John Martin isn't Mike Hargrove, let's get that out of the way first thing.
He's 26, just figuring out how to coach baseball and lead a team after being a player at Emporia State and, for a few weeks last season, the Wichita Wingnuts.
Hargrove, 60, was an All-Star first baseman and a manager who called the shots for the Cleveland Indians in two World Series — 1995 and 1997. He hasn't been in a big league dugout for a few years, but the past two seasons Hargrove returned to his roots and managed the Liberal BeeJays, breathing life into a struggling franchise.
With Hargrove, the BeeJays — who have won the National Baseball Congress World Series four times and finished second another seven — rediscovered their mojo, placing fourth and third in the World Series the past two years.
But everybody in Liberal knew Hargrove, a former Liberal player during his college days, was an unexpected gift from the baseball gods. He wouldn't be around forever.
After waffling about his return following the 2009 season, Hargrove eventually decided he wanted to spend more time around his family — especially a brand new granddaughter. So he has spent this summer in Cleveland, living the life of a husband, dad and grandfather.
Meanwhile, the BeeJays are on the cusp of something big as one of the remaining teams in the World Series, which concludes with the championship game Friday night. Liberal has a shot at winning its first title since 2000, an irony not lost on BeeJays longtime general manager Bob Carlile.
"I talked to Mike the other day and I told him I wanted him to know that this team out on the field for us is Mike Hargrove's team,'' Carlile said. "He turned us around, put us back on the map. Coaches wanted to send us their good ballplayers when they knew Mike was here. Now we're reaping those rewards."
That's not a shot at Martin, who has done a great job with the BeeJays — especially considering his inexperience. Martin was an assistant to Hargrove and pitching coach Galen McSpadden, a veteran BeeJays presence, last season and both recommended he be the guy to take over.
"It's a little daunting to replace Mike Hargrove,'' said Martin, who grew up in suburban Kansas City. "But he taught me so much and he's a really good guy. I was just a sponge when I was with him, trying to learn something new every day. I still talk to him quite a bit.''
Word is, Hargrove is itching to get back. Not to the big leagues, but to Liberal, although there's no doubt he would listen to the right offer from a major league team.
If it doesn't happen, though, Carlile expects Hargrove to be back in a Liberal uniform next season.
"He loves the game so much,'' said Carlile, who was involved with the BeeJays when Hargrove was a player 40 years ago. "He told me about a month ago, he said, 'Bob, I'd be lying to you if I told you I didn't miss it.' "
Think about that. Here's a guy who played for 12 seasons in the big leagues, who managed three teams, who led Cleveland to five consecutive American League Central titles from 1995-99, and he misses coaching the Liberal BeeJays in the Jayhawk League, traveling to spots like Derby, Haysville, El Dorado, Dodge City and Hays.
"Every indication is that he'll come back next year,'' Carlile said. "He loves this.''
If you're going to manage a summer college team, Liberal is a good place to be. The BeeJays have one of the richest histories of any NBC franchise. Players such as Phil Garner, Ron Guidry, Jack Morris, Doug Drabek, Steve Kemp, Ken Landreaux, Troy Percival and Mike Moore have passed through. Current Houston Astros right fielder Hunter Pence is a former Liberal player. More than 100 ex-BeeJays have gone on to play in the big leagues.
This Liberal team has found a way to win a couple of games it could have just as easily lost in the World Series.
The BeeJays needed a San Diego Force meltdown to win their second-round game 9-7.
They also had to come from behind to beat the St. Joseph (Mo.) Mustangs 7-6 to improve to 4-0. And Liberal's 11-10 win over the Haysville Heat on Tuesday night was one of the most draining games of the tournament.
The BeeJays have an interesting collection of talent, with players from all over. Their two top hitters in the tournament so far have been first baseman Blake Bergeron, a native of Houma, La., who plays at Nicholls (La.) State, and outfielder Joe Vaskas, who is from Bethpage, N.Y., and plays college baseball at Concordia College in his home state.
Liberal isn't overwhelming anybody in the World Series — the BeeJays' .304 batting average going into Wednesday night's game against Seattle was just ninth best in the 32-team field and their 4.20 ERA was 11th — but they have been relentless.
That's a quality they haven't gotten from Hargrove; he hasn't been around to instill the team's combativeness. It speaks well of Martin, who is thrilled and humbled to be getting a chance to manage one of the most successful summer baseball franchises in the country.
"I know all about the history of the BeeJays,'' Martin said. "So many great players have gone through this program. I'm just trying to find a way to win some games, to get these guys to play hard and play the right way and to make Liberal proud.''
Martin, an assistant to Bob Fornelli at Emporia State during the school year, won't mind one bit if he's just keeping the seat warm for Hargrove.
"If he comes back next year, I'd be more than happy to be his assistant again,'' Martin said. "I want to learn as much about doing this as I can and I'm still a young guy. Mike is one of the most down to earth guys I've ever met. There's nothing big-league about him.''
There's another irony to Hargrove's potential return to Liberal. If it does happen, this time he'll be the one with a tough act to follow.