When Rice University head baseball coach Wayne Graham was a major-leaguer, players’ contracts weren’t what they are today. For Graham, who had taken engineering drawing at the University of Texas at Austin, that meant spending the offseason as a draftsman, first for the Highway Department and then for Texas Instruments.
“I still say I had the best lettering in the history of Texas Instruments,” Graham said when recalling his time there and the pride he had in his work. “I wasn’t a great draftsman because I was slow and they wanted speed. I didn’t like turning in a bad drawing.”
Anyone who has seen Graham’s team lineup card that is given to the home plate umpire and the opposing team’s head coach before a game knows that Graham works meticulously to hand draft a piece of art for every game. The precision in his lineup card demonstrates what Graham strives for with his team each season.
“There’s a certain precision to (baseball),” he said. “In baseball you’re always dealing in percentages, so if you can’t stand that, you’re going to die because you’re going to lose. But you’re always striving for precision.”
There is a lot of optimism at Reckling Park heading into the 2014 season. The Owls return 21 of its 2013 lettermen, including senior slugger Michael Aquino, whom Baseball America magazine just named as one of the country’s top 50 seniors; Aquino won the national college home run derby contest that was televised by ESPN July 4.
“The attitude, since I’ve been here at Rice, is the best that it has ever been,” Aquino said. “Every single guy in our locker room is locked in and ready to go. We’re all pumped up about going to Stanford.”
Nationally ranked No. 15 preseason, the Owls will open with a three-game series at the Stanford Cardinal Feb. 14-16.
The Owls’ “Friday” pitcher is junior right-hander Jordan Stephens. Stephens saved the season when the Owls were facing elimination at the University of Oregon in the NCAA regionals last year. Graham likes how Stephens “can throw three different pitches for strikes in any situation.”
“I’ve got the normal four-seam (fastball), and then I switch over to two-seam,” Stephens said. “To the lefty, it might be the curveball and to a righty the slider.”
“He’s our Friday guy and a quality guy,” Graham said. “Obviously he pitched an incredible game in Oregon last year. He finished very strong, and he’s got the kind of stuff that you want out there Friday night.”
Also returning to the pitching staff is junior right-handed closer Zech Lemond, who was named a preseason All-American by both Collegiate Baseball magazine and the National College Baseball Writers Association.
There has been speculation that Lemond might move to the starting rotation, but Graham said the plan for now is to keep him in the bullpen.
“There was a thought of putting him in the starting rotation, but he had seven wins last year and 14 saves – he influenced 21 games. It’s hard to beat that,” Graham said. “He’s going to be what I call a ‘stopper-closer.’ In other words, if we need him in the sixth (inning), we’ll bring him in at the sixth. Ideally, we’d wait until the eighth or ninth, but he’s going to be visible.”
When Lemond was asked about the 2014 Owls, it wasn’t the pitching staff he talked up — it was team hitting.
“For sure, I think we hit a lot better,” he said. “Their confidence level is much higher than last year, and in sports, it’s all about confidence level. If you think you can do it, you can do it.”
“I think we’ve got a chance to hit,” Graham said. “Hitting comes and goes, and I’m hoping when it goes awhile they won’t get discouraged, because I believe they can hit. We don’t know how quickly they’ll hit or how often they’ll hit, but I think we have a good hitting ball club. And the chemistry is the best we’ve had in a long time.”
Graham and the team will also introduce a new alternate jersey to be worn in 2014. The jersey is an homage to the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cardinals’ former farm team, the Houston Buffs. Graham grew up cheering for the Buffs when he was young. Listen to Graham talk about how about the jerseys came about and when the Owls plan to wear them.
The Owls, who have won 18 straight outright or shared conference championships, will get to share a personal milestone with Graham this season. Heading into his 23rd season with the Owls, the coach is only three wins away from 1,000 wins at Rice, an impressive accomplishment that Graham takes humbly.
“There’s not many people who stay at one school, and it means that I’ve been good enough to keep a job,” Graham said with a laugh.
“It means a lot, particularly at Rice. I was thinking today what Rice does for a person. I mean it changes their lives. Whether they reach their baseball goals or whatever, they have a chance to be a very successful person.”
Stephens said his coach hasn’t talked about the 1,000 wins, but the players definitely have it on their radar and are talking about it on and off the field. The short-term goal would to be sweep Stanford or get it quickly when they return back to Reckling the following week. With his 1,000th Rice win, Graham will have 1,575 total wins in his 34th season as a collegiate coach.
“I’ve been given credit for being one of the most stubborn people in the world,” Graham said. “Honestly, I play every year like it’s my last year — and I think you should, because you shouldn’t show up to the ballpark if you don’t want to win.
“Obviously you have to have some good fortune and some great athletes to be able to do that,” he said, referring to 1,000 wins. “We’ve consistently had enough athletes to be in the hunt and caught a few breaks, and players played very hard at the right time.”
Over his 22 seasons at Rice, Graham has taken only one piece of Rice memorabilia home: the lineup card he wrote for the clinching 2003 national championship game. It’s fitting for the draftsman, whose goal this season is win it all again.
And he has an additional motive: “I would like to get David (Leebron) to the White House,” he said.