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Esmay exactly what ASU baseball needed

Steady presence: ASU coach Tim Esmay argues with the umpiring crew during the Sun Devils’ 4-2 win over New Mexico on June 3. Esmay’s leadership this past season was a large part of the team’s success. (Photo by Aaron Lavinsky)
Steady presence: ASU coach Tim Esmay argues with the umpiring crew during the Sun Devils’ 4-2 win over New Mexico on June 3. Esmay’s leadership this past season was a large part of the team’s success. (Photo by Aaron Lavinsky)

Sometimes words are a minefield.

Open traps with no reset buttons, to be skillfully maneuvered around.

High profile coaches often stumble in pressure situations.

Not Tim Esmay.

Faced with not one, but three overwhelming circumstances, the second-year ASU baseball coach always said the right thing when facing adversity.

His careful candor undoubtedly helped his team during one of the most trying years in program history.

Overcast from the start

The Sun Devils recorded their first loss of the season two months before their first game.

On Dec. 15, the NCAA came down on the program with severe violations.

ASU had to vacate 44 wins from its College World Series run in 2007, along with the loss of two scholarships and three years of probation.

However, the biggest sanction was that the team received a one-year ban from the postseason.

The penalties stemmed from a period of time under former coach Pat Murphy. The NCAA ruled that under Murphy, ASU suffered from a lack of institutional control.

The violations included using impermissible recruiters, excessive phone calls, exceeding coaching staff limits and paying players for work not performed.

But the school decided to appeal the ruling in hopes of a lesser penalty.

And under NCAA rules, sanctions are stayed until the appeals process is complete.

So the Sun Devils entered their 2011 campaign unknowing if they’d be allowed to compete for a CWS title.

Asked by the Arizona Republic prior to ASU’s first game whether or not the possible ban would affect his team, Esmay said, "Our kids have dealt with a lot of stuff in their careers. It's like when you swing at a slider in the dirt. You can't get that pitch back no matter what, so what are you going to do about it? The game teaches you that, and that's what we're dealing with. We've got to move forward to the next pitch."

Hahn goes down

Just three days into an already chaotic season, the Sun Devils suffered a tragic loss most don’t experience their entire lives.

ASU freshman outfielder Cory Hahn went down with a catastrophic neck injury.

The reigning California baseball player of the year collided with New Mexico's Kyle Stiner while sliding head first into second base on a steal attempt.

Hahn was motionless on the field for about 10 minutes before paramedics carted him off.

Esmay later told the media of an exchange the two had while Hahn was waiting for the ambulance.

The coach told his injured player the umpires called him safe.

Hahn responded, “Damn right I’m safe.”

Those four words became a rallying point for an emotionally stunned team.

The phrase was printed on wristbands worn by every Sun Devil.

And from there on out, Hahn’s jersey hung from the ASU dugout during each game.

In his first interview since the incident, a local reporter asked Esmay what kind of player Cory Hahn was.

The Sun Devil coach quickly responded, “Is. You mean what kind of player is Cory Hahn.”

Although he is still in a wheel chair, Hahn told the Fan AM 1060 he does six hours of physical therapy a day.

His ASU teammates visited him at his home in California on road trips to Cal State Fullerton and Southern Cal.

Super Regional emptiness

Despite the off the field distractions, the Sun Devils continued to win games.

The only thing holding them back was the ongoing appeals process.

Finally, on the last day the regular season, ASU was given word by the NCAA that it would host a regional the following weekend.

The announcement meant the school’s appeal would not be ruled on in time for the 2011 postseason.

All of the punishments, if upheld, would be enforced starting next season.

And after six months of uncertainty, the Sun Devils knew they’d be allowed to compete for a national title.

After sweeping through the Tempe Regional with wins over New Mexico, Charlotte and Arkansas, ASU traveled to Austin to meet No. 7 Texas with a trip to Omaha on the line.

The Sun Devils took game one of the super regional but lost game two the following day.

The season came down to one final game to decide who would advance to the CWS.

ASU took a 2-0 lead in the first inning on a homer from Riccio Torrez.

Three innings later, the Sun Devils still held a 2-1 advantage.

With sophomore Joey DeMichele at first base and one out, ASU junior Zach Wilson walked.

DeMichele was running on the play and the Texas catcher threw wild to second base.

The ball got away and DeMichele advanced to third.

After a few minutes of discussion, the umpires called Wilson out because he interfered with the throw on his way to first base.

The ruling baffled the ESPN announcers broadcasting the game on TV.

Esmay came out to argue the call to no avail.

So instead of runners on first and third with one out, ASU was left with a runner on first with two outs.

ASU senior outfielder Matt Newman popped out to end the inning.

After another questionable call in the fifth inning brought home the tying run for the Longhorns, Texas scored twice more later in the game and the Sun Devils fell in Austin 4-2 to end their season.

Minutes after the loss, a sea of reporters asked Esmay to comment on the umpiring crew.

Instead of sounding off, the coach shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s a judgment call and that’s the call that was made.”

By taking the high road, Esmay let other people do the talking.

The umpires were still widely criticized and Esmay kept his grace.

Moving forward

With the appeal still up in the air, the future of the ASU baseball program is murky.

The Sun Devils may not play in the postseason until 2013.

For a school with such a rich tradition, times like these are unprecedented.

But ASU can sleep sound knowing one thing.

It has the right man at the helm of the program, leading the charge.

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