LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Louisville’s College World Series experience is in the books, and a couple of days have passed to allow for some perspective. So now, a few thoughts on the Cardinals’ exciting run.
1). LUKE SMITH AFTERMATH. So many thoughts on the Louisville pitcher caught shouting F-bombs at the Vanderbilt dugout on national television. Will try to get to as many as I can.
I’ve had a number of U of L fans ticked off at me for writing this line in my deadline story on the game: “Smith was dominant. ... But his night instead will likely be remembered for his trash talk, captured in slow motion on national TV.”
That was my assessment, knowing how the world and social media work these days. And in fact, two days after the game, it still was the dominant topic surrounding U of L baseball on social media. Others, incidentally, thought I wasn't critical enough.
To be honest, I was only trying to record what happened without a great deal of commentary, because I wasn't on the field and wasn't entirely sure how the whole thing unfolded.
Note this, I said Smith’s “night” would be remembered. I didn’t say he himself would be remembered for it. While things done on national TV tend to be hard to shake, he’s got a whole life and career ahead of him. I do think it’s important to remember that these moments are just that, moments. As Louisville coach Dan McDonnell has said, many times, “The heat of competition brings out the best and worst in everybody.”
An important disclaimer: I wasn’t in the Louisville dugout in Omaha. I wasn’t in the Vanderbilt dugout in Omaha. I don’t know what was said back and forth. I wasn’t in Omaha, period. I was watching on ESPN, like most people who saw the game, and my impressions were formed as such. I was in the Louisville dugout for good stretches of its entire regional and super regional runs. I heard a lot of chatter. I never heard anything profane. I never heard anything directed at the opponent. I was impressed by that.
A photographer friend of mine, Bill Caudill, was in the dugouts in Omaha. He said the chatter was going both ways, and that Smith was on the receiving end of insults, taunts about his appearance, sexual orientation, etc. If that’s the case, shame on the umpires for letting it go on. The NCAA has passed rules against such things in basketball. They announce each game that it will not be tolerated from the stands. If it was allowed on the field, that’s a failure to control a situation.
Louisville coaches and players made no such allegations. We do know emotions nearly boiled over after Vanderbilt tied the game in the ninth.
And we know, from the telecast, Smith failed to control his emotions. It happens.
Here’s the part of baseball that is a bit old-fashioned. If you’re a pitcher and strike someone out, if you show emotion, it’s seen as “showing up” the opponent and can escalate hostilities. If you’re Steph Curry and make a three-pointer, you can do whatever you want afterward and it’s celebrated. If you’re an NFL player, you can dance over a quarterback’s body after a sack and people rate your dance.
Sports are strange. Regardless, once the F-bombs come out, the line is crossed. If I say, “F-you, San Diego,” at the end of a sports page segment, that’s going to cause some problems. I’m also 50 years old and have had experience saying or doing the wrong thing from time to time. Luke Smith is a college student. That doesn’t excuse anything. But heaven forbid many of us had a national TV camera pointed our direction in our younger days.
No matter what, It’s a regrettable moment. It's not the image Louisville baseball has worked so hard to earn. But it's also not the image the program deserves after more than a decade as a class outfit. A great many U of L fans were disappointed in it. Others defended it – though they’d have been outraged if an opposing pitcher had said those things to their team.
It again underscores one thing for me: The power of the lens. We have Smith on camera shouting what he shouted. We don’t have the batter on camera. We don’t know what was said from that direction, if anything. Smith said he wasn’t triggered by what anyone said, but rather it was just “adrenaline.”
In any event, if something happens on video, it’s a lot bigger deal. I don’t make it that way, it just is that way.
2). McDONNELL’S DECISION TO LEAVE SMITH IN. The Louisville coach has taken some heat for leaving Smith in the game after his emotional outburst. But Smith had been feeding off emotion not just for the whole game, but the whole season. It’s part of who he is, and he was outstanding on the mound in the postseason. He found his stride.
What’s interesting is that McDonnell had a frame of reference for Smith’s situation. He’d been in a similar situation in 2015 in a super regional final against Cal State Fullerton.
“I go back to Josh Rogers,” McDonnell said. “I told Sean Moth on the postgame radio show, we took Josh out, he's a Big League pitcher now, and he was super emotional, against Cal State Fullerton, like crossing the line, but it's college baseball, we kind of let that slide a little bit. And he gave us like six or seven innings, and I just remember thinking: He's just too emotional and let's take him out and trust our bullpen. And we ended up losing that game in like 11 innings. And I always kind of kick myself.”
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Smith began the ninth by retiring Austin Martin, one of the hottest hitters in the college game. But he walked JJ Bleday, the best hitter in the college game, and at that point, many were surprised to see Smith stay in the game. McDonnell pointed out that even though Smith wound up giving up a double down the line, a clean relay would've gotten Bleday at the plate.
“I think I can sleep tonight,” he said Friday. “I mean, you get the best hitter in the country out to lead off the inning, you’re close on Bleday. I thought those pitches were close. I'm not saying they were strikes or not, but it wasn't like (Smith) was all over the place. And then your 3-hole hitter hooks one down the corner, and that's a tandem relay I wrote in my game notes. He's out at the plate if we make a clean relay. I mean, there's two outs with a runner on second, and as a coach, man, that always hurts because it's something we work on every week, tandem relays. So you write that in your game notes, and it just reminds you next year you'd better work on those tandem relays.”
3). LOUISVILLE’S BEST TEAM? All postseason, this Louisville group has told McDonnell it wanted to be remembered as his best team. Of course, that’s a subjective measure. Louisville has produced at least eight draft picks in each of the past four seasons, so they’ve all been talented. And as McDonnell pointed out, any team with Brendan McKay is going to be tough to top.
Yet this was the first Louisville team to win two games at a College World Series, the last to be standing in college baseball’s final four teams.
In college sports, teams are graded on their final exam, the NCAA Tournament. If that’s the case, this one wound up with a higher grade than any team that came before.
McDonnell said he can’t rehearse the talk to his team in the outfield after his final game. It always is spontaneous, because he can’t allow for the eventuality of losing in his preparation. The speech to this team was emotional.
“I challenged them to keep their head high,” McDonnell said. “I want to celebrate this group, celebrate it with their teammates, celebrate it with their family, with their friends. When I say celebrate this group, I told the juniors and seniors, those that are going on to pro ball how ready they are, the academic success they had. We're on eight straight years, 16 straight semesters with a team GPA of a 3.0 or higher. These guys get it done in the classroom. The community, they understand it's much more than just them. They get involved in the community, and they should give back to a great community like Louisville, Kentucky. So as the saying goes, how you do anything is how you do everything. You know, I just wanted to celebrate this group out there.”
When he acknowledged their best-ever program success in the College World Series, it was an emotional moment.
“That was actually the first thing Coach Mac said to our team,” Justin Lavey said. “That's what definitely brought on more waterworks from me, so thank you for that (he said, nodding to McDonnell). But, yeah, I mean, that's something, from day one, that was our goal, to be the best team he's ever coached. To accomplish that is something super special, and it takes a special group.”
Said Smith: “It means the world to do that, and both of us coming back next year, we've got a chance to do that again. That journey, while this one hurts, the new journey starts.”
4). LOOKING AHEAD. As usual, Louisville will have to fill some holes created by the MLB Draft. But they’ve got the nucleus of another national power returning. ACC Pitcher of the Year Reid Detmers. Smith. An extremely deep pitching staff. ACC Freshman of the year Alex Binelas.
A few key players have decisions to make, including outfielder Drew Campbell, who emerged as a postseason star for the Cardinals, but there’s plenty returning.
“We're definitely excited about the future,” McDonnell said. “We've got a lot of talent returning, a lot of talent coming in. ... We've got something special going here, and I don't ever want to take that for granted. We're 13 years into this. Vandy might pass us (in wins) if they keep winning games, but going into the season we were the winningest program in all of college baseball, 12 years running. So I think we're going to be up there. I don't know if we'll hold on to the No. 1 spot. And so for that, I give God the glory. He's blessed this program, and as I always end it, we'll be back.”
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