GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The first of the fans that would eventually be part of a record-breaking crowd at the University of Florida’s McKethan Stadium were still milling around outside when veteran Florida State head coach Mike Martin ambled through the Seminoles’ dugout Tuesday night.
Martin, who turned 68 in early February, was as ebullient as could be as his Perfect Game sixth-ranked Florida State team prepared to play No. 1-ranked Florida in the first of three non-conference meetings this season. The standing-room-only crowd would swell to a stadium-record 6,005 before the night was over, and the anticipation was palpable a full three hours before the first pitch.
“It’s the Florida-Florida State thing, just to line up and play two, three, four times a year,” Martin said after finding a seat in the dugout. “It’s always fun because it gives you a good measuring stick. Florida, of course, is a very, very good baseball team and we know that we’ve got a pretty good club, but at the same time we haven’t played anybody of Florida’s caliber. We’re anxious to see how we lineup.”
Martin, speaking slowly with his gravelly native Florida drawl, was just getting started.
“To me it’s just a credit to Sully (Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan) and what he’s done down here,” he said. “This is just a great atmosphere. It’s a tough place to play, there’s no doubt about it – we ain’t won down here in (four) years – but at the same time you’ve got to learn to play in an environment like this because everybody’s trying to get to Omaha and there’s no assurance you’re going to have your home crowd pulling for you.”
Martin is in his 33rd season as the head of the Florida State program, and he is third on the NCAA Winningest Active Division I Coaches list (1,684) behind only Texas’ Augie Garrido (1,822) and Wichita State’s Gene Stephenson (1,771).
He has led the Seminoles to 32 straight NCAA Regional appearances and 14 College World Series berths – although no CWS titles – including 10 in the last 21 years. The most recent appearance was in 2010.
FSU has another outstanding team this year, and won 14 of its first 15 games and 10 straight before losing to the Gators, 9-2, Tuesday night. Martin returned five excellent starting position players from last year’s 46-19 team that won its fifth straight Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division Championship.
Those returnees are Perfect Game Preseason First Team All-American centerfielder James Ramsey, PG Preseason Third Team All-American first baseman Jayce Boyd, second baseman Devon Travis, shortstop Justin Gonzalez and third baseman Sherman Johnson.
“We’ve got a lot of guys back, and it’s a situation where we’re very comfortable with our infielders … and we feel like we have a center fielder (Ramsey) who can play with anybody in the country,” Martin said. “Our catcher (Stephen McGee) is getting better and our pitching, well, it’s a lot of freshmen and we’ve got to be patient.”
Ramsey, Boyd, Travis, Gonzalez and McGee were all active in Perfect Game events during their high school years, and Martin has used PG to find most of his high-profile scholarship players.
“There’s no doubt that Perfect Game has opened the doors up for all us in the game of college baseball,” he said. “We know that throughout the country we can go see some great baseball players literally on a weekly basis. It exposes young men to baseball at an early age and it gives them opportunities.
“They’re not sitting out in Lowbunk, New Mexico wondering if somebody’s going to see them,” he continued. “They know that they’re going to be noticed as a result of their attendance at a Perfect Game showcase or any Perfect Game event.”
The Seminoles opened ACC play last weekend with a three-game sweep over Duke and host Virginia in a three-game league set this weekend. They won the out-right ACC championship two years ago, and Martin thinks they can contend for the title again this year.
“I like everything about this club. This club is a bunch of winners,” he said. “We’ve got a long marathon left ahead of us but I assure you they will do everything they can to go the 26.5 (miles). They’re not just going to 26 and give it up – they’re going to fight you until it’s all over. I’m very proud to be a part of this group.”
Martin is a Florida State graduate (Class of ’66) and knows the ins-and-outs of the university and the Tallahassee community. It’s where he came of age, got married and raised his family and where he learned about winning games and winning attitudes.
“We have a great administration, an administration that truly gives us opportunities to be successful,” Martin said. “We have a baseball stadium that’s second-to-none, we have facilities that are second-to-none (and) we’ve got a Major League clubhouse. Guys want to come to Florida State to be a part of that.”
Martin also spoke of the Noles’ outstanding fan support, with between 4,000 and 6,000 fans turning out for each home game.
“It’s encouraging for a young man to know that when he comes to Florida State he’s going to get that type of support,” he said. “The interest of the community is very important to them and when they come to play for Florida State they know they’re going to have people interested in how they do.”
Martin was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2007 and shows no signs of calling it a career. He knows each new season brings a whole new set of challenges but he’s certain he can keep that fire in his eyes.
“The day that I don’t have that, I’m getting out,” he said. “There’s no question that this year is a big challenge because of our pitching; we don’t have a lot of guys returning and we start three out of four freshmen and the other one is a sophomore that pitched three innings last year. It’s one of those years that you have to be patient but at the same time you can’t be complacent.
“There are a lot of tough games left ahead of us and we’re just getting into it, so let’s see how we can finish it up.”
Florida State had won 11 of the previous 16 games against Florida before Tuesday’s setback. You can bet Martin and his Seminoles will finish things up just fine as the 2012 season hits its stride.