By Arnie Leshin
Mike Martin couldn’t have said it better.
“This is where I wanted to be,” he said as his 40 years of head baseball coach at Florida State winds down.
Now 75, nobody has more career wins (2,022) in any NCAA sport. His teams have won 40 or more times and gained the NCAA tournament every year since he took over the program. In 1980, former Seminole Dick Howser resigned as head coach after one season and his assistant, Mike Martin, took over. FSU made the College World Series that year and won 51 games.
This was after he lost the first couple of games that year. And when he won for the first time, he rubbed up the game ball and said he was proud and also very relieved to get that first one. He had signed on as an assistant in 1975, earning $2,000. To make ends meet for himself and his wife, Carol, he also took a teaching position at the local middle school.
When he was promoted to head coach, he did things his way. His practices were sometimes an hour of bunting, and his team had 13 or 14 bunt base hits one year. He also made sure his teams could hit the ball out of the park and steal bases. All those little things, they won games – suicide squeezes, safety squeezes, and Martin once said that his teams were like chameleons.
His teams won games year after year, decades after decades. But the big prize that has eluded him most has been a national championship. Sixteen college World Series appearances and more than 2,000 victories, but getting to hoist the championship trophy and posing with it and his Seminoles has never happened.
Nobody will ever catch Martin complaining about the bad luck that has seemed to hurt his teams the most in Omaha, Neb. He has desperately wanted to win a national title, and this is his last try.
So maybe this final fling will be good to him. Usually accustomed to playing host for the tournament regional in Tallahassee before packed houses of Seminole faithful, he found himself as 3rd seed in the Athens Regional at Foley Field, the home field of No. 1 seeded Georgia.
Well, he’s now 38-20 when you add winning the ACC tournament in Durham, N.C. and followed by going 3-0 and turning back the Bulldogs twice to win the regional. He didn’t just win, it was like he was a lame duck making a statement after stunning Georgia, 12-3 and 10-1, and moving on to the Super Regional. He has built his legacy in Seminole land, but would love to bring the school a national baseball championship.
“You know,” he said after the Bulldog fans showed class by giving him a round of ovations before and after the final game, “I am so grateful for fans like this, and for Florida State to be so kind and supportive through all these years.”
Normally, a school would try to get over this frustration by finding a new head coach for the program, but Martin is still there.
When he and Carol arrived on the FSU campus in June of 1964, they left the North Carolina Charlotte University where he had intended to play baseball.
But now he had a chance to transfer, to play centerfield, and he and Carol decided to stay. He asked to wear number 15 but it was unavailable, and only one uniform fit him, the one with number 11. It stuck, became his nickname, and he came to be known as 11 for his entire coaching career.
No palm or tropical landscapes that they envisioned when they left for Florida in a 1964 Ford Falcon that had 83,000 miles and no air conditioning. In Tallahassee, there were just moss-covered trees that made it hard for the young couple to believe they had arrived at their final destination.
Said one of his former and best players, J.D. Drew,: “His dedication to the game and to the level of the game, he created this atmosphere, he literally transformed Florida State baseball into what it is.”
No national championships? Well that only makes his last roundup very special.
Fifty five years later on a humid Mother’s Day afternoon, Mike and Carol walked around the baseball field that now bears his name, greeting fans that turned out for his final home game after four decades as head coach.
That game capped a weekend that included a celebration for Mike in which about 600 people turned out, including former players through the years, each sharing a story that about how he changed their lives.
The pubic address announcer read off many of his accomplishments to the adoring crowd, and his players joined him at home plate, clapping, too, as Martin continued to tip his cap and let the tears fall.
Kudos to Mike Martin, he does deserve to finally win it all, but he will always leave Seminole nation with fond memories.
NOTES: From the 16 regions, 10 have advanced to the Super Regional and the remaining six will be determined today, with all on the ESPN network. No. 1 seeds that moved on were Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Louisiana State, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Texas Tech. Surprises have been 3rd seeded Duke and 3rd seeded FSU and 2nd seeded Auburn.
Defending champion Oregon State was eliminated as the No. 1 seed playing host in Corvallis, with 2nd seeded Creighton and 3rd seeded Michigan playing today for the regional title. At Jackie Robinson Field in Los Angeles, top-ranked UCLA faces 3rd seeded Loyola Marymount.
In Oklahoma City, the top–seeded Oklahoma State meets surprising 3rd seeded UConn, and in Palo Alto, top–seeded Stanford faces 3rd seeded Fresno State. Not to forget the deciding game in Greenville, S.C. where top–seeded East Carolina goes against 3rd Campbell, and in Louisville, the top-seeded Cardinals playing 3rd seeded Illinois State.
The higher seeds will get home field advantage, but with UCLA, Stanford, East Carolina, Oklahoma State and Louisville still playing, there would be a dozen No. 1 seeds in the running for the eight Super Regional sites.