TAMPA — Before we get to Batman and Mammal, and Nathan and Herschel, we want you to know there's a secret juggernaut in town, one with a won-loss record that looks like a typographical error (it isn't), one often drowned out by local pro teams and even that college on Fowler Avenue.
One with a sense of humor. And a heart.
Meet the defending Division II national champion University of Tampa baseball team, overflowing with local talent and fun lovers, ranked No. 1 from the start of this season and aiming for another College World Series. And while we're sure they're not all angels, none them has forcibly removed seafood from Publix. Need a break from Jameis Winston's incredibly shellfish act? We've got your story.
And it's 45-2.
Do not try to adjust your eyeballs. Coach Joe Urso's Spartans really are 45-2. They finish up the regular season this weekend.
“You're supposed to lose more than twice, right?” said junior outfielder Stephen Dezzi of Sarasota, who leads UT with a .381 average and 42 RBIs.
“Forty-five and two, that's not even like real life,” said UT senior third baseman Tyler Ding, who played for Tampa's Alonso High and is right behind Dezzi at .376.
“So many things have to happen to win even one ballgame,” said Urso, who has coached the Spartans to three national championships. “You're not supposed to go 45-2. You're just not. It's a tribute to these guys. They've had a lot of comeback wins. They've fought for everything.”
There have been other University of Tampa powerhouses, including the 1992 national title team, which featured Urso at second base. Urso's 2006 national title team went 54-6. This team isn't as packed with stars as that one, but it's talented, and its players seem as close as brothers, as tight a band as you'll find, that is, if you bother trying to find them.
“Not getting attention doesn't bother us that much,” said senior pitcher Preston Packrall, formerly of Clearwater Central Catholic High, who is 8-0 with a team-leading 1.32 ERA. “We just kind of have our own thing going.”
Dezzi was in charge of getting the bats to the bus last season, so naturally his teammates nicknamed him “Batman.” Just as naturally, Dezzi wore a Batman T-shirt and half mask while taking batting practice at the College World Series.
“You never leave here in a bad mood,” said sophomore catcher Dalton Hughes, who's from St. Petersburg.
The UT brothers love company. That's where Nathan comes in.
Nathan Maxwell is a 9-year-old ballplayer from Tampa who has battled a brain tumor since he was 5. Surgery. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Steroids. Nathan has fought the tumor to a standstill.
The UT squad adopted Nathan through Friends Of Jaclyn, a group that pairs college and high school teams with pediatric brain tumor patients. Nathan has a Spartans uniform and a stall in the locker room. He threw out the first pitch on Opening Day. When he can, he warms up with the team and sits in the dugout. Nathan wears No. 3, the first time 3 has been worn at UT since it was retired to honor Spartans great Tino Martinez. UT players attended one of Nathan's games at Keystone Little League. Nathan throws right, bats left.
“The whole team came,” said Nathan's grandfather and ball coach, Gary Calhoun. “I can't say enough about coach Joe and the guys on the team. Nathan actually pitched that day. They were cheering him. They had a big pizza party after the game. If my two boys turn out like any one of these boys, I'll be so proud, because those guys are so true, so honest. If you could see them interact with Nathan … there's not one piece of fake to them. They light up when they see Nathan, and he lights up when he sees them.”
“Nathan is a blessing, an inspiration,” Dezzi said.
And there was UT's January trip to Cuba, where the Spartans won three exhibition games and toured that country. There were outsiders who questioned the journey, the message that it would send, but to the players, it was another lesson in perspective.
“It was culture shock, humbling, to see the conditions people lived in,” Dezzi said. “It teaches you not to take anything for granted.”
Of course, they brought Herschel with them.
Oh, yes, about Herschel ...
The brothers were working in the community last offseason, helping move furniture from a warehouse to needy homeowners, when Dalton Hughes spotted a small ceramic bank, this pudgy little gnome, coin slot in his back.
The team asked to have it, then named it Herschel, naturally, because infielder Orlando Rivera, a transfer, once got a bad connection on a recruiting call or something and thought coach Urso said “Coach Herschel.” There's always a story with this crew. Some UT players think Herschel looks like their coach. “The nose has a little resemblance,” Urso said. “That's about what I look like when we lose a game.”
The team made Herschel a mascot, particularly senior catcher Ben Johnson, who is nicknamed “Mammal.” Don't ask. Herschel hangs in the dugout during games. Or he's with Mammal, who is extra careful, especially since Herschel already cracked once (Super Glue to the rescue). “On bus rides, I hold him or he sits next to me,” Mammal said.
While in Cuba, the team popped a Cuban convertible peso coin, or cuc, into Herschel's bank after each win. It has been that way all season. “Cuc him — Herschel's hungry,” someone will yell. Plunk.
Straight ahead is the NCAA tournament — 45-2 won't mean a thing if the Spartans don't play money ball until the very end.
“They realize all great University of Tampa baseball teams are measured by one thing: Did you win a national championship?” Urso said.
They're hungry like Herschel.
They fight like Nathan.