The climax of college basketball and the slow, innocent steps of spring training are intertwined each year, an unlikely and unique March marriage that can produce the most boastful of banter in every big-league spring clubhouse in Florida and Arizona.
Filling out brackets isn’t quite as important as fulfilling that day’s goals at the plate or on the mound. But the NCAA Tournament is never far from the morning conversation, as it was on Tuesday as a group of Marlins played cards a few hours before their game against the Mets at Roger Dean Stadium.
A few feet away was Marlins newcomer Craig Breslow, a proud Yale guy and former captain of the Bulldogs baseball team. As the lefty reliever tries to make a strong impression in his first spring as a Marlin, his alma mater will be aiming to make some headlines in its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1962.
“It’s really exciting as a former Yale athlete,” said Breslow, a typically cerebral, well-spoken southpaw who speaks like an Ivy Leaguer. “I feel passionately about Yale athletics. It’s a great thing for the university.”
Breslow was an all-Ivy League performer during his junior season at Yale. He struck out 16 batters against Cornell that year. He one-hit Harvard, too. And as a senior he led the Ivy League with a 2.56 ERA.
His focus was on the diamond — and the classroom, of course — but he always kept a close eye on other sports, supported other sports, including men’s basketball. And on Thursday afternoon while the Marlins are facing the Mets again at Roger Dean, Breslow’s Bulldogs will be trying to upset Baylor in a first-round NCAA game. Tip-off is around 2:45 in Providence, which should fall right around the fifth or sixth inning.
“For the past few years the Ivy League has been dominated by Princeton or Harvard,” Breslow said. “When you think about Ivy League basketball [now], you have to mention Yale.”
Breslow has kept quiet about his upstart alma mater, at least so far. He majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Surely he knows when to pipe up and when to just be proud.
“Fundamental guys. Good coaching. It’s a great brand of basketball,” said Breslow of the Ivy League, pointing out that every year when the brackets are revealed the Ivy League representative usually gets strong mention to make some first-round magic.
The last time the Bulldogs made any kind of magic before this year, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria was getting ready to graduate from Yale. Loria is a devoted alum who once dedicated a sculpture to honor the school’s president, so it shouldn’t surprise that he was at Columbia on March 5 to watch the Bulldogs clinch the Ivy title and nail down that elusive NCAA Tournament bid.
“Unbelievable memories, all good memories,” said Loria of his time at Yale. “Maybe it’s a good omen for our ballclub.”
Loria will “be glued to the television” on Thursday if he can’t get to Providence for the game, but he said he’ll head up for Saturday’s second-round game if there is a second-round game to attend.
Breslow, Class of 2002, has bonded with Loria, Class of 1962, over their shared Yale experiences and with the Bulldogs’ unlikely spot on the bracket, though he knows what Loria really wants out of him.
“The bond is [me] getting people out,” said Breslow without a hint of humor. “But we’ve shared our stories. He’s a great alum to the university.”
For the past few years the Ivy League has been dominated by Princeton or Harvard. When you think about Ivy League basketball [now], you have to mention Yale.
On the other side of the clubhouse, a few bracket sheets away, is first baseman Justin Bour, a proud George Mason alum who was making his decision about whether or not to attend the Virginia school a decade ago, at the same time a coach named Jim Larrañaga was leading the basketball program to a shocking appearance in the Final Four.
It wasn’t the main reason Bour ultimately chose to attend George Mason that fall, but that history-making run certainly didn’t hurt. Bour never crossed paths with the coach who has the University of Miami primed for a deep NCAA run this March, but he did manage to acquire a Larrañaga-signed George Mason baseball T-shirt, and he remembers watching a road basketball game on TV that season while he was on campus during a visit.
“He had a huge impact on George Mason. That [2006 run] was really big for the community,” said Bour, a Virginia native who followed in the footsteps of his parents and brother in attending George Mason.
Bour isn’t a University of Miami guy, but now he’s a Miami guy as a member of the Marlins, so he’ll be pulling for Larrañaga once again.
“Of course, if Miami is in there, I’ve got to support the 305 and Miami,” said Bour, who said he would have loved to play for “a winner” like Larrañaga if “his jump shot was a little better.”
A few stalls down from Bour is starting pitcher Tom Koehler, proud Stony Brook Class of 2008 who watched his alma mater storm back to beat Vermont while in the weight room in Jupiter early Saturday afternoon, nailing down the first NCAA Tournament bid in school history.
“I was so pumped,” Koehler said.
Now it’s all gravy for Koehler, who noted that every Big Dance has its darling.
“If anything, they have nothing to lose,” said Koehler, whose little school with the surging program will clash with Kentucky, arguably the most tradition-rich program in college basketball history, on Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa. “Win or lose, it’s going to be great for the program. Just to get the Stony Brook logo out there is really big.”
“It’s putting Stony Brook on the map!” Bour yelled with a big smile.
Of course, Koehler has already picked Stony Brook to pull the stunner over Kentucky, after many hours of analysis.
“It was a no-brainer,” he said.
Marlins closer A.J. Ramos, ever the extrovert, has been talking up his Texas Tech team so much and wearing school shirts that teammates have told him “to chill out,” as he admitted.
Ramos’ alma mater is hardly a Yale or a Stony Brook, but Texas Tech is also hardly a Kansas or Oklahoma inside a powerful Big 12 Conference. Ramos will be cheering like crazy for the university that always welcomes him back with open arms with every visit when his Red Raiders face Butler on Thursday afternoon.
Because, ultimately, every college graduate in every major-league clubhouse remembers where his dream was cultivated — especially in March.
“They were a part of the process of getting me here,” said Ramos of Texas Tech. “… Now I get to brag about them.”
Miami Herald sportswriter Clark Spencer contributed to this report.