Long Beach State might've finished the 2009 baseball season with an overall record of 25-29, but it didn't end the year without making a splash.
The Dirtbags have Troy Buckley to thank for that.
The coaching carousel began a few weeks ago and started with former Pepperdine pitching coach Sean Kenny. Kenny spent several seasons with the Waves, but shocked everyone when he decided to join new coach Erik Bakich at Maryland.
His departure set off speculation about who his Pepperdine replacement might be. Long Beach State assistant Jon Strauss was in the discussion for some time, but he was a Dirtbag and many wondered if he'd actually leave LBSU for Pepperdine.
That question eventually was answered when Strauss decided to join coach Steve Rodriguez's staff at Pepperdine.
Initially, sources on the West Coast pointed to Buckley as a potential replacement for Long Beach State. But with his high-level job with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the current budget situation the state of California is facing at its state institutions, the popular belief was that the Dirtbags couldn't afford to bring him back. Well, at least not yet.
Even with potential obstacles standing in the way, Long Beach State coach Mike Weathers wasted little time in contacting Buckley about the opening. He knew Buckley left Long Beach State after the '07 season for a three-year commitment with the Pirates. He traded in the "LB" on his hat for a "P" and the illustrious title of pitching coordinator for the entire Pirates minor league system.
Getting Buckley to leave the Pirates' organization wasn't easy.
"Timing is everything and we got a chance to get him back, I seized the opportunity. Early on in our discussions he really wanted to fulfill that three-year commitment for the Pirates. It was hard for him," Weathers said. "I think a lot of his decision had to do with what was better for his family."
As tough as it was to leave the Pirates, Weathers said Buckley is happy to be back with the Dirtbags. The Dirtbags, though, are even happier to have him back in the fold.
In his two years of absence in '08 and '09, the Dirtbags experienced some success on the mound. The '08 pitching staff finished the season with an impressive 3.20 earned run average. However, the '09 staff finished the season with a 5.18 ERA.
To put those figures in perspective, Buckley – before the stint with the Pirates – spent seven seasons with the Dirtbags and never had a pitching staff with an ERA over 3.75. In his final six seasons with the Dirtbags, his staff had a 3.54 ERA in '02, a 2.99 ERA in '03, a 3.11 ERA in '04, a 2.53 ERA in '05, a 3.64 ERA in '06 and a 3.57 ERA in '07. The staff's 2.53 ERA in '05 was the lowest staff ERA for the Dirtbags since the 50's.
In his previous stint, Buckley's name was synonymous with dominance on the mound. He also developed some of the nation's best pitchers, including Jered Weaver, Jason Vargas, Abe Alvarez, Jared Hughes and Andrew Carpenter. Weaver, Vargas and Carpenter are on big-league rosters this season. Weaver is with the Angels, Carpenter with the Phillies and Vargas with the Mariners.
"His return kind of makes you think about the old days. I think the whole key to those days was the way Troy recruited and developed pitchers," Weathers said. "First and foremost, Troy is all about development. And given the fact that we play at Blair Field as our home field, we're always going to start with pitching and defense."
Buckley's return won't be the exact situation of his previous stint. Before he departed for the Pirates, Buckley served as pitching coach and recruiting coordinator. But even with his return, Weathers vows to keep second-year assistant Andy Rojo as recruiting coordinator.
Buckley still will be involved in the recruiting aspect of pitchers.
"There's no question that Troy going to MLB for a couple years is going to help us on the recruiting trail," Weathers said. "Throw that in there with the arms we've had in the big leagues that Troy coached and we're an easy program to be interested in."
Buckley's addition has coaches on the West Coast talking.
"With Troy returning to the Long Beach State program, it brings instant credibility to their pitching corps," a Big West coach said. "Developing pitchers really is a big strength of his."
Buckley has an opportunity to change the tide for the Dirtbags. Sure, they won the Big West regular season title two seasons ago. But in reality, that seems like ancient history after finishing last season with a losing record and failing to make an NCAA regional.
The perception on the national stage is that UC Irvine has passed Long Beach State in the Big West pecking order and only has Cal State Fullerton to surpass.
Bringing back Buckley, though, gives Long Beach State that feeling again.
You know, that dominant feeling.
- Long Beach State