TAMPA — Jesuit coach Miguel Menendez decided it was time for his baseball team to work on some reading.
He assigned two books at the beginning of last summer: Toughness by Jay Bilas and You Win in the Locker Room First by Jon Gordon and Mike Smith.
Menendez told his players they were now a “book club.”
No one moaned or groaned. No one even raised an eyebrow.
“We just started reading the books,” junior pitcher Camden Minacci said. “Then we all sat down and talked about what we read.”
They did this once a week through the summer, talking about the books for 30 minutes to an hour each time.
Compassion. Passion. Staying in the moment. Bringing a positive vibe to practice in every moment. Treating teammates and coaches with respect. Dealing with the internet and social media. … These are the types of things they discussed.
The goal was simply to become, “closer as a team,” Melendez said. “We wanted to learn lessons about baseball and about life. We are teachers, after all, trying to help these young men prepare for the rest of their life.”
So far, so good.
“This team is definitely closer than ever,” Minacci said. “We weren’t as close last year and I think that showed in some moments of big games. If we had a better attitude last year I believe we probably would have performed better.”
If wins and losses are any measure, then the book club is definitely paying off.
Heading into the week, Jesuit was 13-2 with a 2-1 victory April 4 against Georgia Parkland, which came into the game ranked No. 12 in the country.
“But we’re still not talking about winning and losing,” Jesuit junior catcher Bennett Lee said. “The focus is staying on teamwork.”
The Tigers are also not talking about state titles, which Minacci said was mentioned often among players last season, right up to the point when they lost in a region semifinal, 2-1 to Jefferson, which, by the way, went on to win the state title.
Jesuit ended its season with an uncharacteristically low winning percentage with 19 wins and 10 losses.
Thus followed “the book club” and more team-oriented gatherings and even a few guest speakers.
“The talent is never a problem at Jesuit,” Menendez said. “We just need the talent to focus on the proper things.”
Tiger talent this year is also large with the underclassmen, starting with eight legitimate pitchers, including four stellar junior right-handers: Minacci (committed to Wake Forest), Josh Mallitz (committed to Mississippi), Justin Clark (West Virginia) and Turner Thompson (offers on the table). Right behind them is sophomore left-hander Dominic Castellano, another college prospect.
Overall, Minacci leads the way with a 6-0 record, a 0.00 ERA, and 54 strikeouts in 33 innings.
The rest of the staff has helped combine for a 2.46 team ERA: A notion that bodes well for the Tigers in the revamped playoff setup of games scheduled for Wednesday, Saturday and Wednesday, which, because of pitch-count limits, means you can’t ride one starter all the way to the state final four.
At the plate, Lee is the leader, holding a .444 average with 13 RBIs and 13 runs scored through 15 games, but again, overall, the Tigers are solid with a .336 team batting average.
“We feel good about everything this year,” Lee said. “Everybody is together and getting better in every way. It has been a lot of fun this year.”