Purdue head baseball coach Steve Green took a swing and struck out in Major League style during a March 10 tournament game in Fresno, Calif. The swing, however, was not with a bat and was not at a ball. Instead, Green’s weapon was his hand and his target was one of his players.
According to several reports, Green struck pitcher Jeremy Ballard following an 8-6 loss to Fresno State in which Ballard threw three wild pitches in the ninth inning.
Associate athletic director Joni Comstock flew to California on March 11 to investigate the incident. Comstock said she wasinformed of the situation by Green, and shortly thereafter Green was suspended indefinitely by the school. He resigned March 19 and assistant coach Bob Shepherd has been leading the team ever since under the title “interim coach.”
While Comstock declined to comment on her investigation findings and even refused to mention the name of the player involved, she did comment on how the team was handled after the occurrence.
“I met with the team and some of the players who had questions. I met with the remaining coaching staff to make sure the rest of this trip went smoothly,” Comstock said.
Finishing the trip was the first step in what has so far been a surprising turnaround. After starting the year 2-9 under Green’s direction, the Boilermakers have gone 10-3 under Shepherd, including a split in this weekend’s Big Ten opening series against the Gophers.
Comstock said she and athletic director Morgan Burke offered Shepherd the interim position because of his six-plus years as a Purdue assistant.
“We asked Coach Shepherd to fill the leadership role,” Comstock said. “We have been real pleased with what Coach Shepherd and the other coaches have done with the team.”
Players and athletic department officials have been reluctant to discuss the details of the incident: Ballard walking down the left field foul line after being pulled and flinging his jersey against the fence; Green calling to Ballard after the game; Ballard allegedly responding with a derogatory comment; Green following with the now-infamous incident, which Comstock said was not provoked by Ballard.
According to Purdue’s athletic public relations director, Jim Vruggink, the players would decline to comment on the incident. Vruggink said the team was “playing fairly well” and that they didn’t want to “open any old wounds.”
The players who were willing to talk about the incident this weekend at the Metrodome preferred to focus on the team’s turnaround rather than the events that led up to it.
“We have put everything aside and gone out there and played the game. We have quit worrying about what happened in California,” infielder Mark Rothstein said. “We’re just playing the game and not worrying about who we are playing, just playing the game and not the opponent. It has worked so far.”
The team consensus appears to be appreciation for Shepherd’s coaching style.
“The style of play we are playing now is just a lot different than what we started with. The way we started out everyone was real tense. We weren’t playing well,” catcher Erik Frei said. “(Shepherd’s) personality kind of blends with the personality of a majority of the team as far as being laid back, and that seems to be working. So we are going with it.”
Teammate Chris Walker agreed, saying Shepherd has built “better team chemistry.”
“We are not so uptight when we are out there. You make an error, so what, make the next play,” Walker said. “We are just out there having a lot of fun, and we are winning games like that.”
The players were not alone in the adjustment to a new head coach. Assistant coaches had to get accustomed to the different style of coaching also. Like a majority of the team, the assistant coaches are satisfied with the productivity of Shepherd’s system.
“We are playing a little bit looser and guys have just raised the level of their play for whatever reason,” assistant coach Mark Kingston said. “I can’t really put a finger on it, but there is no question guys are playing better, fielding better and hitting better. Whether it’s coincidence, I don’t know.”
Although nobody is sure of the exact reason for their resurgence, it appears as though a fresh start could save the Boilermakers’ season.
Following this weekend’s split with Purdue, Gophers third baseman Matt Scanlon said he was not surprised by the play of the Boilermakers.
“We knew they were a young team. We knew they were inexperienced, but I think that what happened with the other coach is what makes them a dangerous team,” Scanlon said. “They have nothing to lose.”