Baseball is the oldest sport played at the University of Minnesota, having started in 1876. The most revered era was in the 1950s and 1960s when the Golden Gophers won national championships in 1956, 1960 and 1964.
Dick Siebert, nicknamed the “Chief,” was the head coach of those glorious teams. Siebert took over the job in 1948 but didn’t have immediate success, with the Gophers compiling mediocre records until the mid-1950s.
John Anderson once asked the “Chief” what changed the program’s fortunes. “Paul Giel,” was the answer. Giel was an All-American pitcher who could frustrate collegiate batters from coast to coast, and later became a coveted prospect for the baseball New York Giants.
A hero for the ages, the Winona, Minnesota native was a football star as a single-wing tailback and finished second in the 1953 Heisman Trophy voting. Less than 20 years later Giel took over as the U athletic director, and in that role hired Anderson as head baseball coach in 1981.
Anderson, a native of northern Minnesota and former pitcher for the “Chief,” is still leading the program. He knows the Giel family well. Tom, Paul’s son, used to spend a lot of time helping out in the U equipment room. Now Tom’s son Oliver will be headed to Minnesota after graduating from Orono High School.
Oliver Giel is a promising pitcher and Anderson told Sports Headliners it’s “pretty special to me” having another Giel on campus. Then Anderson wanted to make a point.
“He’s not here because he’s a Giel. He’s here because he’s good enough. He’s one of the top pitchers in the state. I think it’s ironic how it’s come full circle (his connection with the Giels), and maybe that’s a good sign.”
Perhaps a promising omen for a program that has faltered on the field in recent years with no winning record since 2019. The last three seasons Minnesota has twice finished next to last in the 14-team Big Ten Conference standings and this spring placed 10th.
Hard times hit in 2020 with the pandemic cancelling the Big Ten season and limiting the Gophers to 18 nonconference games. Conditions limited the number of games in 2021 and Anderson’s team couldn’t have fall practice that year—an important time for development at a program like Minnesota that has a roster of players typically not pursued by college baseball’s powerhouse schools. The situation particularly hurt Minnesota because the Gophers had a young roster.
Other programs benefitted from having older rosters. MLB reduced its draft in 2020 from 40 rounds to five, then the next year went to the now permanent 20 rounds. Plus, scores of minor league baseball franchises were contracted. Players who in the past might have left school, instead remained in college because of the more limited opportunities in the pros.
The NCAA also granted additional years of eligibility because of missed time during the pandemic. The result was a lot of older players, including 23 and 24 year olds.
The Gophers have been in a tailspin going 40 and 101 the last three years while failing to qualify for the postseason Big Ten Tournament. Anderson said he had the youngest team in the Big Ten this past season with an average age of 19.5. Some league rivals averaged 23.5. Rutgers, the U coach said, had a sixth-year player with over 850 career at bats in Division I baseball. Minnesota’s most experienced player, Brett Bateman, had about 600 fewer trips to the plate.
“I do think we have a team that can play in the Big Ten Tournament, be competitive in the league next year,” Anderson said. “There’s a number of teams in our league that are really old that are going to lose their players, so we’ll see what they do to revamp their rosters and how that comes together.”
There are more talented and mature college baseball players than ever before, and that’s not all that’s new in college baseball. The transfer portal allows players to leave on a whim and have almost immediate eligibility at another program. The more coveted may move on because of money, with players seeking compensation for Name, Image and Likeness.
Anderson said there are programs that illegally entice players with the promise of NIL to build super teams. (NIL compensation isn’t supposed to be used in recruiting, only after a player comes on board with a program). Then Anderson thought about his 2018 All-American pitcher Max Meyer and how if NIL had been around, it might have impacted the Woodbury native.
”…He probably would have walked into my office with 12 to 15 offers to leave here for a substantial amount of money and a chance to go play in a program that might be able to win the national championship—and I am not sure what we could have done to change his mind. Now whether Max would have done that (hard to say). He loved this program. He wanted to play here, but that’s just an example of what (could have) happened.”
The scene in college baseball and other collegiate sports has changed dramatically. That includes Big Ten baseball with the league expansion several years ago adding Maryland and Rutgers. Maryland and Rutgers probably have the most friendly spring weather among conference teams, and the two schools are located in large population areas where there is lots of baseball talent.
During the interview Anderson offered perspective on his challenges (including player injuries) of the last few years, while also expressing optimism about the future. “I think we can get this program back to a baseline where it can be a competitive program in the Big Ten,” he said.
The team improved this spring and won three of its last four games, finishing 18-34 overall and 10-14 in the Big Ten. Anderson enjoyed working with a group that got along, avoided blaming others and finger pointing. His returnees may include center fielder Bateman and pitcher George Klassen.
Both may leave after baseball’s draft this summer but if they return their contributions could be significant. Bateman made second team All-Big Ten after leading the Gophers with a .354 average and playing errorless in the field. Klassen had Tommy John surgery in 2020 and has been working his way back since then but he can throw over 100 miles per hour and he has the “quickest arm of anybody” Anderson has coached.
“I think we closed the gap some this year,” Anderson said in evaluating 2023. “We’ll continue to do that. Kids will play in the summer. We’ll have a fall and a winter (to) get ready for next year. So, we’ll be able to move some of these kids along. …”
The legacy of U baseball is rich under the “Chief” and Anderson who was voted into the American Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2008. Anderson has won 11 regular season conference titles and 10 postseason league tournaments. He has been selected Big Ten Coach of the Year eight times and won the most games in conference history. His last Coach of the Year honor came in 2018, also the year Minnesota went 18-4 in league games and won the conference title.
That team advanced in the NCAA Tournament and made fans dream of a College Baseball World Series appearance. That didn’t happen with the Gophers losing out in a Super Regional in Corvallis, Oregon but before that their Cinderella run in the Minneapolis Regional had ignited local interest among media and fans.
For decades programs from warm weather climates have dominated college baseball. Only one Big Ten school (Michigan in 2019) has reached the final game of the College World Series since Ohio State in 1966.
Anderson believes Minnesota can win more Big Ten titles but it will be difficult to string them together like he did in the 2002, 2003 and 2004 regular seasons. “We gotta pay attention here. Keep it in perspective who we are and what we are capable of doing here, and managing those expectations. …Still think that’s doable (to win league championships), but it’s not going to happen every single year. …We’ve been blessed. We’ve had success and we’ll be back there. I am confident we will, and I look forward to being a part of that next year.”
The Gophers aren’t an elite Sun Belt program with a 13,000-seat capacity, $80 million stadium. Unlike an LSU that plucked Minnesota Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson from the staff during the MLB season last year, the Gophers have much more limited financial and other resources.
When Anderson talks at length about his program, he speaks about more than baseball. His entire senior class this year will graduate with degrees. The academic progress rate for the last five years is a perfect 1000.
Anderson knows his role is that of a teacher devoted to guiding his players way beyond baseball, helping develop their academics, life skills and character with the intent that they can thrive as adults in a competitive and changing world.
“It’s not just about wins and losses,” Anderson said. “My philosophy has always been I am here to prepare people for the next 50 years of their lives. Kids have to understand there’s a 50 percent less chance to play professional baseball today because the draft got reduced by 20 rounds. You better be preparing people for life after baseball.”
Anderson has more than excelled at his job, setting a standard for accomplishment, class and integrity. Not surprisingly, he is the longest tenured coach at the U while working for nine athletic directors including interim hires.
Anderson turned 68 years old earlier this month. His contract goes through June of next year. He said his energy and commitment are still in place. “I am taking it a year at a time. When I am ready, I am ready.”3 comments