They say life comes full circle. In a way, it already has for Miguel Menendez, the new head baseball coach at Jesuit High School. Menendez, 37, was born in Tampa and played baseball under the minarets at the University of Tampa, where he graduated in 1999 with a degree in sports management. Menendez returns to Tampa after spending eight years as the head baseball coach at Key West High School, from which he graduated and — as a player — helped that team win a state title in 1995. With Jesuit, he takes over a program that annually challenges for a state title. Menendez spoke to Times staff writer Paul Driscoll about his return to Tampa, his love of baseball and his family.
Do you feel any pressure replacing coach Richie Warren, who went 206-39 in eight seasons and won a state championship last year, or feel you have to duplicate his success immediately?
There's pressure at every level of coaching, so you can't focus on that. The legacy and tradition of Jesuit baseball offers a unique and exciting opportunity. It's an excitement I thrive on, so I'm looking forward to the challenge.
Being born in Tampa and attending the University of Tampa, this is sort of like a homecoming for you. Describe what this new opportunity in your hometown means to you.
It's very surreal. I was born down the street at St. Joseph's and I visited Tampa every summer and during the holidays. I also had the privilege to play baseball for the University of Tampa for four years. I'm excited about pursuing my dream in a town that means so much to me.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Tampa, but when I was a month old my parents moved to Key West. My mother is originally from Tampa, but my dad was raised in Key West. My grandfather, John Menendez, owned a local sundries store in town, and my dad moved back to help him run the business. I attended Glynn Archer Elementary School, Horace O'Bryant Middle School and Key West High School. I moved to Tampa the fall of 1995 to attend the University of Tampa. I graduated in 1999 and was a substitute teacher in Hillsborough County for several months. I moved back to Key West the spring of 2000 and began my teaching and coaching career.
I married my high school sweetheart, Lori, in October 2001, which was followed by the birth of our first son, Miguel Jr., in September 2002, our daughter, Elizabeth Rose, in November 2003, and our second son, Jackson, in March 2008.
Recap your baseball-playing days.
My introduction to the game started at a young age. My grandfather built a batting cage behind his store stocked with a pitching machine. I was hitting off the machine at 3 years old. We spent a lot of time working on baseball fundamentals. My days spent behind the store are some of my most treasured memories, and it's where my love for the game really developed. I was a varsity starter for three years at Key West High. We competed in the 1994 Class 3A state championship but lost to Palmetto High School 7-6. We were fortunate enough to return the following year, which resulted in a more favorable outcome. We beat Seminole Osceola 6-4 and won the Class 4A state championship. I set the single season hit record with 57 hits that year, and the record still stands today.
When did you decide you wanted to be a coach?
I dreamed of becoming a major league baseball player like most young boys, but I knew that if I didn't make it to the MLB that coaching would be my calling. My grandfather coached in the Little Conch Baseball League for more than 20 years. He was the biggest influence on my baseball career, both as a player and coach. I grew up watching him mold kids into young men, and I aspired to do the same. He was stern but always had a positive outlook. I'm a competitor and an eternal optimist, and fortunately I inherited both traits from him. He was the first person I called when I found out I was selected as the head coach in Key West. Unfortunately, he passed away that summer. He never had the opportunity to witness me coach at the high school level, but I carry his spirit with me always.
You've won a state championship at Key West High School and a national championship at UT, both as a player. How will those prestigious achievements help you bring success to Jesuit as head coach?
The lessons I learned as a player influenced me tremendously as a coach. I learned how to win without sacrificing my love of the game. I learned that winning is important, but it's not everything. The relationships you forge through this game often last a lifetime. I've met many wonderful people playing and coaching this great game, and I'm sincerely grateful for that.
When you're not working, what things do you enjoy in your spare time?
I enjoy spending time with my wife and our three children. I'm an avid reader, and I enjoy listening to live music. I'm also a huge sports fan. I root for the University of Miami, Cincinnati Reds and the Miami Heat.
What kinds of activities are your children involved in? Do any of them play baseball or softball?
My children are very active in school, church and athletics. They love the water and fishing, which is abundant in the Keys. They also like to travel and spend time with family and friends. My sons play football and baseball, and my daughter plays travel soccer and enjoys dance. If they had to choose a favorite, my boys would choose baseball, and my daughter would choose soccer.
What will you miss about Key West? And what are you looking forward to about Tampa?
I will miss seeing my family every day and the friends I've known since grade school, but I'm excited about the opportunity to pursue my passion for coaching. I loved growing up in a unique place like Key West, but I look forward to the opportunities Tampa has to offer my family.
Besides coaching, you'll be teaching at Jesuit. Talk about how important it is to you that you educate young people and prepare them for their future.
Teaching is a major factor. I look forward to working in the classroom and connecting with my students. It's important to prepare students for the next level. I enjoy seeing them reach their full potential, and I'm honored to play a small role in their success.
Weekend conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.