MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — To be on the verge of laying claim to sole possession of the Big 12’s regular season baseball championship only to suffer through a lost weekend in Texas where they were swept in three blowouts had to be a heartbreaking experience for a West Virginia University baseball team that was soaring high on one of its best seasons ever.
Instead of coming away with the championship all to themselves, they wound up sharing it three ways with the Longhorns and Oklahoma State, and are seeded third heading into the Big 12 Tournament.
With a quick turnaround into that tournament, where the Mountaineers open with Texas Tech in an 8:30 p.m. game on Wednesday night, they have to regroup and regain the confidence and momentum they had before heading to Texas.
It is stuff songs have been written about, the most fitting being Chris Walker’s 1994 “How Do You Heal a Broken Heart?”
With that in mind, we reached out to someone who knows what it’s like to have a really broken heart, former major league reliever Kent Tekulve, just recently put into the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Hall of Fame.
Tekulve underwent a successful heart transplant in 2014 and more than anyone understands that losing a few baseball games is only a bump in the road of life and not anything beyond that.
Losing baseball games is ego threatening and that, quite frankly, isn’t of the magnitude that you can’t shake it off and move forward without any lasting damage.
As someone who pitched 1,050 major league games, all in relief, and who still holds the record for most games pitched and ever starting a game, Tekulve knows that the game has its ups and downs and that there is a way to approach the setbacks.
Tekulve understands that the Mountaineers had reached the point they had played all year to reach, only to get smoked in three straight games and that the disappointment hits hard.
“You can’t compare it to the heart attack. That’s life-threatening. That’s a whole bunch of different stuff,” he said, now 79 and blessed with the knowledge that comes with a major league career that spanned 16 years.
“Being there and needing to win one game and getting smoked three games in a row, like West Virginia did, hurts, but obviously they had been successful during the course of the year or they wouldn’t have been there.”
It’s time now to move on.
“At first,” he said. “They have to go ahead and suffer. It’s almost like finding out about a death in the family. You have to suffer, go through all the emotional things that go with that.
It wasn’t expected, he noted, as if the death in the family was from someone who had suffered long.
“You have to go through the disappointment and get past it before you can start to learn. Once you’ve gotten past failing, you can think about how successful you were to get where you were ... to get you where you were before it all fell apart,” Tekulve said.
It isn’t like all of a sudden WVU forgot how to play the game.
“Obviously they were good or they wouldn’t have been in the position they were in,” he said.
The idea is to regain the feeling they had before Texas and to learn from what did take place.
“Now, they’re going to spend a whole lot of time thinking about why it fell apart, what they did wrong, the things that could have happened, things they could have done to change it. But then you have to start thinking about ‘OK, what did we do to get ourselves in that position in the first place,’” he said.
“That’s the first step. None of the other stuff matters. Basically, this year was not a failure. It was a great year but they just couldn’t complete that. The focus now goes to, what did they do the whole year long to get where we were at.”
As the tournament starts, the Mountaineers have to be a team that learned in defeat.
“Go back out, they basically need to do what they did before, but in a much shorter format. Now it’s a tournament. They have to get there again. They know how to do that,” Tekulve said.
Changes have to be made to avoid whatever it was that got to them in Texas.
“You think about what you need to do different,” Tekulve said. “You know, they started thinking ‘We can win this thing and clinch it. Everybody got a little anxious. Everybody is thinking ‘Swing a little harder.’ ‘Throw a little harder.’ ‘We got to clinch and I want to be the guy to do it.’ That whole thing.”
It seems like the right approach at the minute, but it is opposite of how you played during the year.
“When you get back to where you were, now you know you don’t need to be in a hurry. You don’t have to do it yourself. You have to play like you played the whole year long. You were successful all year long because they were themselves. They have to go ahead and play this last part of the season like they did all year.”
It comes down to mind over what doesn’t matter.
You didn’t fail. You succeeded all year and that’s still there within you, Tekulve stressed.
Four years ago, WVU had another great season going, got into the NCAAs, hosted a regional and took a 10-7 lead over Texas A&M two outs into the ninth, 3 and 2 on Bryce Blaum of Texas A&M with their closer, Sam Kessler, on the mound.
What couldn’t happen happened. Blaum hit a grand slam home run.
West Virginia was eliminated and, after the game, Kessler went on social media to apologize to the WVU fans.
”I can’t express enough what it was like to lose that game for y’all. I will never forget what happened on that field today in front of the greatest fans on earth. Y’all supported us through everything this whole year and I’m sorry couldn’t reward you for that. But I don’t think this is the end of the program. It is about to reach new heights that have never been seen before. So, from the bottom of my heart I’m sorry for today, but we will keep climbing.”
At that time, I turned to another former major league pitcher for his thoughts on what had happened in that game. He knew what Kessler was going through, for his name was Pat Darcy and he had given up the Carlton Fisk home run in the 1975 World Series that won Game 6 of the World Series, a game many believe to be the greatest World Series game ever played.
I read Darcy, whom I had covered for the Cincinnati Enquirer then, that apology and his response was this:
“Hey, I just want you to tell him that that’s no reason for him to apologize for that. That’s baseball. He has to remember they wouldn’t have been there without him.”
In other words, “There is no crying in baseball.”