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September 20, 2013
Earlier this week GamecockCentral.com baseball beat writer Ron Aiken sat down with former USC third baseman Adrian Morales to talk about his new role as a student coach with the team. In this extensive an exclusive interview, Morales talks about what it was like coming to Columbia from Miami, the special teams he was on and gives an insider's take on what to expect from the young talent on this year's team. Enjoy!
Adrian Morales is a two-time national champion, a proven clutch performer and a recognized clubhouse leader whose determination, spirit and competitiveness bordered on the legendary during his two-year playing career on the baseball team at the University of South Carolina.
That was then.
This is now: Morales is an undergraduate student, again, finishing his degree, likely has seen the end of his lifelong dreams of becoming a professional baseball player and is part of the baseball team, again, only this time as a student assistant coach for Chad Holbrook's Gamecocks.
It's not the path Morales hoped for when he signed with the Kansas City Royals after the 2011 season, but it's one that Morales has embraced since returning to Columbia over the summer at Holbrook's invitation. It's also a path, Morales hopes, that one day could lead him to become a head coach himself, maybe, just maybe, even right here in Columbia.
If there's one thing Morales isn't short on and never has been, it's confidence. So heck, why not? Are you going to tell Adrian Morales he can't do something? Are you?
Gamecock Central: Let's go back to something you're most known for in your two years here - leadership. Can you talk about what the chemistry was like on those two national championship teams and how you built it?
Adrian Morales: It wasn't like it was forced, like "Let's force this chemistry to happen." It just happened, the group of guys (Chad) Holbrook recruited and how the coaching staff ran things, we just meshed.
It wasn't anything that we tried to forced, like, "Oh, let's be nice to each other." It was likea family. That's exactly how it was. It was fun. It was good memories.
Gamecock Central: Coach Holbrook recruited you personally, correct, to Columbia?
Morales: Yeah, Holbrook called me when I was back home. I remember I was in my bed and he called me and said, "This is Chad Holbrook, the University of South Carolina." Growing up for me in Miami, my thinking was go to high school and try to get drafted. I wanted to go to (the University of) Miami, to the Hurricanes, but they didn't really offer me much. They'd send me letters and such, but it was nothing too serious.
So I ended-up going to Miami-Dade (Community College), and I loved it there. My plan was to get drafted and sign, and Holbrook called me. I'd already heard from the College of Charleston. So Holbrook calls me and says, "When we hang up, go check out our website." So I go check out the website and I'm like "Holy crap!" I went into my brother Jean's room and I said, "Jean, this is a big-time school." I was like, "I hope they really are interested." I looked at the website, I loved it, it's the SEC and I really wanted to play here. I waited, and little by little we started the negotiations and I was here.
GC: Did the chemistry those two teams enjoyed start immediately?
Morales: The first fall it was hard. Not only because I was leaving my family, but it was a culture shock coming from Miami. Not that the guys didn't like me, but I was coming in supposedly to replace Scott Wingo, who was their guy. I didn't come here with the bad intentions of benching somebody, I just wanted to play.
Now, it's funny because I came in with the intentions to replace Scott Wingo and my best friend from the team here is Scott Wingo. But the first fall was tough. As soon as I started getting comfortable, when I started playing every day, that's when the team started realizing who I was, what type of guy I was, and I was able to open up then. Little by little I was able to be myself on the field and off the field.
Once I got comfortable, now not only am I part of the team, I'm not just a guy on the bench, I'm in the middle of the lineup, I'm being counted on. I loved that, and that's what really helped open up relationships, the things on the field I did. That transformed to outside the field, the relationships.
GC: After the 2011 championship, you were drafted in the 49th round of the Major League Baseball Draft by the Kansas City Royals. What was that experience like going from Columbia to the world of Class-A baseball?
Morales: That was my dream, to play pro baseball - not to play in the minors, to play in the big leagues. When I got there it was everything I expected. I was comfortable because I knew Spanish and I knew English. I can get along with the Americans and I can get along with the Hispanics. The Hispanics can't talk bad about me behind my back and neither could the Americans.
My first summer I loved playing, and not only that, I got hot. If you get hot, everything is better. I got hot, had a real good summer, and I got called up to high-A, ended up hitting .300 there and then went back home after that, and it was probably the best year of my life. We won a national championship, I had a great summer, a great first impression to the Royals, and I was coming back home to see my mom and my family. It was probably the best year of my life until spring training came around.
GC: What happened in spring training?
Morales: They made me into an organizational player without even giving me a chance. As soon as I got to spring training, I was thinking, "I finished in high-A, I won two national championships, I'm 23 years-old so I'm going to start either low-A or high-A, just because of my age." I worked my tail off before going in and as soon as we started playing games in the spring against other teams, I'm not playing. I'm only coming in in the eighth inning for defense.
I didn't know how spring training was. The guys I knew were starting. So maybe a week before the teams break, (Kansas City Royals director of scouting) Scott Sharp comes up to me and says, "We understand the program you came from and you had a good year, but we have to give other guys opportunities. We respect you, so we can give you your release and you can go play for somebody else, or you can stay in extended (spring training), and if somebody gets hurt you'll be the first guy out."
I didn't have an agent at he time, I was 23 years-old, and everybody had their team at the time. Everybody was releasing guys and cutting guys, so nobody needed anybody. So I told Scott I'd stay in extended and wait it out. Well, nobody got hurt. Or if they did, they didn't send for me.
GC: What is extended spring training like?
Morales: It's waking up at six in the morning, you lift in the mornings, do a practice for about an hour, an hour-and-a-half, you play a practice game, either inter-squad or against other teams that are in extended, and you go back to the hotel. I didn't have a car there; I wasn't going to drive to Arizona. So you go back to the hotel, and if you're hungry, you have to walk somewhere. It was tough. It's one-hundred-and-ten degrees, hot in the morning and cold at night.
But I enjoyed everything about it - the weather, the practices, the bus rides, I didn't mind any of that. The only thing I minded was the younger guys ahead of me who got more money than me but who weren't as good as me. I started to realize as I went along that it's a business. It's what happens.
My second year in spring training, the one that's just passed this year, I told (Sharpe) that all I wanted was a chance to play half a season, two hundred at-bats, as a starter. If I don't hit, I'd pack my bags and go home. But I wanted to leave the minor leagues at least having got that opportunity. You go look at my numbers, and it's sixty at bats this year, ninety the year before - one hundred and thirty in a summer. That's crazy for a guy who played in big-time games. It baffled me a little bit and I started to realize that from his standpoint, he's going to play who they gave money to. Those guys can be doing bad, having errors an hitting under two hundred, but they're going to play every day.
Even then I couldn't stop helping those guys, giving them tips even though you're not supposed to because it's dog-eat-dog there, but I can't wish bad on anybody. I'm a team guy. It's my nature. That's one reason I kind of like coaching, because I like helping people, but even though I don't really want to coach, I really want to play, I knew along the line that if I ever got released, this is something I wanted to do. It's in me already. Even when I was here I was coaching on the field. But honestly, I didn't want to be here so soon. I wanted to get a chance to play in the big leagues, but I never got that opportunity.
I mean, if it were me, I'd have drafted me first round, first pick overall, right? But it didn't work out that way.
GC: You're now back on the field with two guys you played with - Forrest Koumas and Patrick Harrington. What's that like?
Morales: It's weird because now it's "Coach Morales." I can be their friend, but we have to keep a professional relationship. Anything those two guys or anybody else needs, I'm here.
GC: What's it like coaching a bunch of new faces wearing the same uniform and trying to accomplish the same things you did?
Morales: One, it's tough being out there watching the scrimmages and not participating. But I like it, because when I was in the minor leagues I was on the bench - a lot. So I would pick up on things and I learned a lot just watching the game. The little things I know, little tricks or things to look for, I get to now tell my guys in program - I feel like this is my program, my home, now - I get to tell them how to make themselves better, make the team better. I preach what the coaches here preach over and over, because they do such a good job here. GC: How do you get these guys now to have that chemistry you had on the teams you played on here? How do you recapture it? How do you instill it?
Morales: You can try to instill it all you want, but it has to come from within. It has to come from your leaders. That's going to start with the catcher, Grayson Greiner, and Joey Pankake. If he plays third, he has to set the tone. Just like Grayson has to set the tone.
They brought in guys like Marcus Mooney, and watching him play is just like watching Peter Mooney play. Defensively, they're the exact same. They're full of energy, they make great plays, they make the routine plays. (Marcus) is fast when he turns double plays.
I talked to Peter the other day, he texted me, and he told me we made 81 double plays in 2011 and nine at the College World Series. That's crazy. Holbrook talked to me that they didn't turn a lot of double plays last year, and that hurts the pitching staff. When we turn double plays, they have the confidence to throw strikes. We get a ground ball, he's out of it, it builds confidence for everybody.
They have DC Arendas playing, and he has great hands. He does thing so effortlessly, it's like he's too cool to play short(stop), it's so easy for him. Jordan Gore, good hands, too, great arm. Max Schrock and Connor Bright both are so solid at second. So, I think moving Joey to third, he'll solidify third and everything else will fall into place.
GC: Let's talk about defense for a minute. I have to ask you about the College World Series in 2011, time and time again that team got runners on base in critical situations and would then make some of the most spectacular defensive plays I've ever seen. What was it like being on the field in those late innings with runners on, no outs and so much at stake?
Morales: It was just, the experience we had from the Coastal series and Clemson series at the College World Series the year before. To be honest, it felt like no matter what happened, we were going to win every game. I remember telling Holbrook, my 2010 year, we got hot. We had a lot of things go for us, we had some breaks, some timely hitting in big games. But in 2011 when I saw what we had coming back, I remember me and Matt Price talking and saying, "Hey, we're still hungry. Let's go get another one."
That year, everywhere we went or whoever we played, we had a mental advantage on every team. We went to Florida, they were ranked maybe number two or one, and took two of three. Vanderbilt came here, and the Sunday game they crumbled and we won. We knew how to finish games. We were good at the one-run game. We were so confident in our defense that no matter how many people were on base, that if there was a ground ball hit to one of us, we were out of the inning.
Our pitchers knew that, so a ground ball to Wingo or Mooney, that's an automatic double play. Hit one to me, we're out of the inning. So Wingo and Mooney and me, we're always telling the pitchers, "Hey, get us a ground ball here, get us a ground ball here." You instill it in their head, and with three, four people telling you that, it all came together. Our competitiveness, all instilled by Coach Tanner, Coach (Jerry) Meyers, Coach (Sammy) Esposito, Coach (Brian) Buscher. It was like a big league team where everybody knew what they were doing and showed up ready to play.
We would drain teams with them not being able to score. You could see it. We'd make the plays. We could have botched balls, (Robert) Beary could not have scooped that throw (against Florida in the championship series), (Jake) Williams could have thrown it over Beary's head, but we made the plays when we had to and they didn't. We didn't win on a walk-off double. They made an error on Zunino's throw to second. We didn't beat ourselves, and we were able to win two - Jesus, that's crazy when I think about it!
GC: With Coach Holbrook now in charge, what are the differences between he and Ray Tanner?
Morales: I haven't seen coach Holbrook coach in a game-time situation, so in that regard I don't know. But coach Holbrook, he's different, but he's the same. I would have loved to play for Coach Holbrook. When he recruited me, that's the reason I came, because of the guy he was, how he spoke to me, his way on the field when I was watching scrimmages on my visit.
I remember the first time I met coach Tanner, and I didn't come here because of him, we're eating at Longhorn with my brother and he says, "Are you Ardian Morales?" and I said, "Yeah." He didn't respond, he didn't say anything. I don't know if he thought I only spoke Spanish, but he didn't speak to me at all. Holbrook was the only one on me. In that regard, I came here because of Holbrook. But the relationship I have with Coach Tanner, we're alike in so many ways and could have discussions. The type of leader he is, the type of guy he is, he wanted to make you become a man. Not just on the field, but outside the field. I love him.
From what I've seen now, Holbrook is doing great. He's more of a player's coach than Tanner was in that sense. Coach Tanner wasn't as easy to approach as Holbrook is. Holbrook did a great job last year losing what he lost - (Michael) Roth, (Matt) Price, (Evan) Marzilli, (Christian) Walker - and he got them all the way to the Super Regional. I think he did a great job. I don't know about the fans, because everybody has their own opinion, but in my opinion he did a great job with what he had. And what we have now, from what I see, should be pretty special. We should get far in the playoffs.
GC: And the future for Adrian Morales?
Morales: We'll see. I'm completing my degree, I'm finishing in May. I want to say I can play (professional baseball) again, I'm not saying I've turned that page yet, but when I graduate, it all depends. They have the coaching staff set here, so we'll see. I want to finish my degree, help this team as best I can and if something opens up here or wherever, preferably here, I look at it. If not, I don't know.
I don't see myself doing anything but baseball. I love it. It's my life. I don't love sitting at a desk. One day, who knows, maybe there'll be a statue of me out in front of the stadium. Why not? Right now, we have work to do, though, and that's winning. Control what you can control, put yourself behind the team and believe me, when you win, everybody looks good. Including me!
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