IOWA CITY (AP)—Imagine Coach Kirk Ferentz as Manager Kirk Ferentz.
Imagine the gum-chewing Iowa football coach, instead of stalking the sidelines at Kinnick Stadium, spitting sunflower seeds in the dugout and patrolling the third-base coaching box of a baseball diamond.
A distinguished football coaching career that began as a player at the University of Connecticut could have been a distinguished managerial career had Ferentz pursued his early college plans.
“He was going to go play junior college baseball until thankfully somebody talked him out of it,” said Brian Ferentz, Kirk’s oldest son and the Hawkeyes’ offensive line coach. “But (he) fancied himself a baseball player, grew up throwing, pitching, catching, hitting.”
“Baseball, I’d say, is probably his next favorite sport,” said Steve Ferentz, the youngest of Kirk’s sons and a redshirt freshman offensive lineman for Iowa. “He’s always been pretty laid back with football and wrestling and all that, he stays out of it, but baseball is the one sport he pushed us a little bit.
“We’d be sitting around the house, he’d say ‘Let’s go play catch.’ We’re throwing, he’d tell us to get our elbow up and stuff like that. So that was the one sport he really got on us about.”
While the Ferentz boys were raised in a football household - “I grew up around blocking sleds and stuff like that,” Brian said. - their dad’s upbringing very much was focused on baseball.
The left-hander was a pitcher, and his dad, John, coached him throughout his young career in Pennsylvania.
“I wasn’t a great basketball player and I didn’t wrestle. Baseball was something I enjoyed,” Kirk Ferentz said. “It was to the point where I almost played that in college. I thought about that. I got derailed for a good reason, but I just like baseball.
“There’s carryover in all sports. I don’t follow it closely, but I just like baseball. It’s part of my DNA.”
Kirk Ferentz grew up a Pittsburgh Pirates fan and recalled the first time he went to Forbes Field and saw Roberto Clemente play.
“I was in elementary school or might’ve been in junior high. I’ll never forget seeing Roberto Clemente for the first time,” he said. “You just talk about beauty and grace. There was a certain charisma and electricity that he gave off.
“And then in the bottom of the ninth, he drilled one to center. When he hit a ball, it went on a line. When he threw a ball, it went on a line. There wasn’t much out his way that he wasn’t going to track down. He was a great defensive player. If he had played in Chicago or New York, he’d be an all-time legend.”
Ferentz vividly remembers where he was when he heard of Clemente’s death in a plane crash on Dec. 31, 1972.
“You never forget that,” Ferentz said. “My dad always had the radio on in the morning. I remember laying in bed and his room was around the corner and both doors were open and I heard the news. It was really a sad day.”
Kirk Ferentz kept the baseball tradition going with his boys.
Brian and Steve played until high school, when they stopped to focus on football and wrestling.
Brian knew his baseball days were numbered early in his career.
“I was a third baseman. The reason they put you at third base when you’re really young is because you’re the only kid who can throw it to first base. It’s not because you have a good glove or anything like that,” he said. “As we got older, I was not a third baseman and I could not hit a curve ball so my career was over.”
“I always enjoyed baseball. I wasn’t very good. That played a big part in why I stopped playing,” said Steve. “I fouled (a curve ball) off one time. It was probably the greatest thing I’d ever done.”
The curve ball also plagued Kirk Ferentz, at least according to Brian.
“He’s a lefty, he’s got a pretty decent arm,” Brian said. “It wasn’t very live by the time it got to me, but he’d throw me batting practice and do all those things. He doesn’t throw a very good curve ball.”
But playing catch and throwing batting practice to his sons was a way Kirk Ferentz could participate in their young lives during the ‘slow’ time in football.
The summer off-season was the only time the coach had time to watch his sons in organized sports.
“It was good because during the summer is when my dad has his free time so he was able to come watch us play,” Steve said. “Growing up, playing football he never got to come see that. During the winter when we were wrestling, he could make it to a few things but he’s busy with recruiting and stuff.”
“It wasn’t quite like Field of Dreams, but he used to throw me batting practice,” said Brian.
The Ferentz house is divided in its baseball loyalties.
Brian was a Pirates fan growing up. Steve’s formative years were spent in Cleveland so he became an Indians fan.
Brian lived and died with Pittsburgh in the early 1990s when they competed with the Atlanta Braves every season for the pennant. He remembered the 1992 National League Championship Series, when Atlanta’s Francisco Cabrera had the hit that drove in Sid Bream with the winning run in a 3-2 victory in Game 7.
“When I was young, when I was really following baseball, the Pirates were pretty good. It’s hard for people to believe,” he said. “I was at the peak of my fandom in the Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds, Doug Drabek, that era. Andy VanSlyke.
“I remember crying as a little kid when what’s his face came in, first major league at-bat (Cabrera had 10 at-bats that season for the Braves), hit the walkoff to win the pennant. That was like ‘92.
“Then they stunk forever. I gave up on them a couple years ago and said I’m not even coming back if they win and I kept that promise.”
Steve remembers going to Indians games with his mom’s side of the family who still lives in Cleveland.
“We’d actually get really good seats. It was fun,” he said. “They lost usually when we went. We’d never go during the good years.”
Like Brian, Steve does not have much time to follow baseball these days, with football and school taking up his days. But he does still follow the Indians, although most of his favorite players are from the 1990s.
“Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel. I grew up liking those guys. Grady Sizemore,” Steve said. “Right now I can’t tell you many players on the team. I don’t have time to follow them enough. I know they have their pitcher Justin Masterson, who is pretty good. And Asdrubal Cabrera, the shortstop. I like him.”
Both Kirk and Steve Ferentz are seeing their teams have tremendous seasons.
The Pirates are leading the National League Central while the Indians sit in second place in the American League Central.
“I don’t follow it too closely but I’m an Indians fan and I know they’re doing well. They’re in the chase right now,” Steve Ferentz said.
“This is the year. This is the year,” Kirk Ferentz said. “They finally invested a little bit and they’re keeping their players.
“Clint Hurdle is an excellent manager. He’s got one downside and it’s that he’s a Michigan fan. That’s a downside. So is Jim Leyland, by the way.”
In his position, Kirk Ferentz has had the chance to meet and get to know many people in the sports world.
Three of the most exciting to the football coach came from the baseball world.
“I got to meet (former manager) Tony LaRussa through Cal Eldred (a former major league pitcher who is a Cedar Rapids native who attended Iowa). That’s one of the thrills of my life to get to visit with him a little bit,” Ferentz said. “All three of those guys (including Jim Leyland) would’ve been great football coaches, too. They’re great guys.”
LaRussa, Eldred, and Leyland prowling the sidelines in the Big Ten. And Kirk Ferentz waving a runner around third base.