Maybe it’s something in the water along Salt Creek, but Todd Sears has a better explanation. Of the 22 major-league players with Big Ten roots who kicked around rosters last month, five of them — 22.7 percent, almost a quarter — were former Nebraska Cornhuskers.
“When you look at the type of player that they get — they’re also looking for character, the hard work, the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-let’s-get-after-it-a-little-bit [guys], it seems like those are the players that Nebraska gets a lot of,” says Sears, the former Nebraska and big-league first baseman who was one of those roll-up-your-sleeves dudes himself with the Huskers from 1995-97.
“Guys like that, they get in there and compete, and when they get that coaching and get that right training and everything else along with it to get better, and [then] you have the knowledgeable coaching with that as well. That’s why I keep saying there’s a difference between getting drafted and being ready and getting drafted and it takes a while to be ready.
“And Nebraska, historically, they have guys who are ready when they get there.”
The 2017 MLB Draft starts Monday. It’s the tie that binds Sears (third round, 1997) to ex-Huskers greats such as Stan Bahnsen (fourth round, 1965), Pete O’Brien (15th round, 1979), Darin Erstad (No. 1 overall pick in 1995) and Alex Gordon (first round, 2005). Scott Schreiber on deck, Luis Alvarado and Jake Meyers in the hole.
“If you go to the University of Nebraska for college baseball, you’ve got to be committed,” says former Huskers pitcher and MLB vet Kip Gross, a Scottsbluff native and a fourth-round pick in the 1986 draft. “All of those guys from California and all a lot of other warm-weather states — as you know, it’s not warm [in Nebraska] year-round. It takes a really special person to want to go there and play.”
Good guys. Hard-work guys. Roll-up-the-sleeves guys. Well-taught guys. Guys who’ll bust their butts in sun, rain, sleet or snow. Basically, the kind of traits that play well with grizzled scouts and skeptical MLB front offices alike. Since 2010, 23 Huskers have been drafted into big-league organizations, second in the Big Ten only to Maryland and Michigan State’s 24.
“You can go back 25 years and I would argue that it’s been pretty solid, yeah, absolutely,” says Erstad, who just wrapped up his sixth season as the Cornhuskers coach. “There’s a track record through four different head coaches [where] there have been opportunities for guys to make it to the big leagues from the University of Nebraska, no doubt about it.”
“Nebraska was not a baseball school but then it became a baseball school,” says Tim Burke, the former All-Star reliever who leads all Huskers alums in major-league career saves (102) and was a second-round choice in 1980. “And plus, me growing up in Omaha, I was always a bit of a Huskers fan. Then to go down there, to go to school, I just had a lot of pride in that and really, there’s nothing like the college atmosphere and the camaraderie.
“And so, yeah, to have success as a Husker in the big leagues, I took a lot of pride in that. And in the other guys that did well, too.”
It’s a legacy, the brotherhood that never leaves you. Current pros coming back to Lincoln in the offseason or during long breaks to work out at the old haunts, dropping bits of knowledge or just drawing a crowd by example.
Sears remembers picking the brain of his old teammate and road roomie, Erstad, after Erstad’s first summer in the Angels’ minor-league system.
“It’s something special, too,” says Sears, who was a freshman when Erstad was a junior. “I haven’t been around for a while, but I know a lot of pro guys, they’ll go back and work out with the [current] team.”
Joba Chamberlain. Tony Watson. Stars. Paradigms. Precedents. Gordon didn’t just pump his checkbook into the Huskers’ $4.75-million training complex, opened in 2011, that bears his name; for many winters, he was also an A-list guest and patron, getting his hacks in with the rest of the kids.
“That’s a testament to the coaching staff where they prepare the players not just for today, but for tomorrow. And getting to the next level.”
— Todd Sears, former MLB first baseman and a Nebraska alum
“Just being able to see that talent from those pro guys that come back, is something special in itself,” says Sears, now an owner/instructor with Complete Game Baseball in suburban Kansas City. “Just to have that extra insight of what goes on in the pro ranks before they even get there. That’s a big deal, and just being able to talk to current pro guys and interact with them and [you think], ‘Hey, if that’s what it takes, that’s what I want to do.’ It really can light a fire under some of those players.”
And sometimes, that fire starts with a torch. Passed down, year by year, from draft class to draft class.
“Everybody knew that [Erstad] was going to be a top pick, and for him to come up and ask to be a roommate, that was the coolest thing in the world,” Sears recalls. “And we got to know each other pretty well and stayed in touch when we played [in the pros]. He had the talent, along with everything else, but his hard-nosed, gritty play, that kind of really opened my eyes that, if he can do it, I want to do that type of thing.
“The biggest things [we] talked about and even now, as I run a baseball academy in Kansas City, it’s to never take anything for granted. You never know when you’re not going to have that any more, and part of this is what I learned from Darin. I don’t care if you’re up by 20 or down by 20, play as hard as you can. That’s what people will remember of you as a player … how hard you played. That’s what I learned from Darin and tried to transfer that for myself as well.”
These days, Erstad grinds on the recruiting trail. And few things get a coach inside a prospect’s front door quicker than popping open a pack of trading cards and pointing to all the former Huskers in the set.
“I think that it’s very important. Every baseball players’ dream is to get to the major leagues,” Erstad says. “Not just get there, but stay there. Nobody dreams about playing ‘A’ ball. Just look at most websites, go listen to pregame introductory things at college. When they’re talking about professional signings, they’re talking about guys in the big leagues.”
According to Baseball-Reference.com, three former Huskers made their major-league debuts in 2011 — or as many as the Big Red had churned out from 1901 through 1966 combined. Of the 45 former Huskers ever to appear in a major-league game, 20 of them, or 44 percent, were drafted after 1995 — a list that starts with Erstad coming off the board at No. 1.
“I don’t ever talk about myself,” says the Huskers coach, whose 14-year MLB career ended in 2009 with the most games (1,654), at-bats (6,024) and hits (1,697) of any Nebraska alum to ever reach The Show. “It’s too long ago.
“You talk more in real time [about] what they see. And they see Alex Gordon’s name on the building that we hit in and work out in, and that’s real-time stuff. Not only that, he’s given back to the university. So that family feel, that family [vibe], it’s real.”
Real. Spectacular. And it starts at the top.
“That’s a testament to the coaching staff where they prepare the players not just for today, but for tomorrow,” Sears says. “And getting to the next level.”
It’s not the water. It’s thicker than that. It’s in the blood.