When the Hall of Fame baseball teams of 1994 and 1996 came to campus for induction, they were a little confused. Most packed into the same small Lee Lohman arena that they remember instead of the actual location in the Rogalski Center ballroom.
One thing that has remained the same over all these years is the winning attitude they helped instill in the Ambrose baseball program. That’s why they’ll go in as only the fifth and sixth teams to ever be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“Convincing people of a change is one of the hardest things you’ll have to do when managing people,” Todd Becker, coach of the 94’ team, said.
Becker took over the team in 1991 after a 17-30 campaign the year before and only a year after Becker graduated in 1990. One thing he had to establish was a winning culture on the program, and he also had to convince the administration that they could win.
Jim Fox was the athletic director back then, and trying to convince Fox of change was no easy task. It was mentioned that Fox only had one suit in his closet becuase that’s how much he hated change. Even with this constant struggle, Becker still looked up to Fox and saw him more as a mentor than his boss.
Another huge asset was Billy Argo, who assistant-coached on the ‘94 team and also played a little pro ball. One thing Argo said has resonated with Becker for some time now.
“To be successful you have to hire people smarter than yourself,” Argo told Becker when they started out.
Becker still holds this lesson true even in his business career. By his third year in ‘93 most of the guys in the program were Becker’s and he felt the team was ready to compete for championships. The ‘93 team did just that, they won the MCC conference Championship.
Becker really saw the change at the start of the ‘94 season when they took a team trip to Florida. Their first game was against Mount St. Claire, modern-day Ashford, who wasn’t exactly known for their baseball prowess.
The Bees lost the game 14 to 13 and walking off the field Becker heard a player mumble to another one that this was going to be embarrassing after they win the national championship. That’s the culture Becker was waiting to see.
From there the team went on a nice run but got derailed when ace-pitcher Ed Debrower sustained a season ending injury. They lost the next 10 of 11 games but righted the ship after a player’s only meeting. From there they stormed to the conference championship, a regional championship, and a third place finish in the NAIA tournament for the first time in Ambrose history.
“Winning under adversity,” is how Becker described the ‘94 team.
Becker left after the ‘95 season and was succeeded by current Ambrose coach Jim Callahan. The culture was already there for Callahan who had a lot of pieces still remaining from the ‘94 team. Nine guys in total were on both teams and two of the assistant coaches played on the ‘94 team. The ‘96 team wasn’t the underdog anymore, they had the pressure bestowed upon them by three straight conference championships. They started out only 11-13 but rattled off an astounding 31-6 to finish the season 42-19. This team took it a step forward and was the eventual national runner-ups. Tradition is something that Callahan took from the ‘96 team.
“I give out the cornerstone award which is just a brick I buy from Home Depot,” Callahan explained. “A cornerstone is something you build on; it has to be perfectly square and flat so all the other bricks will lay perfectly with it. At some point you have to put that cornerstone down and this team laid the cornerstone for Ambrose baseball.”
Callahan has other traditions that were shaped a little from the ‘96 team as well. One is that he never lets his players on the bus if they aren’t clean cut and in dress clothes. Darren Lewis in ‘96 challenged him on this when he showed up to the bus in sandals, long hair, and a “dress polo.” Lewis’ response to Callahan upon arrival to the bus was that Jesus had long hair and wore sandals. Callahan just laughed and said “I guess I can’t kick Jesus off the bus.”
The night was filled with stories and reminiscing from how one player ate a five pound burger in Florida and then a whole box of cereal the next morning. Or about how Brent Zaehringer hit the longest home run ever into the river. One thing was certain; this group of men became a family that still remains interlocked by their accomplishments. Callahan whispered to every player as they walked up and later revealed that he told every player the same thing; I love you.
Becker also had words of advice for not only the players, but for everyone to follow in life.
“The metric god will measure us not by the money, wins, or championships, but by the lives we touched in our life’s journey,” Becker said as he received a standing ovation.
These guys will never forget their accomplishments and memories, and now neither will anyone at Ambrose, as they will be forever immortalized in the Ambrose Hall of Fame.