It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon on May 24-just a few weeks ago-when Baylor Baseball’s season came to an unceremonious and unsurprising end. Though most Baylor fans seem to prefer ignoring to criticizing baseball when things are going poorly, we all know that the not so distant days of 2012’s "Feed the Beaver" campaign, which resulted in a Big 12 regular season title and nearly in a College World Series appearance, feel about as far away as the days when burnt orange swamped green and gold in Floyd Casey. Just a couple of years difference in reality, but it feels like a new era.
Baylor Baseball fans are a good bunch-when we are winning. There’s no animosity toward Steve Smith or the team in the rough years, but the reality is that we are a football first and a basketball second fan base. We like winning, of course, and when our Bears are in the midst of an exciting run leading up to or in post-season play we’ll make our way to our beautiful ballpark and get behind them. Otherwise-we’ll check the scores and standings every few weeks and mostly forget that college baseball exists.
I point these things out not to criticize (after all, even though it may not feel like it at times for most of us we all have lives outside of Baylor sports demanding our time, energy, and resources), but to provide a reminder about why any of us care about college sports in the first place.
Glad were the tidings out of Lubbock (yes-you read that correctly…..) just before the college baseball season kicked off in February this year that Baylor would soon have its first inductee into the College Baseball Hall of Fame. Baylor player and long-time coach Mickey Sullivan will join six others in the 2014 class on a June 28 induction ceremony.
This is great for Baylor fans, of course, even the ones that do not especially care about baseball and even for those of us who never saw Mickey play or coach. It is always great for Baylor to have positive publicity and public success.
Why, though, should this impending induction be an occasion for more than a quick and casual burst of pride for the average Baylor fan? Because, simply, the story of Mickey Sullivan is a story that not only reminds us of the heights Baylor sports can reach when things go right, but it is also a story that beckons us to remember what Baylor has meant to us, what Baylor means to us now, and why our love for Baylor sports is about much more than bragging rights over our purple and burnt orange wearing neighbors and co-workers.
For most of us, Mickey Sullivan will never be the first (or second, or tenth) person who comes to mind when we think about Baylor sports. Nevertheless, he will likely always be one of the greatest athletes and coaches in our history.
To put his excellence into perspective chew on these facts:
As a player he was named a first team All-American in consecutive years (the only Baylor athlete with this distinction), his .519 batting average (For those of you who love baseball and follow it closely yes you read that correctly) during the 1954 season was the all-time Southwest Conference record, his 649 wins are the 2nd most any Baylor coach (in any sport) has achieved (Sullivan was only recently surpassed by his former player and mentee, current Bears coach Steve Smith), he led his teams to three Southwest Conference titles and two College World Series appearances, and retired with a winning percentage of .603-good for tenth best all time among SWC coaches. And, oh by the way, he served as Grant Teaff’s recruiting coordinator for a short time and was involved in the recruitment of would be stars, such as Neal Jeffrey-the QB of the 1974 SWC champions, (for those of you who are too young to know).
Guys like Mickey do not come around often. Not as players. Not as coaches. And certainly not as both. If the story ended here his HOF induction would be secure and all Baylor fans that have read this would be proud to have him as one of our own. The greatest things about Mickey, though, were not his on-field accomplishments. Current Baylor coach Steve Smith recalls the first time that he met coach Sullivan:
"My favorite memory is the first time I ever met him. I had driven from Gulfport, MS for a Saturday morning appointment in early June 1980. I was considering transferring to Baylor and walking on the baseball team. The appointment was in Mickey’s office out at Floyd Casey. The first thing I ever remember Mickey doing when we met was his putting his arm around me. I have never forgotten that. Needless to say, I transferred and walked on."
Smith went on to describe Sullivan as a lifelong and ever-present, mentor. Someone who wanted his players (even long after he retired from coaching) to succeed not only as professionals, but also as men. "I always knew Mickey loved me and had my back" Smith noted.
Simple acts of care and a consistent approach to the tasks and people around a person are the makings, not only of a good baseball man, but also of a good life. Some read Aristotle to learn this; for a couple of generations of Baylor baseball players, playing for Mickey provided the life lessons needed to transition from youth to manhood.
"We all also knew that Mickey loved his wife, Marilyn. I bet there is not a guy out there who did not know that", Smith mused.
Though most of us were not college athletes, we all got something more than a pathway to a job out of Baylor. It’s why, when it comes down to it, we still care about our school and its sports teams. Many of us left with the best friends we will ever have in life, some of us left with spouses, all of us left with life lessons that have helped shape our adult existences. We wouldn’t be who we are, each of us, without what Baylor did for us.
Sadly, Coach Sullivan passed away in 2012, a couple of years before his HOF induction. His funeral was held at home plate of the Baylor Ballpark-a choice that may have seemed tacky to outsiders, but one that those who knew him realized reflected his love of Baylor and his dedication to the people of Baylor. To the Baylor family as a whole and to the portion of the Baylor family that was most familial to him-his players, fellow coaches, and friends at the university.
The most poignant and eloquent words ever penned about Baylor came from another man who attended Baylor as a student and went on to serve it throughout his adult life-Samuel Palmer Brooks, who served as the university’s president from 1902 until his death in 1931. The dramatic final paragraph of the message he wrote, on his deathbed, to the Baylor class of 1931 reads as follows
"Because of what Baylor has meant to you in the past, because of what she will mean to you in the future, oh, my students, have a care for her. Build upon the foundations here the great school of which I have dreamed, so that she may touch and mold the lives of future generations and help to fit them for life here and hereafter. To you seniors of the past, of the present, of the future I entrust the care of Baylor University. To you I hand the torch. My love be unto you and my blessing be upon you."
When asked what he hoped Baylor fans unfamiliar with Coach Sullivan would know about him Coach Smith said: "Mickey Sullivan loved Baylor… He loved Baylor unconditionally. Baylor was family to Mickey.
Mickey never coached in Baylor’s current beautiful ballpark, but his imprints are everywhere on it. He was, in effect, the Art Briles of our baseball program. He was not the first great coach, but he was the one whose success made the jump in stature needed for the university to invest in state of the art, game-changing facilities. He also mentored the coach who would go on to break his all time wins record and who, himself, would lead Baylor to a College World Series of his own. Imagine if, twenty years from now Baylor football is being successfully coached by someone like Terrance Ganaway or Nick Florence and you met a freshmen that knew Art Briles only as a distant name of the past-some type of west Texas George Washington. In a certain way it would be sad. And, in another way, it would demonstrate the legacy of Briles-that he established something so great it was able to survive long after his time guiding it. This is the place of Mickey Sullivan in Baylor baseball.
It is fitting that he was laid to rest at Oakwood Cemetery-the final resting place not only of Samuel Palmer Brooks, but of several other Baylor presidents, notable alumni, faculty members, and supporters as well. The cemetery is large, peaceful and winding, and for those who look closely, serves as a memorial turned museum dedicated to many who have loved Baylor dearly and served it well.
When June 28th comes around I hope that each of us will take a moment to reflect on what Mickey Sullivan meant to Baylor and on what Baylor meant to Mickey Sullivan. And then, once the quiet days of summer give way to the exuberance of fall, football season, the opening of our new, gorgeous, and long-awaited stadium, and our very first big 12 title defense campaign in football I hope we’ll remember the friends and the mentors Baylor has given us. Friendships and mentorships no less important to our lives than the one between Mickey Sullivan and Steve Smith is to Smith’s life.
And I hope, that if you are a staff member, professor, or employee of Baylor who is dedicating your time and energies to the betterment of the Baylor family and its people that you will remember that you are impacting the real lives of real people. For some of us, our Mickey Sullivan was a renowned professor-perhaps Tom Hanks or David Jeffrey, for others it was a less well known, but tireless and loving staff member, such as Keane Tarbell. And for others of us still it was a coach-such as Art Briles or Steve Smith. Whatever our particular experience at Baylor consisted of and whoever touched our lives I hope that each of us will have the chance, on August 31st, after the sailgaiting and before kickoff to look down the river from McLane stadium’s new perch and peer into the quiet beauty of Baylor Ballpark and remember that regardless of who we are a life of persistent and humble service to the people and places we love will is something that we can all accomplish.
Congratulations, Coach Sullivan. May we be as worthy of the proverbial torch that has been handed to us, as you were faithful with the one handed to you.