More than 10 years ago, longtime Atlanta Braves infielder Mark Lemke flipped through channels on his television and landed on a Utah college football game. The camera panned across the sideline, and the coach’s face and name flashed on the screen. Lemke jolted forward in his seat. He grabbed the phone and called Ron Gant, his friend and old Braves teammate. Lemke asked Gant, “Could that be the same Urban Meyer that we played with?”
Gant confirmed Lemke’s suspicion – the same intense, strapping infielder they played with in the Gulf Coast League had become a rising college football coach. Meyer, of course, would move on to Florida, win a pair of national championships, take a year off and rebuild Ohio State into a national power, a process that will culminate Monday night, when the Buckeyes face Oregon in the national championship game.
Before he launched a career that made him perhaps the best college football coach in America, Meyer played shortstop in the minors. Before he was a Bowling Green Falcon, a Utah Ute, a Florida Gator or an Ohio State Buckeye, he was a Pulaski Brave.
“A lot of people do not know he was a baseball player,” Gant said.
They don’t know because injury and disappointment cut short Meyer’s baseball dream. He lasted less than two full seasons, 44 games spread over the Gulf Coast League and rookie-level Appalachian League in 1982 and 1983. Meyer hit .182 with one home run, two steals and 11 RBI while making 17 errors in his truncated career. He played mostly shortstop with some third and second base mixed in and even caught one game.
In 1982, the Braves drafted Meyer in the 13th round out of Saint John High School in Ashtabula, Ohio. At age 17, Meyer appeared in 20 games in the Gulf Coast League. He played behind shortstop Andres Thomas — an 18-year-old Dominican who would play six seasons in the majors — and batted just .170. The struggle led to a defining moment in his athletic life, a conversation with his hard-nosed father, Bud.
“I’m the third-string shortstop,” Meyer said to HBO’s Real Sports in September. “The manager keeps mispronouncing my name. So I call up my dad and I say, ‘I’m out.’ And he says, ‘OK. You’re a grown man now. You make your own decisions. But you will never step foot in this household again. Is that clear? There are no quitters in the Meyer family.’ Bang.”
And so Meyer put the rest of his life on hold and returned to the GCL in 1983, still only 18. He lived in a dormitory-style apartment in Bradenton, Fla., and hung out with Lemke and Gant, a future all-star outfielder who at the time played shortstop. They engaged in hellacious ping-pong matches during their ample downtime, and Meyer “didn’t accept losing very well,” Lemke said.
Lemke would play 11 major league seasons, a staple at second base on Atlanta Braves teams that won five division titles. And yet, in the summer of 1983 in Bradenton, Lemke believes Meyer had the edge.
“I think Urban was above me and better than me back then,” Lemke said. “He was bigger. He was athletic. He was a shortstop. That’s where I originally wanted to play. Being able to play that side of the infield, to me he was ahead of the game.”
Still, a glut of infielders and an arm injury limited Meyer’s playing time. He played just nine games in the Gulf Coast League in 1983 and 15 in the Appalachian League for Pulaski. He batted .193 total and hit the only home run of his career while at Pulaski. After the season, the Braves waived him. His release papers were signed by the farm director at the time, a former Brave named Hank Aaron.
Like that, Meyer’s baseball career ended. Rather than trying to hook on with another organization, he played defensive back at Cincinnati, which launched his coaching career. He took with him stories about ping-pong games with Lemke and Gant, having played with six future big leaguers, including relievers Duane Ward and Paul Assenmacher. In other circumstances, Meyer may have been one, too.
“I really believe if he had hung around, and they gave him the opportunity, he would have figured it out,” Lemke said. “He was that kind of guy. He’s that kind of guy in football. He’ll look at [the situation], and he’ll come up with a game plan. I think he would have done that in baseball. That’s kind of the way I did it myself. You just hang around long enough.”
It is easy to view Meyer’s short-lived baseball career as a blip, laugh and say it all worked for him. Lemke is not sure Meyer takes that view. Coaching can come close, but nothing beats playing. They reconnected as friends while Meyer coached in Florida, where Lemke spends a lot of time as a radio voice for the Braves. They would talk about a number of subjects, and sometimes baseball surfaced.
“You can look at it a lot of different ways,” Lemke said. “He’s in a great position. I think if he had hung on, it would have changed the course of his life forever. But you can tell. He asks me a lot of questions. ‘Where’d you go after Bradenton? What was it like at the next level? And the next level?’ I still think part of him thinks he could have made it.”
Meyer settled instead for conquering college football. Meyer will attempt to win his third national championship Monday night in Arlington, Texas, the apex of a sporting career that began in a far, far different place.
“I didn’t think he was too bad of a player,” Gant said. “I just remember there were some really good infielders at the time. It was kind of like a blur, and he was gone.”
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