On the day that had been circled for months, Notre Dame baseball coach Link Jarrett spent it changing lanes instead of changing pitchers.
Instead of coaching the Irish in his first game at Eck Stadium, Jarrett spent Saint Patrick’s Day afternoon and what would have been his team’s 2020 home opener against Western Michigan (under blue skies and cool temps but no snow) navigating interstates between South Bend and North Carolina, where his family still calls home.
No filling out the lineup card. No figuring out the pitching rotation. No batting practice or infield or trying to find the best way to get that run in from second base with nobody out. No balls or strikes or anything for Jarrett, whose first season in South Bend was just getting off the ground when everything just stopped last week over coronavirus pandemic concerns.
“Unbelievable,” Jarrett said earlier this week by phone after pointing the plumber in the direction of an emergency hot-water heater issue. “We held out hope that this wouldn’t be as bad as everyone thought and we had a chance to play, but the reality hit.
“There’s a lot of navigation that has to happen in terms of where we’re going to be in a day, in a week, in a month, in a year.”
The last week felt like a month for Jarrett. Notre Dame had just beaten Radford on March 11. At 11-2, the Irish were off to their best start since 2015. Their first Atlantic Coast Conference series sweep (at North Carolina the previous weekend) since 2016 was so impressive that Notre Dame entered the national rankings to start that week. They were No. 24 in Collegiate Baseball and in the “also received votes” category of other national polls.
They were feeling good about everything while in Louisville to start a weekend league series with the second-ranked Cardinals.
As much of the sports world stopped — the NBA had shut down and the NHL would follow while college basketball was holding on by a thread — everything in college baseball still had a green light. Notre Dame had a weight room session and practice time to keep Thursday. Every indication that Jarrett had was that the Irish would keep them. When the series was over, the players still planned to return to their dorms on campus. It was status quo.
Then Jarrett’s phone rang, and it all was over.
“When we were on the bus near Louisville, we had to turn around,” Jarrett said. “They said the ACC has just suspended all practices and competitions and the season. That’s when you knew.”
Knew that the work Jarrett and his staff had put in since he was hired in July was going to be put on pause. Knew that the Irish wouldn’t play the Cardinals that weekend, and wouldn’t play for a long time. Knew that the guys that he was just getting to really know were going away for who knows how long.
Jarrett’s first thought then was not about the season or the schedule, or even about his players. Well, not about them as players, but about them as people. As sons and brothers and their homes. Getting those guys back to campus and then helping them get home rocketed to the top of the first-year coach’s agenda.
“When I sensed where this was headed, I just wanted to get the players to their families,” Jarrett said. “As a parent, you’d rather have your kids with you because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Jarrett remained around campus for a few days before it also closed. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, he hopped in his car to cover the 686 miles between South Bend and Greensboro, N.C., where he spent the previous seven seasons as a college head coach. His wife and daughter, finishing her senior year of high school, are there. Soon, so was his son, J.T., a junior infielder at North Carolina State.
“It’s nice to have everybody in the house,” Jarrett said. “You know those days are numbered as the kids get older and go off to college. It’s been a nice couple of days.”
This week, it’s been all about family. The previous week, it was all about the routine of another baseball season. Now, nothing’s routine. There isn’t one.
“It seems like our world has changed so much since then, and it has,” Jarrett said. “You can’t have more changes in our world that we’ve had the last few days. It’s unbelievable.”
A good start
Everything changed when it seemed everything was coming together for a program that wandered around the previous three seasons with losing records. With no chances at sustained success in the ACC. Jarrett overhauled about everything since last summer. He put in a new defensive system. He installed a new communication system between pitchers and catchers. He implemented a new offensive system where every phase was different — bunting, hit and run, base stealing.
All the new concepts were almost immediately effective. Even when everything about the early schedule that said it shouldn’t work, said it couldn’t work, it worked.
Notre Dame played its first 13 games in five states over the first 26 days. The Irish went from Texas to the Carolinas to Virginia. They stopped in Alabama and had that brief no-game visit to Kentucky. They were the ultimate baseball vagabonds. They experienced flight delays and hotel arrivals at 4 a.m., early wake-up calls with games still on the next afternoon and the next. It was the ultimate early-season grind, but Jarrett made sure every tough moment was a teaching moment.
“There is no routine other than the chaos of the travel,” Jarrett said. “That’s it. You better be able to focus and handle the task in front of you at that time if you’re going to be elite in this sport.
“You saw some high-level stuff.”
Others also saw it. On what turned out to be its last week of the season, Notre Dame nudged its way into the national rankings. Success was nothing new to Jarrett. He won at least 30 games each of his last four seasons at UNC Greensboro, including at least 36 wins each of his last three seasons. He knew winning, and what it does for a program. Picked to finish seventh (last) in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, the Irish didn’t.
So seeing that national number next to their name was big.
“It gave the guys confidence,” Jarrett said. “Like, they want to be in the national discussion. Until other people recognize that and really sense that you’ve moved the needle, it doesn’t register.
“But when you see that you’re ranked and you see that your record is very good, it hits home that this hard work and the things that they were doing, people noticed.”
Today and tomorrow and for who knows how long, Jarrett knows everything the Irish did really means nothing. Earlier this week, the ACC announced something that Jarrett figured was coming — the cancellation of every spring sport. Baseball, softball, all of it. Over. That was tough. So is staying connected with his 39 players scattered over 17 states. He was just getting to know most of them in a regular-season way. He’ll now have to do it through group texts and e-mails and FaceTime conversations.
Little of that will be about baseball.
“We’ve got to focus on academics,” Jarrett said as Notre Dame returns to classes Monday in an on-line/remote setting. “Making sure guys have the resources they need to succeed is next. We need to help them.”
Plenty of baseball issues need to be addressed. What does no spring season mean for summer ball? How does the program move forward when (if?) classes resume on campus in August? There are budget and scheduling loose ends. What about the 12 incoming freshmen?
And will the NCAA allow this year’s seniors (there are seven seniors and one graduate student on the 2020 roster) an additional year of eligibility? If so, what does that mean in terms of roster/scholarship management?
“We’re a long way from having any answers to that,” Jarrett said.
For now, the 48-year-old Jarrett adjusts to life’s new normal. For his last 30 years as a player and a coach, February and March and April and May and most of June meant baseball. Road trips. Conference games. Travel. More of the same. Now, March is empty. April and May as well. Maybe June and even July.
Jarrett should be thinking about the hit and run and looking at the ACC standings. About the lineup, about rotations. About games. But baseball has been far from his thoughts.
“It’s a feeling like I’ve never had,” he said. “You’re fumbling around for what the thing to do is. It’s nuts.”