Major League Mavericks
UT Arlington is becoming a training ground for big-league baseball players
Four former UT Arlington students recently joined an elite fraternity. A fifth may soon follow.
But their frat houses aren't on Greek Row Drive. They stretch from Miami to Seattle, and Boston to San Diego. These guys perform in front of millions and make millions of dollars doing it.
Ex-Mavericks Dan Ortmeier, Mark Lowe, Ryan Roberts, John Lackey and Hunter Pence are establishing themselves in the fraternity known as Major League Baseball.
"Baseball's like a little family," former outfielder Ortmeier said. "Everybody knows everybody. You run into guys all the time."
This could be the year all five hit the big leagues at the same time—in San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Anaheim and Houston.
UT Arlington's baseball program sometimes gets overlooked compared to powerhouses like UT Austin or Rice University. But such programs can utilize players unnoticed by the traditional powers.
"It's amazing the talent they produce," John Manuel, co-editor-in-chief of Baseball America, said of UT Arlington. "It's a nice little story of that program. It's a great secret."
Manuel credits former coach Clay Gould, who died in 2001, and current coach Jeff Curtis with recruiting players bypassed by competitors.
"I think they went after big, raw guys," he said. "That philosophy has been steady from one coaching staff to the next."
Before 2002, only former Mavericks pitcher Steve Foster and infielder Dave Owen played in the majors. Then in 2002, Lackey made his pitching debut with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. In 2005 the San Francisco Giants called up Ortmeier, and both Lowe (Seattle) and Roberts (Toronto) played on baseball's biggest stage for the first time in 2006. Pence is on the cusp.
"We had no idea they were going to have success on the big-league level," Curtis said. "I don't think you can ever expect anyone to make it to that level because there's so much that can happen."
Dream come true
Ortmeier, who played at UT Arlington from 2000-02, can't believe he's being paid to play the game he grew up loving.
"It’s something you always dream of," he said. "At the same time, it's overwhelming. I catch myself looking around—somebody pinch me. My job is to go out and play baseball."
He has made two trips to the major leagues the last two years. In 2005 he went 3 for 22 with 1 RBI. Last season, playing in nine games, he was 3 for 12 with 2 RBIs.
He has struggled with injuries because of an aggressive style of play. He learned after last season that he was playing with a fractured kneecap, and he's rehabbing now until spring training.
Not knowing whether surgery will completely fix the problem is in the back of his mind, but he tries to stay positive.
That won't be tough for Ortmeier, Curtis said.
"He's a great, great kid," he said. "No better ambassador for UTA."
Playing at AAA Syracuse, Roberts was to be the designated hitter in the July 28 game against Ottawa. Snacking on junk food and joking with teammates in the clubhouse, he was startled when his coach called him into the office.
"The coach acted all mad at me," Roberts recalls. "Whatever he told me, it was such a shock—I didn’t say anything the whole time."
The message was clear: You’re being called up.
Roberts went 1 for 13, but what a hit it was. After two pinch-hitting appearances, he started his first big-league game Aug. 3, batting ninth and playing second base against the New York Yankees.
His first major league hit was a home run at Yankee Stadium.
"When I hit it, I didn’t know if it was going to be a home run. When I looked up, I saw Johnny Damon looking up. By the time I got to second, I saw the umpire was calling it a home run. I just kept going."
Roberts, a Maverick in 2002 and 2003, experienced some good-natured ribbing for his speedy trot around the bases.
"I'm running as fast as I can," he said, laughing. "I think I got around the bases in 11 seconds. Everybody was ragging on me for running so fast."
Taking the league by storm
A remarkable story from last season was Lowe, a right-handed relief pitcher who played at UT Arlington in 2002-04.
"I never knew he was going to make it like that," Curtis said. "He thinks he's the best guy out there every day he's got the ball."
Lowe showed he was one of the best in 2006, leaping from Class A ball to the majors in one season. He had off-season elbow surgery but hopes to return this year.
"He has big-time stuff; he's got closer stuff," Manuel said. "Everything came together with him."
Lowe said it took awhile to learn the "art" of pitching but that he figured it out in spring training.
"My last start," he said, "everything clicked."
Much like Roberts, Lowe reached a milestone in Yankee Stadium: his first major league win, July 19. His first trip to Yankee Stadium, the day before, was nerve-racking. He came in with the bases loaded and All-Star Alex Rodriguez at the plate.
"I'm in Yankee Stadium and my first assignment is A-Rod," he said. "You're so focused on what you have to do. Any lapse in concentration and I give up a grand slam to A-Rod, and who knows what happens next."
But Rodriguez struck out swinging. The next day, Lowe recorded his first win.
Success on the highest stage
Lackey, the most successful of the group, made his first pro start in 2002, the year he won Game 7 of the World Series to lead the Anaheim Angels over the San Francisco Giants.
"I couldn’t have drawn it up any better," Lackey told UTA Magazine in 2003, after becoming the first rookie in 93 years to win a deciding World Series game.
He was recruited as a first baseman, the position he played at Abilene High School. Former UT Arlington Coach Butch McBroom decided to give Lackey a shot at pitching after noticing he might have a knack for it.
After one year as a Maverick, Lackey played in a summer league in 1998 and then transferred to Grayson Community College that fall. He led Grayson to the Junior College World Series championship in 1999 and was drafted by the Angels that spring.
What the Angels have gotten from the one-time first baseman is some of the best pitching in the American League. He was third in the league in strikeouts in 2006.
"He's got it all," Manuel said. "I love John Lackey as a player. Best case scenario, this guy becomes Curt Schilling—a 200-game winner."
The next Maverick to make it?
The most highly touted Maverick in this crowd is Pence.
After solid seasons in 2003 and 2004 at UT Arlington, he became the highest-drafted player in school history, going to Houston in the second round of the 2004 draft. In the fall, MLB.com named Pence baseball's No. 37 prospect.
"I go out there every day to play the game to win," he said. "They're paying me to play baseball. I cannot be happier doing what I'm doing."
Baseball America ranks Pence among the Astros' top prospects, and Manuel can see him making a difference in 2007. "Right field is open. I think if he goes to spring training and plays really well, he can play right field. For me, that's Hunter Pence's future role."
The players say it's tough to keep in touch with each other, but Pence became a fan of Lowe's, following his progress to the pros.
"I was rooting for him," Pence said. "I was pretty excited for him."
But he wasn't pulling for him in June when Pence's Corpus Christi Hooks took on Lowe's San Antonio Missions. They faced each other twice. In the first at-bat, Lowe threw Pence three sliders, and he whiffed on every one, Lowe recalled. In the second at-bat, Pence struck out again.
"He just watched all of them and walked off," Lowe said giddily of his 96-m.p.h. fastballs. "He doesn’t have any excuse."
"I didn’t do too well against my UTA teammates," he said, chuckling. "I guess I don't like to hurt my friends."
Give and take
UT Arlington's recruiting strategy seems to be paying off.
"Some schools expect their freshmen to make an impact right away," Manuel said. "UT Arlington will be patient with you, there'll be less pressure."
Curtis says the coaches just look to get the best players they can. "Once they get here, you start working with them."
The players have benefited from the coaching, Curtis hopes. And the success of Lackey, Ortmeier, Roberts, Lowe and Pence certainly has brought the program recognition. Maybe the next Mavericks to join the MLB fraternity will be playing this season at Clay Gould Ballpark.
"It has been a good time for us. We've been very fortunate to have these guys," Curtis said. "We’ve helped them, they've helped us. And that's what it's supposed to be all about."
— Pat Gillespie