Martin, Fox chasing elusive CWS title
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- In 2007, the morning after North Carolina lost in the College World Series championship for the second straight season, Florida State coach Mike Martin called Tar Heels coach Mike Fox in Omaha.
"I know what it's like to lose in a national championship game," Martin, who has led the Seminoles to the CWS 14 times without winning an NCAA title, said recently. "And when you play for a national championship, you know that you might not get that many opportunities. I wanted to be sure that I was able to say to him what others had said to me: It's not fair to beat yourself up. You can't beat yourself up for finishing second.
"You appreciate what your team has accomplished. And then you go out there and try to do it again."
That's exactly what both Fox and Martin -- who boast the top two active career winning percentages, respectively, in the nation -- will do when their teams open NCAA regional play Friday in their respective home stadiums.
The Tar Heels (44-14), who have been to the College World Series three more times since Martin made that phone call (and five times, total, under Fox), earned the No. 6 national seed on the strength of their pitching and a late-season 14-game winning streak.
The Seminoles (43-15), who have made it to Omaha twice more since 2007, boast the No. 3 national seed in a year that began with a No. 20 ranking by Baseball America and with some wondering whether they would be a contender after losing multiple stars.
"There's no doubt that both of these teams have what it takes to go back to Omaha, and I don't know if I'd bet against either one of them," said Baseball America national writer Aaron Fitt. "Is this the season we see Mike Martin or Mike Fox win it all? I think that's a question -- especially when it comes to Mike Martin -- that we all have in the back of our minds every time they make it to the College World Series."
Indeed, Martin, a sentimental favorite after winning more than 1,700 games (.743 percentage) and making the NCAA tournament in each of his 33 seasons at FSU, admits that he occasionally thinks about what it would be like to finish the season with a victory. Not just for himself, he said, but for his players.
Twice he's coached in the final game of the CWS, an accomplishment in its own right considering eight teams make it to Omaha and almost anything can happen in the double-elimination marathon to the final two.
But 1999 -- when Miami beat FSU 6-5 thanks in part to a five-run fifth inning -- was Martin's closest brush with the title. Ironically, that game marked Hurricanes coach Jim Morris' first national crown after six trips to the CWS.
"To say that I'm not disappointed is a lie," said Martin, now 68. "Disappointment reigns heavy. But I can't go around constantly being disappointed when the teams accomplished what they did. You want the national championship more for the players than you do for yourself. Sure, I want to win the last game of the year, but I know how tough it is.
"I tell people -- and this is not an original statement -- that the only thing predictable about baseball is the unpredictability."
Fox -- who was named to the CWS all-tournament team when he helped lead the Tar Heels there as a second baseman in 1978 -- has felt that in haunting fashion, too.
After returning to Chapel Hill in 1999, he coached UNC to the first of four straight trips to Omaha in 2006. In the deciding game of the '06 championship series with Oregon State, the score was knotted at 2 in the eighth inning when a throwing error by the Tar Heels' Bryan Steed resulted in the Beavers' go-ahead (and title-winning) run.
Fox, whose .745 winning percentage also includes his time at Division III North Carolina Wesleyan, said he refuses to let the lack of a Division I championship bother him. But that particular game was difficult to swallow.
"I've thought, several times, I wish we would have just gotten beat 11-0 or whatever," he said. "Because I hate the way that it played out, the last game. It's like [Chris] Webber and the timeout. The other 39 minutes of that game and how well the team played didn't matter. If anybody talks about that one game, that's what comes up. So if anybody talks about the national [baseball] championship in '06, that's what they talk about: the ball that was thrown away. That part bugs me."
Not much else, though, does. Fox, who said he tries to focus on the present more than he did earlier in his career, refuses to let it.
"Of course I want to win a championship; I want this team to win a championship," he said. "But it's like with Mike Martin. I don't talk to him about how many times he's been there and not won it. But if there's a coach that deserves to win it, it's him. And I hope he does it before he retires. But if he doesn't -- if he doesn't -- it won't take away from the career that that guy's had. It's unparalleled.
"And for me, if we win it, nothing's going to change for me. Nothing's going to change."
Like Martin advised him during that '07 phone call: Win or lose, he'll appreciate his teams. And keep trying to find ways to win.
And then try again, if necessary.
"Anybody in their right mind that's ever coached dreams of winning the last game," Martin said. "But this game, more than any other, can be like a roller coaster, too so you better enjoy the ride."