By his own admission, John Anderson hasn’t been keeping track of his march to 1,200 career victories. “I’ve never been a big numbers guy,’’ the Gophers baseball coach said. “I wouldn’t know where [the count] was if people didn’t remind me.’’
That count now is 1,2000, after Anderson’s Gophers beat Kansas 19-7 on Tuesday night at Siebert Field, giving their coach the milestone. Still, he preferred to concentrate on other numbers. Such as 28-13, the Gophers’ record as they began a five-game homestand. Or one, the place they occupy in the Big Ten standings with an 11-3 mark. Or 19, their ranking in this week’s polls.
Add them all up, and the Gophers are bouncing back beautifully after a clunker of a season in 2015. Anderson credited his players with doing all the work, as they committed to become a tighter, more selfless group. They, in turn, credited a coach who has devoted 35 years to teaching them that life is more than only a collection of numbers — even if they’re relishing the ones they’re putting up this spring.
“What he’s done here is really special,’’ said catcher Austin Athmann of Cold Spring, Minn., a .368 hitter who swatted his 10th home run of the season Tuesday. “He always has faith in you and your abilities.
“What we did last year, that’s not what we’re here for. We decided in a team meeting last fall that this season was going to be different, with a whole new mental approach. Everyone is on board, and that’s definitely showing in the results.’’
The Gophers went 21-30 last season and were ninth in the Big Ten, marking only the second time in Anderson’s tenure they had finished below .500. This year, they have thrived despite some obstacles. The team played its first 17 games on the road, and it has endured injuries to starting shortstop Terrin Vavra — who is hitting .390 as a freshman — and first baseman Toby Hanson.
Since March 26, the Gophers have gone 18-4. They have won all five Big Ten series they have played and field the most productive offense in the conference, averaging 11.6 hits and 6.6 runs per game. Matt Fiedler tops the Big Ten with a .396 batting average and leads the pitching staff with seven victories, while fellow starter Dalton Sawyer is second in the league with 76 strikeouts.
Committing to each other
Anderson said his players were disappointed for themselves and for the program last year, when the worst record since 2008 kept them out of the Big Ten tournament at Target Field. Based solely on talent and experience, he saw potential for improvement. But it would not happen, he said, until players were ready to commit to each other — a point Anderson drove home by changing their caps last fall.
“We took away the ‘M’ and gave them hats that said, ‘Me/we,’ to try to start talking about the culture we needed to create,’’ Anderson said. “A lot of the experience at the amateur level is about ‘me’; they’re told how good they are, and they’re only interested in their own experience. It’s not about team, or mentoring other people, or creating a family culture.
“They really took a look at themselves and what they needed to change to play at a higher level and win more games. They had to hold each other accountable and responsible for being a team and maintaining a certain standard. And there was a readiness to change the culture.’’
Getting the ‘M’ back
Anderson emphasized that while he provided the template, his players drove the transformation. They talked about it during the summer, when many polished their skills and discipline in the Northwoods League, and got to work as soon as they arrived on campus last fall. In January, they had made enough progress for Anderson to return their ‘M’ caps.
“We had to refocus as a team in almost every aspect of our program,’’ second baseman Connor Schaefbauer said. “Everything from how we executed on the field to weight training, attention to detail at practice, our attitudes coming to the park every day. Now, guys are making plays. Guys are getting things done. That’s something we haven’t had here in a couple of years.’’
In March, Anderson signed a contract extension that will carry him through the 2021 season. When he looks back on this one, he said, his 1,200th victory is not what he will remember.
“These guys love playing the game together, and to see the team they’ve created, that’s the rewarding part for me,’’ he said. “I’ve just had a wonderful year.’’