Ask anybody associated with the Arizona baseball program — veterans, rookies, transfers, support staff — and they’ll tell you the same thing: The chemistry on this Wildcats team is unlike anything they’ve experienced.
“Off the charts,” said redshirt sophomore pitcher Robby Medel, a transfer from TCU.
“In past years, I feel like everyone was kind of going their separate ways,” senior outfielder Zach Gibbons said. “This year everyone, no matter who it is — playing, not playing, freshmen, seniors — is just pulling for you to do the best you can.”
“I’ve never been on a team like this,” said junior pitcher Kevin Ginkel, who transferred last summer from Southwestern College. “I think it’s taken our team to a whole new level.”
Is Arizona’s team chemistry off-the-charts good because the Wildcats are winning? Or is it one of the factors that’s causing them to win?
That’s the key question, the one that’s impossible to answer — but, in the end, might not really matter.
“The definition of chemistry is nebulous,” ESPN college baseball analyst Mike Rooney said. “Does it mean they get along? Does it mean they believe they’re going to win? I would qualify it almost more as a mental toughness.”
Arizona has proved its mettle so far this season. The UA is 31-16 overall and 14-10 in the Pac-12 entering this weekend’s home series against Arizona State. The Wildcats are in third place in the conference — after the league’s coaches picked them to finish ninth. Arizona’s RPI was 23 as of Thursday afternoon. Barring a massive collapse, the Wildcats will return to the postseason for the first time since 2012.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this fast under first-year coach Jay Johnson. Thanks to improved fitness, tweaked batting stances and other physical factors, several players are having career years under Johnson and his staff. But if you ask him — or any of his players — there’s more to it than that.
“I think there’s two phases of it in terms of winning baseball,” Johnson said. “You have to have a good platform for individual development, so they all improve. And then you have to build a very solid team culture, which is hard to do.
“In this age, the world we live in, it’s all about instant gratification — your thing, your world, your path. It takes work to get a bunch of guys on a unified path.”
That work began shortly after Johnson arrived in Tucson.
‘Our only choice’
UA athletic director Greg Byrne knew he was going to hire Johnson about 20 minutes into his initial interview. Byrne came away impressed with Johnson’s detailed plan for building team chemistry and his understanding of its importance.
Johnson first recognized the value of having a unified squad when he was a boy. Johnson’s father, Jerry, coached football and track at Oroville High School in California. Jay, a running back, later played for him.
“Growing up in that house, I was around somebody that was phenomenal at developing the team dynamic and getting investment out of people and buy-in and creating a very close-knit, family-type atmosphere,” Johnson said.
“What we do is really hard. If you don’t have something you’re really going for and people you’re accountable to, it can be easy to crack. So we had to develop something that has made these guys want to compete to, and sometimes beyond, their potential and for each other.”
Coaching transitions are always difficult. The biggest challenge is winning over the holdovers, who are used to a different way of doing things. Finding a way to fight through the unfamiliarity is imperative. The initial interaction is critical.
“At that point,” Medel said, “our only choice was to bond, come together, figure it out together with the new coaching staff. Everything we’ve done up to this point has really got us to where we are.”
Johnson’s first steps included taking almost every player out for a meal to get to know them on a deeper level. (Medel, who’s from Grand Prairie, Texas, chose Texas Roadhouse.)
But one-on-ones with Johnson during fall ball were merely a prelude. The most profound team-building experience was yet to come.
Johnson met Dean Whellams and Ben Brown while coaching at Nevada. Whellams and Brown run Reno-based Team Elite Performance, which helps teams of all sorts develop unity and elevate their performance level through a variety of activities.
Johnson first utilized Team Elite Performance while with the Wolf Pack. So when he brought Whellams and Brown to Tucson one January weekend, Johnson wasn’t conducting a team-chemistry experiment. He already had seen positive results.
To get the Wildcats engaged and to ease their skepticism, Whellams and Brown had them participate in a cup-stacking competition. It sounds simple — silly, even — but the cup-stacking game teaches its participants the value of practice, focus and incremental improvement. The players really got into it.
“We’re competitive people,” senior pitcher Tyler Crawford said. “You give us something that we can compete at, you’re going to see 35 dudes go nuts. That’s essentially what it boiled down to.”
A big part of Team Elite Performance’s philosophy is putting people in uncomfortable situations. Whellams and Brown want their clients to figure out how to deal with pressure and calm their minds.
“Do I break down or break through? That’s the point of it,” Whellams said.
The program culminates with a test of mental fortitude. Every player and coach has to memorize and deliver — on a table, in front of the team — what Team Elite Performance calls “The Uncommon Oath.”
The Uncommon Oath is a pledge of about 120 words centered on committing to the team concept. It begins with this sentence: “I recognize that it is a privilege to be a member of this team, and promise to always place the needs of the team above my own.”
Typically, the first few players are nervous. “All those little mental gremlins are showing up,” Whellams said.
But as more players repeat the oath, the more enthusiastic they become. Think “Dead Poets Society,” where Robin Williams’ boarding-school students are inspired to stand defiantly atop their desks.
“You’re giving your all,” Medel said. “So if you give everything in this, you know that on the field you’ll give everything as well.”
By the time the program had concluded, Crawford could sense that a transformation had taken place.
“It goes from, ‘OK, these are my teammates’ to … ‘OK, this is a group of 35 brothers,’” said Crawford, who wears a Team Elite Performance bracelet on his right wrist inscribed with the words “Be Uncommon.”
“I had no idea what to expect when Coach told us about it. When we were done, I would say it was a life-changing experience.”
Months later, Arizona’s players still reference Johnson’s team-building initiatives. How much that stuff really matters remains open to debate. If the Wildcats weren’t winning, team chemistry wouldn’t be a topic of discussion, at least in a positive light.
But the Cats are winning, and the way they’re doing it suggests cohesiveness does matter.
Arizona is 5-9 when trailing after six innings. That might not seem impressive until you consider this: The Wildcats were 2-21 when trailing after six last season.
“When … you’re committed to the group, it helps you persevere when it’s difficult,” Johnson said. “It also helps you appreciate the good times.”
No game exemplified perseverance and exuberance more than the Cal game on April 23. Arizona surrendered one-run leads in the ninth and 11th innings before winning it in the 13th on senior Ryan Aguilar’s three-run homer.
In extra innings, the ESPNU cameras spent almost as much time showing the Wildcats’ dugout as the action on the field. Players donned rally caps and tied their belts around their foreheads to resemble Samurai headbands. Reliever Matt Hartman wore Cesar Salazar’s catcher’s helmet over his face.
“That’s who we are,” Medel said.
“It’s a perfect representation of the personality of this team,” Crawford said. “It was late. We had been at the field forever. (The game lasted 5 hours, 19 minutes.) We were like, ‘We’re here, we might as well make it fun and win it.’ I think that allowed us to stay loose in such a big game on the road. It allowed us to play free.”
As is their custom, the Wildcats posed for a team photo after the game. They do it after every victory. San Diego would do so occasionally when Johnson was a member of the Toreros staff. He turned it into a tradition at Nevada.
The point of the group photo, which Johnson shares via Twitter soon after, is twofold. First, it’s difficult to win, so every triumph should be cherished. Second, the Wildcats are in this thing together.
“You really learn to love it,” Crawford said. “You really want to take that picture at the end of the game.”