One of the greatest moments of Michael Paez’s life almost simultaneously wrecked his beckoning professional baseball career before it began.
It happened June 30 on Paez’s field of dreams at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska. That’s where Paez’s hard-to-believe collegiate career culminated.
The little shortstop from Miami Sunset High whom neither FIU nor the University of Miami wanted, led longshot Coastal Carolina to its first national championship in any sport with a tense 4-3 win over Arizona in the College World Series final.
And just as Alex Cunningham struck out the final Arizona batter for his first collegiate save — everything about this team was improbable in case you hadn’t noticed by now — Coastal pitcher Bobby Holmes came sprinting out of the dugout to celebrate.
Holmes bypassed the dog-pile that was starting to form on the mound and ran with no particular direction in mind before accidentally colliding with the 5-7 Paez.
“He saw me and slipped trying to avoid me,” Paez said. “He undercut me, and I flipped in the air a couple of times. It was all over Twitter. Everyone was asking me how I didn’t tear my ACL on that, but I had so much adrenaline … I didn’t feel a thing.
“I got up, we looked at each other, and we both yelled, ‘Who cares!’ and jumped in the dog-pile.”
The celebration didn’t end there, however.
The next day, the town of Conway, South Carolina — population 16,000 and home to the Coastal campus — turned out en masse, hosting a trolley-car parade in honor of the team.
That capped an incredible month for Paez. He was drafted on June 10, selected in the fourth round by the New York Mets. He is due to take his physical Sunday and is expected to sign his first pro contract after it’s complete.
In addition to the draft, June also saw Coastal go 6-0 in elimination games, including the regional at North Carolina State, super regional at LSU, and in the CWS.
The Chanticleers (55-18) became the first team in 60 years to win the title in their first CWS appearance, matching a feat last accomplished by Minnesota in 1956.
Coastal, which led the nation in wins, represented the Big South Conference — winning the league’s first team national title in any sport. After the CWS, Coastal officially joined the Sun Belt Conference in a previously arranged deal.
Paez, the highest-drafted player on the Coastal team, hit .276 with 18 doubles, three triples, 15 homers, 67 runs scored and 52 RBI in an impressive junior season.
“Mike wasn’t recognized as much [in Miami] because of his height,” said his best friend, Mike Perez, a Miami Dade College shortstop. “But the game is changing for short players, and Mike is going to keep changing the game at the next level.”
As a freshman at Coastal, Paez started, but he and the team took its lumps. Paez batted .245 with just two homers, and the team had one of its worst seasons at 24-33.
Things got much better last year, when Paez hit .322 with eight homers, and the Chanticleers finished 39-21, qualifying for the regionals.
And then everything came together this year.
“We had a very mature group — a lot of juniors and seniors,” Paez said. “We knew what it was like to fail, and we used that experience and our brotherhood and love for each other.
“Winning was great, but it was bittersweet because now we can’t play with each other anymore.”
Paez, though, has a bright future. There’s pro ball with the Mets, and there’s something else magical planned for this summer.
The 21-year-old plans to propose marriage to his girlfriend, Michelle Cuervo — who was his best friend at Sunset. They only started dating while in college – she’s an interior architect major at FIU, one of the schools that didn’t recruit Paez.
About that, Paez said he had a “chip on his shoulder” as a freshman, wanting to prove FIU and UM wrong for not recruiting him.
“As I got older, I understood,” said Paez, who was named to the Dean’s list three times in three years at Coastal and is studying communications with a minor in hospitality. “Miami has a great shortstop [Brandon Lopez], and he got drafted [in the 10th round].
“I don’t know who FIU’s shortstop is, but I’m sure he’s a great player, too. I’m just glad Coastal gave me a chance.”