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g
by dirk cotton
6.24.09
sports

"G" - Garrett Gore and what's right with college sports | Below the Line
When I began attending UNC baseball games in 2006, Garrett Gore was a freshman with a good glove at second, no offense, and no nickname. Pitchers Daniel Bard and Andrew Miller would soon play in the major leagues, Chad Flack would become Mr. Clutch and a host of other players on the team seemed destined for the big leagues. Carolina would make its first of four straight appearances in the College World Series in Omaha, with Garrett as a role player.

Photo by Joe Bray

Garrett
took over the starting second base role at the end of his freshman year and ended the season batting .227 and committing four errors. He finished that year at the College World Series in Omaha, one game short of a national championship. I thought Garrett would be an outstanding second baseman, but I didn't expect a lot from his bat.

Garrett owned second base his sophomore year. Paired with shortstop Josh Horton, the Tar Heel's middle infield was formidable. Much to my surprise, he also increased his batting average nearly 100 points to .324 and won an award for being the Tar Heel's Most Improved Player. He committed only six errors and made a second trip to Omaha, again falling just short of the championship, but he was becoming a recognized key to the Tar Heel's success. In his spare time, a scarce commodity for college athletes, he made the Dean's List.

At the end of his junior year's regular season, the wheels came off. With the departure of Josh Horton to the majors, Coach Fox moved Garrett to shortstop, a very different position than second base. He came into the last few series of the season with a handful of errors, but his throws to first base began to sail on him and frequently ended up in the visitor's dugout. He would commit a whopping 21 errors before being demoted to designated hitter. Leaving the field after yet another throwing error, I watched Coach Fox meet him at the third baseline and gently tap his fingers on Garrett's temple. "It's all right up here now."

As Garrett's troubles at shortstop grew, I found myself becoming a bigger fan. Ryan Graepel took over his shortstop position and Garrett was relegated to just a hitting role, but I noticed that every time we really needed a hit from him, he delivered. I cheered for his every plate appearance. My friends gave me puzzled looks, but that made me support him even more. "Shortstop isn't his natural position", I'd tell them. "The team just needed him to replace Horton. Don't give up on him." Garrett made his third trip to Omaha as the DH.

Opening day of the 2009 season was also the debut of the renovated Boshamer Stadium. We had a sellout crowd and my group of friends, about a dozen retirees and spouses, had bought season tickets together. We're perhaps an unlikely bunch, retirees ranging in age from mid-fifties to nearing eighty, a few diehard Yankee fans sitting next to a few died-in-the-wool Red Sox fans. I, myself am a Kentucky Wildcat fan to the core, who loves college baseball and happened to retire in the town where the Tar Heels play their home games. Some of us went to UNC, but others are alumni of UNC Charlotte, Boston College and other fine schools. Somehow, we come together every spring to share a common love-- college baseball-- and to support a team many of us "adopted".

We huddled under blankets on a cold but sunny February 20th and were surprised to find that Garrett Gore had moved to right field. Suddenly, the arm that had overthrown first base so often was throwing 330-foot strikes from right field. He threw out base runners at the plate, until they learned not to try to score on him. He picked up singles in right field and gunned down runners at first who made the turn to second a little too aggressively. He ran down everything catchable. Then he caught the uncatchable.

Photo by Joe Bray

The first weekend in March, during a tight ACC series with Clemson, the Tiger's batter smashed a pitch over the right field wall with a runner on first. Garrett ran and leaped above the fence for the ball, crashing into the padded wall, and fell to the ground. The batter began his home run strut to first. Clemson fans cheered, Tar Heel fans were silent, and the Tiger's other base runner was nearly to third when Garrett jumped up off the ground, pulled the ball out of his glove and threw to first base to double off the runner. What had appeared to be a two-run homer became a double play. Adam Warren, who would later be picked up in the 4th round of the draft by the New York Yankees said in his NCAA blog, "Garrett Gore's robbing catch on Saturday was most likely the best play I have seen in my baseball career."

Garrett had also caught a nickname, "G", the ultimate sign of respect. We yelled it when he came to the plate and we watched with great anticipation when a ball was hit to right field because we knew we might see something spectacular.

His batting improved, too. Going into the 2009 College World Series, he was hitting .307 on the year and had committed just three errors. In the NCAA Regional series, Kansas' coach decided to change pitchers when Garrett came to bat with the bases loaded. With only three homers through the season, Garrett drove the reliever's first pitch, a fast ball, over the wall in dead center field for the first grand slam of his career at any level. His next plate appearance, facing the same reliever, Garrett slammed a first pitch fastball over the wall in left center. A Jayhawk fan sitting behind me deadpanned, "I don't believe I'd throw him another fastball."

The following weekend in the NCAA Super Regional series against East Carolina, Garrett crushed yet another homer to dead center, hitting the wall high above the 405-feet mark.

If the big leagues drafted "heart", Garrett Gore would go in the first round. He wasn't drafted and I'm sure he didn't expect to be, though seven Tar Heels were. (My Wildcats had four players drafted by the MLB in 2009 themselves, thank you.) Fittingly, with all the major league talent the Tar Heels have fielded for the past four years, Garrett Gore, who wears number 4 on his jersey, is one of only four Tar Heels who have been to Omaha four times. His twenty-first College World Series appearance against Arizona State in his last college game gave Garrett the CWS record for most games played. He has been a major contributor to UNC's baseball success since he arrived on campus. He's a good student and a great kid with an infectious smile. A sports photographer commented in the caption of a photo of one of Garrett's heroics that he was one of the finest young men that the photographer had ever met, and he meets a lot of them.

I met Garrett and his parents at the Boshamer Stadium dedication. I told him I was his biggest fan and that my friend's had even jokingly asked if I had adopted him. He smiled and said, "I didn't know I had any fans after last year. These are my parents. They're probably ready to get rid of me." Hardly. Every parent's dream is to raise a kid who can hit a rough patch in the road and come back stronger than ever.

Garrett went to college to get an education and not just as a stop along the way to professional baseball. He didn't play to get a scholarship, either. Most college baseball players get a small fraction of a scholarship, at best. He played for a national championship and realized every ounce of his potential along the way. Garrett Gore is what's right with college sports.


ABOUT DIRK COTTON

Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 Internet company who loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write. Everything else he does is just for fun. A computer programmer-cum-marketing executive-cum-financial planner who now wants to be a writer, he apparently can't decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He and his family moved to The Southern Part of Heaven in 2005 and couldn't be happier with that decision.

more about dirk cotton

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COMMENTS

erik myers
6.17.09 @ 8:56p

What a great column! Baseball, more than any other sport (IMO), is about stories and narrative and you've got a really great story here. I agree - this is exactly what college sports is - and should be - about.

It's not just a training ground pro sports, it's not just an extra-curricular activity for kids - and it's certainly not just a money machine for the college (even though that's what it appears to be a lot of the time) - it's about the personal growth and development of the student athlete.

It's great to hear that not only did he develop into a great ball player, regardless of what the MLB Draft might suggest, but that he was also a Dean's List student.

I hope he can find a way to keep baseball in his life.

Thanks for sharing this story with us.

[edited]



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