Jim Weber

Nostalgia: Urban Meyer, minor leaguer

Jim Weber
Dr. Saturday

Jim Weber runs LostLettermen.com, devoted to keeping tabs on former players and other bits of nostalgia. Today, ahead of one of Saturday's classic coaching showdown between Alabama's Nick Saban and Florida's Urban Meyer, we look back at Meyer's first career choice.

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When you think of Florida coach Urban Meyer, failure is the last thing that comes to mind. This is the coach that resurrected Bowling Green from the dead, led Utah to the Fiesta Bowl and has won two national titles in his first five seasons at Florida.

But one of Meyer's early endeavors was anything but successful: His minor league baseball career. Long before he was coaching royalty in Gainesville, Meyer was a star high school shortstop in northeast Ohio with an eye on the big leagues.

As he recounted in the authorized biography "Urban's Way," Meyer had a big growth spurt between his sophomore and junior years at Saint John High that propelled him to stardom as both a free safety and running back in football. But he was also a strong defensive fielder on the baseball diamond and developed at the plate over his prep career, batting .370 as a senior.

Meyer was good enough by then to earn a few scholarship offers, including Georgia and Mississippi State. But the Atlanta Braves saw enough promise to select him in the 13th round of the 1982 MLB Draft – ahead of two-time Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen, ageless pitcher Kenny Rogers and one half of the infamous "Bash Brothers," Jose Canseco.

Just 17 at the time, Meyer headed to the rookie Gulf Coast League in Sarasota, Fla. Between the long bus rides – including the time it broke down and he and his teammates had to get out and push – and $5 meal allowances to eat at McDonald's, Meyer was miserable. It didn't help that he struggled at the plate and saw more talented teammates with less work ethic having more success.

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But when he called his dad in tears from a pay phone looking to come home (go ahead, insert an Urban Cryer joke here), his father, Bud, told the younger Meyer that if he quit, Urban wouldn't be allowed home: "There are no quitters in the Meyer family."

[Related: Saban's early life, from West Virginia back roads to Kent State Massacre]

Meyer stuck it out even though things didn't get any better. He kept whiffing at the plate, unable to keep up with teammates like Mark Lemke, who became one of the cornerstones of the Braves franchise during their dominant run through the nineties.

After two years spent between the Gulf Coast League and Appalachian League, Meyer had batted a paltry .182 and damaged his prized throwing arm through injury. He finally decided to hang up his baseball cleats, heading back to the gridiron with his tail between his legs, walking onto the Cincinnati football team as a defensive back in 1983. He finished his psychology degree there in 1986, joined Earle Bruce's staff at Ohio State as a tight ends coach and hasn't been out of football since.

Who knows what would have happened If Meyer had been able to hit a curve ball or stayed healthy? He might have been a World Series champion or, with his coaching acumen, jockeying to replace the retiring Bobby Cox as the Braves' skipper instead of preparing for a showdown with another Buckeye State graduate, Nick Saban.

Given the success of his fallback plan, our guess is Meyer's not losing much sleep over it.

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Jim Weber is the founder of
LostLettermen.com, a historical college football and men's basketball site that links the sport's past to the present.

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