Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Seawolves are scattered now, but CWS memories strong

By Dirk Chatelain / World-Herald staff writer

Maxx Tissenbaum, second baseman for the Fort Wayne TinCaps, came home Sunday from a four-game series in Grand Rapids, Mich.
At 8 p.m., he and his roommate hit the couches in their two-bedroom apartment. The Class A Midwest League all-star break had begun and they had a few days to kick back. Tissenbaum immediately turned on the College World Series.
His roommate, a former pitcher at Tennessee Tech, looked with wonder at the capacity crowd, the immaculate turf, the scenes that make Omaha sacred ground for any kid with an aluminum bat.
“Dude,” he told Tissenbaum, “you played in that stadium last year!”
Not only did Maxx Tissenbaum play, his Stony Brook team was one of the best Cinderella stories in CWS history. The No. 4 seed from the America East Conference won five elimination games and wiped out Miami and LSU on the road. By the CWS opening ceremonies, their Seawolves logo was all over town.
One year later, the main characters on that Stony Brook squad are all over the country, chasing big-league dreams in small-town ballparks. Seven got drafted last June. They’re in places like Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Lake Elsinore, Calif., Lakewood Township, N.J., and Fort Wayne, Ind.
Time has only sharpened their memories of Omaha.
Travis Jankowski, the Seawolves’ center fielder and second-round draft pick of the Padres, remembers LSU fans on motorcycles escorting the Stony Brook bus from Eppley Airfield. He remembers walking through town, seeing strangers stop their cars on the side of the street to take pictures and ask for autographs.
“It was like we were the Yankees walking around New York City,” Jankowski said.
When Tissenbaum was a kid, the Toronto native used to go to Bluejays games three or four hours early to see his heroes up close. On the eve of the CWS, he was standing at second base when he looked around TD Ameritrade Park and realized how far he’d come.
“ ‘Oh my God,’ ” he thought, “there’s a few thousand people watching us practice.”
For Stony Brook coach Matt Senk, whose program was Division III when he took the job 20 years ago, CWS practice day was “something that will stay with me the rest of my life.” Kids were chasing home run balls in the stands. The line for autographs wrapped halfway around the concourse.
“I don’t know that there’s been a day that has gone by that I haven’t thought about it,” Senk said.
Then the games began. And the Seawolves played nothing like the team that outhit LSU 35-15. They lost to UCLA 9-1. Two days later — Father’s Day afternoon — they lost to Florida State 12-2. The moment had overwhelmed them. They were done.
After the second loss, the locker room was silent. Pat Cantwell, catcher and senior leader, finally stepped to the middle. Holding back tears, he demanded that everybody lift up their heads. Think big picture, he said. Three weeks earlier, they were thrilled just to hear their name on Selection Sunday.
“We put this school on the map,” Cantwell said.
They had no idea how quickly they’d scatter. Within a few days of landing in New York, the seven Seawolves who’d been drafted all departed for pro ball.
“As I was leaving to go to the airport, I remember I called my parents and I was completely freaking out,” said Tissenbaum, an 11th-round pick of the Padres. “I was crying, saying ‘I’m leaving school for the last time. I’m not going to be with this group of guys for a long time.’ ”
Jankowski’s first minor league team won its division last fall, advancing to the playoffs in low-A. His teammates were jubilant.
“I told them, if that was a 10 on their scale of excitement, mine was like 100 when we got to the College World Series,” Jankowski said. “That kind of puts it into perspective for them.”
New teammates frequently ask questions about Omaha. Cantwell, a third-round pick of the Rangers, was in spring training when Ian Kinsler asked where he went to school.
Stony Brook, he said. Immediately Kinsler mentioned the CWS.
Without his seven draftees, coach Senk took two steps back this season. The Seawolves started 0-9 and finished 25-34. Too little experience. Too many injuries. It’s hard to get to the NCAAs and even harder to reach the final eight.
Senk watched almost every second of the super regionals. Great teams like Vanderbilt and Florida State fell short. And unlike his 2012 team, they didn’t have to go to LSU.
“I just kind of sit back and shake my head at the magnitude of the accomplishment,” Senk said.
The Seawolves have reunited just once. They received their CWS rings, their congressman proclaimed their accomplishments, they even got a little love at a Stony Brook basketball game.
They stay in touch via text. Cantwell recently hit his first home run of the season. Jankowski asked if it flew as far as Cantwell’s bomb off UCLA ace Adam Plutko in the CWS opener — Stony Brook’s only run.
Plutko was back in Omaha on Sunday night, shutting down LSU’s bats. Like last year, he allowed only a solo home run. Watching from his couch in Fort Wayne, Tissenbaum kept talking at the TV.
“I’m sitting there replaying it back in my mind, going ‘Just take the fastball at the letters, guys. Just take the fastball at the letters.’ ”
Easier said than done.
As ESPN cameras scanned the stadium, Tissenbaum recognized little landmarks. That’s where I sat when I watched Florida-South Carolina. That’s where I had lunch with my grandparents.
That week was such a whirlwind, Tissenbaum says. He wishes he could’ve played and — at the same time — followed Stony Brook around, soaking up details.
Someday — when he’s too old to turn the double play and has a real job — he wants to returns to Omaha, drive in from the airport without a motorcade, buy a ticket and sit in the stands. Watch an entire College World Series, start to finish.
He knows a few old buddies who might tag along.