland enjoy a full allotment of 11.7 scholarships. The school was a geographic outlier, though Virginia’s rise to an ACC power and College World Series participant put a giant hole in that theory.

And then there’s quaint Shipley Field, a hitter-friendly venue wedged into a prized slice of real estate at the center of campus.

Just more than two months after the last regular-season game under Terry Rupp - he resigned in May after the Terps went 27-27 in his ninth season - sand is strewn across the grass near the warning track and Shipley looks equal parts college diamond and storage facility.

The listed capacity is 2,500, but the park’s limits are almost never challenged: Maryland’s last crowd of more than 1,000 was in April 2006, 99 home games ago.

Bakich shrugs it all off, eager instead to find symbols to move forward. The trailer that houses his office? A sign of a rebuilding project, enough to get him to joke about a hard-hat requirement for all visitors. His attitude impresses athletic director Debbie Yow, who isn’t surprised at his enthusiasm but does understand the task he faces.

“Unquestionably, out of all 27 varsity sports, this is the most challenging varsity sport to take from where it is to where we want it to go,” said Yow, who is trying to find funds to build the Terps a climate-controlled batting cage. “A number of them have been very challenging, but none of them have been as challenging as this.”

At the center of things is the absence of regional talent. There are also 50 players in the ACC (excluding Boston College) and SEC from New England, New Jersey or New York; Maryland has one.

More galling: Bakich counted 15 Maryland natives who will dot ACC and SEC rosters.

“Boxing out the state is the No. 1 priority,” he said. “You have to take care of your own state. Fifteen players from the state of Maryland playing in the top conferences in the country not playing on your team? That’s the difference between postseason and not.”

So is a stale outlook despite some productive players. While three former Terps - the Blue Jays’ Brett Cecil, the Cubs’ Kevin Hart and the Nationals’ Justin Maxwell - made their major league debut in the last three years, there’s also a sense the program was stuck in a cycle of never-ending mediocrity.

Cecil likened the situation to the film “Miracle,” based on the 1980 U.S. hockey team’s gold medal run, urging a commitment to a deep roster rather than a handful of stars.

“You don’t set a team up with five studs and everybody else is just OK,” said Cecil, who said he e-mailed Yow to recommend promoting pitching coach Jim Farr during the search process. “You’d rather get those guys who are real solid players and hard workers. I think that’s what they need to do. In the past, they tried to get one stud and a couple other really good guys and just took the rest as, ‘We have to settle for this.’ ”

Bakich isn’t the sort to settle for anything.

‘Doesn’t stop going’

Bakich quickly hired Austin Peay volunteer assistant Dan Burton and sent him on the road with two orders: Be back for the first team meeting on Aug. 31, and bring some players with you. Last week, Bakich added Pepperdine pitching coach Sean Kenny after deciding not to retain Farr.

Back is also busy with all facets of his first program, pitching ideas to sport supervisor Dan Trump via e-mail in the wee hours of the morning as he tries to improve things quickly.

“He just doesn’t stop going,” said Trump, the associate athletic director for compliance who oversaw Bakich’s hiring process. “It’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ It’s just stuff he’s thinking about. He’s looked at it globally, not just recruiting.”

Therein lies much of Maryland’s optimism for a turnaround. Bakich sees parallels between Vanderbilt of seven years ago - before the likes of David Price and Pedro Alvarez arrived - and the Terps of today.

He plans to build around pitching and defense - because of rather than in spite of Shipley’s cozy confines. Bakich values speed and pressure and understands winning must precede both an energized fan base and a dramatic stadium face-lift.

And winning - now, even as modestly as a top-eight ACC finish - is a priority.

“[Pitcher] Scott Swinson doesn’t want to hear about a three-year plan,” Bakich said. “The seniors don’t want to hear about a four-year plan or an extended-term plan. It’s the ACC tournament. I don’t want any senior on this team right now leaving Maryland without having experienced the ACC tournament and a chance to play in the postseason.”

There’s plenty required to make it happen. And so Bakich returns to the road for a few more days, on the prowl in his beloved chase for talent and building something remarkable in a place where progress is a rare commodity.

“His will to succeed is so great, he doesn’t take no for an answer,” Corbin said. “I say that with respect. There’s nothing in his mind that’s not doable. To get a program changed around like that, which might not have the resources, he needs to dig. He’s going to dig. He is the right guy for that particular job. He’s not going to be fazed by things that happen to him.”

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