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Strike IX

This past summer I read four books.  Three of the quartet had titles that started with the phrase “The Girl with…”.  They were an exceptional trio of reads I would highly recommend to anyone (especially “Dragon Tattoo”).  There’s mystery, action, sex and a battle for redemption seeped into the pages of each of the books.

The forth book I picked up over the summer was one I had seen mentioned on a couple of other college baseball themed websites, “Strike IX” by Paul Lonardo.  It’s the true story of the Providence Friars baseball program which was forced to be eliminated in 1999 due to Title IX.

I’m not gonna lie and say that I was all overly gung ho about reading it.  I’ve never been big into nonfiction reading and prefer invented stories rather than recounts.   And even though it was about college baseball, that still didn’t mean I was going to put it on my must read list.  There aren’t many fans of the collegiate game bigger than I am, but you’re not gonna catch me cradling up to watch “Summer Catch” any  time soon either. However when I had occasion to strike up a conversation with Lonardo online and he offered to send me a copy I jumped at the chance.

The book starts with an explanation of Title IX.  I’d heard about it and know the gist, but didn’t know all the details.  For the uninitiated, Title IX is a law passed in the early 1970’s that states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”.  In layman’s terms, if a school receives federal funds it must allocate a proportionate amount of resources to both men and woman’s sports – at least that what it has been made out to mean.  There is no direct mention of athletic opportunities, nor was its original intent to increase female participation in sports.  It’s just what the law has become most famous for.

In 1992 Brown University announced that it was going to eliminate two men’s sports, water polo and golf, as well as two women’s sports, gymnastics and volleyball, in an attempt to make up for a $1.6 million dollar shortfall.  However a group of female athletes, led by a gymnast whose father was a judge, felt that the cuts were proportionally unfair and sued the school.  After an exhaustive and expensive legal battle, the female athletes won.

Providence College, not wanting to share the same litigative fate as cross-town Brown, put baseball and men’s golf and tennis on the chopping block to gain Title IX compliance.   The PC Friars, while not mentioned in the same breath as college baseball stalwarts like USC and Arizona State, had a long and accomplished history on the diamond.  They had 80 seasons of tradition under their belt and finished at or near the top of the Big East standings consistently in the 1990’s.  The elimination of the team was both unsuspected and unwarranted.  Needless to say, the proud Friars club didn’t take the news well or lying down.

Lonardo chronicles the ’99 season from the beginning of fall practice to the last out.  In some regards the year was a manifestation of the movie “Major League” in which the team had to pull together and overcome odds to win a championship.  Furthermore the Friars clubhouse was nearly as colorful as the one with Jake Taylor and Rick Vaughn in the dugout. There are stories of partying naked, bar fights, prank phone calls and rendezvous with international co-eds.  It also the requisite bad guy, PC President Father Philip A. Smith who became so reviled during the season that he skipped the last game in to avoid creating a hostile environment.

Any college baseball fan would appreciate Lonardo’s “Strike IX”.  In a lot of ways it had the same intrigue, action and underdog story that make “The Girl with…” stories so enjoyable.  The day it arrived in my house it became a bathroom staple.  With irregularity (I need more bran) I read about the historic season of the Friars and how they battled to keep their program, and season, alive.

My only complaint about the book is that it was a bit short, at 126 pages it doesn’t take long to go from cover to cover.  That doesn’t mean it not a complete retelling of the season, it’s just that I wanted to read more. As such, I got in contact with two of the principle players from the last season to get some more of their thoughts on the season.

Marc DesRoches was the senior ace of the Friar pitching staff.  He won 14 games and compiled 82 strikeouts to finish forever on the top of single season Providence pitching records.  Those numbers, combined with a 2.70 ERA earned him a spot on the All Big East first team.   He currently plays in the Yawkey League and has been awarded MVP in 1999, 2002, 2005, 2007 and Triple Crown and CY Young winner in 2007.  He is a head coach at the RBI Baseball Academy in Foxboro, MA.

Jamie Athas was an all around contributor for the team as a freshman.  He stole a team leading 18 bases and played solid defensive shortstop and earned a spot on the Big East All Rookie team.  He went on to play at Wake Forest and was drafted in the seventh round by the San Francisco Giants.  After six years in the minors where he reached the AAA level, he became a coach at UNC Greenboro where is currently works with hitters, infielders and heads recruiting for the Spartans.

Me: When you first heard the murmurs of Friars baseball possibly being eliminated, was there much initial concern?  Considering the history and success of the program, I would have guessed that the thought of shuttering the team would seem to be more than a bit ridiculous.

DesRoches: The first rumors weren’t that far in advance of the decision being made. It’s not even like we had time to form some sort of rebuttal or even have an opinion at all for that matter.

Athas: The story broke a couple of days before we actually got word from our Athletic Department.  A former Friar baseball player worked for the newspaper and that is where the leak came from.  We all thought it was crazy that we would be eliminated.  Baseball was the oldest and most winning sport the College had known. To take away a sport like baseball, America’s past time, was crazy.  I went home when the story leaked and told my parents about it.  I told them not to worry though and I went on with my normal college life.

Me: If you had the same players play out that final season without being under the weight of knowing it was PC’s last, would the team have been as successful?

DesRoches: I would say that we had the talent to as far as we did. It was the best recruiting class the school had ever had, so we were deep even relying on the talented freshman class. I believe the decision might have given us a higher level of focus, but the talent and the chemistry would have been there regardless. We just felt as if we were playing for every Friar who had ever suited up, that’s all.

Athas: That is a tough one.  That year was crazy, sad, amazing, exhausting. When we started our fall season, we were like any other college team getting to know all the new guys, who worked hard, who had talent, where we all fit in, etc. When we found out it was soon to be all over, we instantly became a team.  It didn’t matter who we were or where we had come from, PC did this to us.  They had other options available but chose not to go down that road.  Providence baseball being eliminated definitely brought us closer together.  We had an urgent common goal.  Some guys have 4 years to try to do what we did. We had only one year to do so.  We were castoffs who came together and showed everyone what Providence was losing.

Me: As someone who played for a program during its final season, what advice would you give to players on Cal’s baseball team?

DesRoches: My advice to those Cal Berkley players who stay in the program for the year would be to play for each other. When a school’s administration turns it back on you, you are forced to find strength within your own locker room, coaches included. In baseball, you learn early to put things behind you and to plod ahead and that is what I am sure they are going to do

Athas: For the older guys who may be junior’s right now and not know what will take place next year as they only have one year left of eligibility, I do feel for you.  They get hit the hardest.  Some will decide to stay and finish up their education, some will leave to play that one last year of baseball.  There are no easy decisions.

For someone who has been through this before, you have to do your work yet again with regards to the whole recruiting process.  See what other schools are interested (and you know the schools who are as you have been through it before).  See what kind of shape their athletic teams, departments, etc. are in so you can have all your bases covered.  For me, this was a blessing in disguise as I was able to go down south to play for Wake Forest, a top 25 team and get a great education.  Not all people involved are as lucky.

Speaking of Title IX in general, this is a great law that was enacted but it has also been a costly law.  I witness both sides as my wife was given a scholarship to be a heptathlete at Wake Forest, an opportunity that she might not have gotten before the law was enacted.  On the other hand, it hurt a lot of people close to me at PC.  The athletic departments know the shape of their budgets and what may have to be done in order to stay afloat.  I just hope they are up front about it because in the end, the student-athletes are the ones bearing the brunt of the decisions being made.  We need to keep them in the forefront of our minds.

For more on Strike IX, including more from Athas and an except from the book, click here.  To purchase your copy click here or find it on Amazon.com.