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  Mind Game

With his facts-and-figures approach to baseball, Coach Bob Babb has quietly created a Hopkins program that's a consistent national contender.

By Jeff Labrecque, A&S '95
Photos by Bob Brown

Opening photo: Left to right, Tim Casale, Gary Rosenberg, Mike Durgala, Bob Babb, and Brian Morley Five minutes after the Blue Jays won their 17th straight game. Five minutes after one of the most improbable come-from-behind victories in the history of Johns Hopkins baseball. Five minutes after sweeping a doubleheader against Ursinus College to claim the No. 1 ranking in the nation, Coach Bob Babb, A&S '77, was back at work.

It was March 27, and the Blue Jays had just eked past Ursinus, winning each game of the twin-bill in the team's last at-bat. The second game was decided when senior outfielder Craig Cetta — who had reached base only after the visiting catcher dropped the third strike of the third out and tossed wildly to first base — slid home safely with the winning run in the last inning.

Eye-black was smeared across irrepressibly smiling faces, but all focus was on the man with the moustache in the No. 1 uniform, the calm at the eye of the storm. Surrounded by his players along the first-base line, Babb, 49, who has coached the Blue Jays for half his life, was already looking ahead toward the next game against nationally ranked College of New Jersey.

"Who can't travel with us on Monday?"

A couple of players raised their hands. One had research lab; another had a midterm. Neither would be able to make the trip. No problem. Welcome to Division III, non-scholarship sports at Johns Hopkins University.

In a quarter century as head coach at Johns Hopkins, Bob Babb has transformed a baseball program extraordinary only in its ineptitude into a perennial national championship contender. He's outworked, outsmarted, and out-recruited his competition to create a winning tradition that is simply staggering, both on and off the field: 686 victories at press time — more than any other Hopkins coach in any sport — eight conference championships, and 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, including a third-place finish at the 1989 College World Series. Seven of his players have gone on to play professionally. What is even more impressive by Hopkins standards is that 97 percent of his players graduate, a figure above the overall university (86 percent) and student-athlete (90 percent) graduation rates.

"Bob teaches his players what you're supposed to learn at a school like Hopkins," says Andrew Bilello, A&S '86, associate athletic director at the University of Pennsylvania and a former assistant athletic director at Johns Hopkins. "How to win. How to win the right way. How to translate that into being a better lawyer or doctor and so on. In that way, he's as good as anybody who's ever coached at Hopkins — at any sport."

Coach Bob Babb has outworked, outsmarted, and out-recruited his competition to create a winning tradition that is simply staggering. Bob Babb grew up in a baseball-mad household in the baseball-mad town of Bloomsburg, Pa. His father, John, was the baseball coach at Bloomsburg High School (and later coached against his son's Blue Jays while at Bloomsburg University). Babb spent his childhood on the town's many diamonds. "All my high school games were on the radio," Babb says. "Even the Little Leagues were big. Lots of people would come to those games, and the fields were kept really nice, with fences, stands, press box, the whole bit. Baseball was a big thing in Bloomsburg."

When Babb came to Johns Hopkins as a freshman in 1973, Hopkins baseball must have been a rude awakening. Until that time, no Blue Jays baseball team had ever won more than 10 games in a season, and the program had had only one winning season in its last 20. And if the team was bad, the facilities were worse. There were no dugouts on the baseball field, no scoreboard, no reasonable home run fence. "We didn't even have hats," Babb remembers. "We all wore helmets, even in the field."

Off the field, Babb was also acclimating himself to a new environment. "It was a culture shock for me," says Babb, who majored in social and behavioral sciences. "Bloomsburg was a small town with very little religious or ethnic diversity. Hopkins was overflowing with it. As much as anything else in college, I probably got more out of the people than I did the courses."

Although he came to Homewood with ambitions of playing three sports — baseball, basketball, and football — he concentrated on baseball, where his background and skills had an immediate impact on a promising young team. Babb hit .379 as a junior and set the school record for single-season and career stolen bases. In his last two seasons, the Blue Jays became winners, reaching the inaugural NCAA Division III Tournament in 1976. "Bobby was probably the best base runner I ever coached," says Denny Cox, Johns Hopkins' baseball and football coach from 1971 to 1979. "He wasn't necessarily the fastest runner, but he always knew what to do in any given situation, and he always took advantage of an opportunity."

Babb wasn't just quick on the base paths. The coach's son had an astute eye for the little variations of the game. He'd notice that an opposing base runner would dangle his fingers slightly differently when he intended to steal. He'd know a curveball was coming to him just by seeing a careless opposing pitcher dig harder into his mitt during his windup. "He had one of the best sports minds I had ever encountered," Cox says. "He was our captain for two years, and I made him an assistant football coach when he was still a student. That's how much I thought of him."

"You have to be who you are," says Babb. "And I am not a yeller."

During the summers after his junior and senior years, Babb returned home to Bloomsburg and coached the local American Legion baseball team. He had an experienced assistant, too: his father. "He knew more baseball than anyone I had ever met, but he wanted me to have the experience of being the head coach," says Babb. "So he was my first base coach and I was the third base coach, and we won two league championships."

After graduation, Babb assisted Cox on the baseball and football fields for two more years while teaching high school social studies and earning his master's degree in recreational management from Morgan State University. When Cox left in 1979, 24-year-old Bob Babb was named head baseball coach. His youth may have concerned some, but certainly not his players — 10 of whom had been his teammates just three years earlier. "His age was never a factor to us," says Tom Meurer, Engr '80. "Everybody, especially the seniors on that first team, knew the depth of the knowledge he had. We respected him." Though to them, and for many of the players who followed, he was and would always be Bob. Not Coach. Just Bob.

"It could have been a little awkward," Babb says, "but I think I was probably a little more mature than the typical 24-year-old. So I met with the seniors early on and said, 'Look, we're going to change a few things this year.'"

His whole life, Babb had been watching baseball, analyzing coaches, asking questions, debating philosophies, learning and deciphering the intricacies of the game. Now, he not only had a team of his own, but he had an entire collegiate program of his own with which to experiment. "I had a definite strategy of what I wanted to do," Babb says. "First off, the whole mentality needed to be changed. For so many people at Hopkins, baseball had been such a joke for so long, so there wasn't any question that I needed to change that."

He immediately expanded the team's schedule and improved its equipment. When university money wasn't available, he got creative, renting a concession booth at Memorial Stadium during several Orioles games, where players, friends, and girlfriends worked to raise funds for the team. He also looked to former players, forming the Friends of Hopkins Baseball. "If we were going to improve this program, we had to improve our fund-raising potential, and one way to do that is to keep the ex-players involved and interested," Babb says. Former Blue Jays began to find game summaries, season previews, and other baseball updates — handwritten in a familiar scrawl — in their mailboxes with increasing frequency. Before long, the Blue Jays had new jackets, additional uniforms, and improved facilities.

"He kept pushing for improvement," says Jerry Schnydman, A&S '67, executive assistant to president William R. Brody. "And one way around here to have somebody listen to you is if they see that you're really working hard yourself to make improvements as well."

Letters are one thing, but a winning team is the greatest fund-raising tool of all, and Babb wasted no time. His first year's team finished the regular season 21-3-3 and advanced to the 1980 NCAA Tournament. After a second consecutive 20-win season in 1981, Johns Hopkins rewarded Babb by making the head coach position full time (although he would continue to be an assistant football coach until 1998).

The Blue Jays are as dedicated to their coach as they are to the game. "It's hard not to play hard for a guy like that," says one former player. Once the position became full time, Babb emphasized and perfected his recruiting technique to attract the athletes who could also excel in Hopkins' classrooms. Although he rarely travels the country to meet and recruit talent, he might be the most persistent coach a high school baseball player encounters. "He told me, 'You're going to get more mail from me than all the coaches combined,'" says former pitcher Carl Foster, A&S '97. "And he certainly held up to that end of the deal because it seemed like I got something in the mail from him every other day."

All that attention is flattering to a recruit, but more importantly, should he decide to come to Hopkins, he already knows the program's history, expectations, and personnel from all the mailings. "The recruits know more about us when they come in as freshmen than we know about ourselves," says current Hopkins pitcher Jeremy Brown, A&S '03, '04 (MA).

When Babb had been at Hopkins long enough to attract and develop his own players, things really took off. In 1986, the Blue Jays led all of Division III in pitching, returned to the NCAAs, and drew headlines that May with a goodwill tour of Cuba. Three years after that, he had his Blue Jays in the College World Series, where they finished third. Since 1991, his teams have never won fewer than 25 games in a season — 30-10 is his average season during that span — and they've reached the last three NCAA tournaments. Clearly the man knows his baseball.

Babb seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to the game, but he's no mystic. In the spirit of Johns Hopkins, he's more of a scientist. While other coaches might lug an equipment bag into the dugout, Babb carries a briefcase. Inside lie the charts and scouting reports he has compiled about his opponents over the years. If a hitter never swings at the first pitch or insists on pulling the outside fastball, he knows. If a pitcher begins every confrontation with a fastball or will throw his change-up with a full count, he knows. If a coach has a tendency to hit-and-run or is aggressive waving runners around third base, he knows that, too. Every pitch of every game is recorded in that briefcase, and his computer-like mind often can predict what the opponent will do in a situation even before the opponent has decided himself. "That's the one thing people don't ever see about baseball," says Craig Brooks, A&S '86, who played for and coached with Babb. "A coach has to think innings ahead, hitter by hitter, in terms of what's happening in situations, and Bob's terrific at that. I used to ask him all the time, 'What were you thinking here?' and it's amazing how many variables he would have been considering. He's always two or three steps ahead."

Facts figure large in the Blue Jays dugout, where players aim to stay three steps ahead of their opponents. Assistant coach Jack Newell first met Bob Babb at John Babb's coaching clinics in the 1970s and coached against Hopkins at Franklin & Marshall College before joining JHU's staff in 1995. "I used to work in the media, too. And I've spent time down at spring training covering the pro teams, and I've never sat next to someone who's more intense about baseball," says Newell. "We've got a playbook now that's just a few pages short of the New Testament."

In the baseball movie Bull Durham, the frustrated manager of the Durham Bulls lectures his struggling players: "This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball." But Babb's playbook, which has chapters on every conceivable play and situation, suggests otherwise. "I tell people all the time, I got a bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins in the Writing Seminars, but I feel like I got a master's degree in baseball from Bob," says Dave Beccaria, A&S '96, a former player and assistant who is currently turning around Haverford College's baseball program.

Babb's cerebral approach to the game and attention to detail enable him to coach just about anything. In 1984, he briefly coached the women's basketball team, which was in the midst of a poor season, when the head coach went on temporary medical leave. Presto, the Blue Jays began to win. On the football field from 1977 to 1998, it was more of the same. "If we ever had an associate head coach, he was it," says Jim Margraff, A&S '82, the Blue Jays' head football coach. "He's got an uncanny ability to see things that most people don't, and he only has to see them once to learn from them. For us, he'd be sitting in the press box calling the plays the other team would run before they ran them. It was ridiculous."

Although Babb has a competitive edge — try beating him in Ping-Pong or calling a foul in the last moments of a pick-up basketball game — he tends to be calm and easygoing, nothing like the stereotypical gruff, confrontational, whistle-around-the-neck coach you might expect. He rarely chews out a player, and in 25 years of coaching, he's been thrown out of a game by an umpire for arguing a call only three times. Clearly, Earl Weaver he ain't.

It's not unusual for some of Babb's freshman players, who might be more used to an in-your-face style, to struggle with this new player-coach relationship because some young players correlate not being yelled at with being ignored. "He treats his players like adults, and it took me a couple of years to realize that," says Andy Karetsky, A&S '88, another former player who also served as Babb's assistant from 1989 to 1994. "There's no hidden agenda with him. If you demonstrate your ability to take on responsibility, he gives you as much responsibility as you want to take on."

What develops instead is a true friendship that has upperclassmen playing their hearts out for their coach while strengthening a bond that might last a lifetime. "I remember one thing that Coach said to me at the beginning of my sophomore year," says former catcher Johnny Craig, A&S '00. "'I'll never lead you astray.' And I know he meant that on the ball field, but I also think he meant it in the sense of life. I know that he does the best that he possibly can to lead his players the best way that he can."

For his part, Babb doesn't apologize for his coaching style. "For me, it's always been better to say, 'Here's what I expect. You should do it. Period,'" says Babb. "I can get in their faces, but that wears thin. Bottom line, you have to be who you are, and I am not a yeller."

His approach instead cultivates a measure of trust that encourages his players to take advantage of the open-door relationship he offers for all things Hopkins. His program might be a Division I caliber program in Division III clothing, but he never forgets the unique demands of a Johns Hopkins education. "He was very in tune with how you were doing academically, and he was very understanding that one had responsibilities other than playing baseball," says former first baseman Jon Meltzer, A&S '87. "If you had a problem with your girlfriend, your parents, school, whatever, he was the guy you went to."

In fact, there's very little Babb won't do to help his student athletes. When one of his players confided in him that he was too nervous to speak with a women's basketball team player whom he liked, Babb sat him down in his office and closed the door. "He goes, 'What would you say to her?' and I was like, 'What?'" recounts the former player. "He says, 'C'mon, pretend I'm her.' So I'm like, 'Um, great game tonight,' and Coach Babb goes, in a high voice, 'Yeah, I didn't shoot the ball too well, though.' I couldn't believe I was doing this, and he's like, 'C'mon, keep going, keep going.' We worked out what I should say to her, and it winded up working. It's hard not to play hard for a guy like that."

It's these types of encounters — and the promise of winning a national championship for Hopkins — that have helped Babb, who lives in Baltimore with his wife and three children, resist the temptation to move up to the next level. He's been considered for several Division I coaching positions, but the connection with his alma mater is still strong. "To be honest with you, some of the situations at the other schools I've interviewed at weren't as good as what I have now," says Babb. "The one thing about Hopkins is I love being around the Hopkins players. I have more fun with them. I can do more things. I can coach more. I can certainly do more plays because I have bright kids."

Another win, and Babb is already thinking about the next game.

When the Blue Jays jumped from No. 6 to No. 1 in the national rankings on March 29, they became the first Johns Hopkins team ever — besides men's lacrosse — to earn their sport's top ranking. Babb calls this year's team the best he's ever had, and his biggest challenge has been finding playing time for all of them. In March, he started two entirely different starting lineups during a doubleheader in Florida, and all 18 players recorded hits.

This year's seniors have won the Centennial Conference and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for three straight seasons, and merely repeating those feats might not be enough. "Each year, our celebration after winning the conference title has gotten less and less," says senior Tim Casale, the Blue Jays' second baseman. "Now, if we don't go to the World Series, this season would be a disappointment."

With or without a national championship, Babb's legacy at Hopkins already is secure. His teams continue to get stronger, and the dynamic involvement and support from former players — baseball has more donors to Blue Jays Unlimited, the athletic fund-raising organization, than any other sport at Hopkins — is a fair reflection of his players' experiences. "When I look back at my college days, school was very difficult, and the real bright spot was playing baseball and being around the team," says Dave Psenicska, Engr '88. "I think that's a big part of why I got through Hopkins."

Babb has been around long enough that none of his current players call him Bob anymore. "When I was a freshman, everyone still called him Bob," says Craig. "But by the time I was a sophomore and junior, it had evolved into 'Coach.' And I explained to him that it wasn't because he's that much older than us, but because of who he is and what he's achieved. I viewed it as a respectful term."

That may be evidence of 25 years of experience, but Coach Babb has barely noticed: "The funny thing is, when someone asks me how old I am, the first thing that comes to mind is 20 — then I think, 'Wait, I'm not 20 anymore.' But I still feel like I'm only five years older than the guys I'm coaching, just like when I started."

Jeff Labrecque, A&S '95, a reporter for Entertainment Weekly in New York, was a pitcher for Babb's Blue Jays from 1992 to 1995.

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