College Sports

Manatees begin quest for national crown

BRADENTON — When the State College of Florida Manatees hit the diamond today in Grand Junction, Colo., for their JUCO World Series opener, it will be for the first time.

Well, the first time as the State College of Florida.

All the Manatees have to do is look toward the right-field fence at Wynn Field to see all the accolades produced during the program’s days as Manatee Community College and Manatee Junior College Lancers.

And it’s all thanks to two coaches.

The constant phrase from the movie “Field of Dreams” — “If you build it, they will come” — is a fitting description when it comes to Bob Wynn.

The former SCF skipper says he had less than scratch when he first started building the program in the late 1950s.

“We didn’t even have a field — a practice field,” said Wynn, who is retired and splits his time between Georgia and Florida. “In the first year we had baseball, some of the players and me cut a vacant lot with hand, not push mowers, but walk-behind mowers behind what is now the Palmetto Boys & Girls Club, and that’s where we practiced. And we played games at McKechnie Field and at Payne Park in Sarasota.”

So Wynn, whose namesake is slapped on the Manatees’ home field, built the program from the ground up.

The year was 1959, and then Manatee Junior College’s first baseball season was under way.

It didn’t take long for the program to attract talented ballplayers — top-notch talent that headed to Division I schools and professional baseball after their stop at the county’s junior college.

And in the program’s second season, Manatee Junior College captured the first of four consecutive state championships, with the 1961 club getting to the JUCO World Series sporting a 23-5 record.

The 1963 team had the distinction of earning the program its highest finish in Grand Junction as national runner-up with a 27-8 record.

The feat has been duplicated four other times, with the most recent coming with the 2002 Lancers squad.

Wynn was at the helm from 1959-81 before stepping down and paving the way for current Manatees coach Tim Hill to take over.

It didn’t take Hill long to continue the success Wynn built in the program’s first 23 seasons.

Hill won a state title in his first year as Wynn’s successor.

“I operate, basically, on the fact that I don’t want to screw it up,” Hill said. “I’ve always thought that. I don’t want to do anything to make Bob disappointed in the fact that the college has selected me ... to carry on his legacy.”

In total, the two coaches have produced 13 state titles, 10 JUCO World Series appearances, five national runner-up finishes and countless Division I and pro players.

However, despite all the success, both head coaches have had disappointments.

Wynn points to his 1969 squad, which won a state title but failed to qualify for the JUCO World Series as his best team.

Not just the best team not to qualify, but the best team he ever had.

And how could you blame him?

That team included Pat Osburn, Ron Cash and Mac Scarce, who has the single-season school record for earned run average at 0.49. In all, eight players from that club played in the big leagues.

For Hill, he looks at his 2005 team, which failed to win a state tournament game.

Ryan Kennedy and current minor league prospects Larry Cobb (Oakland A’s) and Brian Peacock (Washington Nationals) were members of that team.

Hill, who left South Florida Community College for an assistant’s job under Wynn, played in the second incarnation of the Washington Senators franchise before they relocated to Texas under their current Rangers name.

Hill said he first heard about the program Wynn had developed during his college days at George Washington University in Washington D.C.

“I played in the (Shenandoah) Valley League, the college summer league still in existence up in Virginia,” said Hill, who has been SCF’s head coach since 1982. “I played in that in college during summer, and there were a couple kids on that club that were from Manatee Community College, and that’s how I first heard about Manatee. I got to know those guys, and they raved about the program down here. And that always stuck in my mind about Florida baseball, because I’m up north in the Washington D.C. area, and that’s all I ever knew.”

Both legendary coaches are NJCAA Hall of Fame members, with Hill winning more games than any other Florida junior college coach.

Now, he’ll send ace Alex Burgos to the mound against the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, San Jacinto (Texas) College-North in their JUCO World Series opener.

It’s the school’s first appearance in Grand Junction since 2002, and there are similarities between that club and the present-day Manatees.

The aforementioned Burgos is a left-hander with a high strikeout rate, just like Randy Beam, who won the tournament’s most outstanding pitcher award in 2002.

Burgos has struck out a whopping 109 batters in 95 1/3 innings, but that pales in comparison to Beam, who set a single-season school record with 169 punch-outs in 2002, albeit in 154 innings.

“I had nowhere to play coming out of high school,” said Beam, who no longer plays professional baseball and resides in Columbus, Ohio. “I walked on at Manatee, and (Hill) gave me a shot. And next thing you know, I’m starting my sophomore year. And my junior and senior year, I’m starting at Florida Atlantic. And then I’m playing professional for the Red Sox, so I mean, I really got the wheels turning there, and I owe it all to Coach Hill giving me a shot.”

And if they get past San Jacinto, the Manatees will be one win closer to the program’s first national title.