Mik Aoki keeps a football in his home office. It's old and leather and, unlike him, deflated from the years.
This feels appropriate for South Bend, Ind., a rustic place where golden domes shine, Touchdown Jesus lurks and the force behind the University of Notre Dame brand is present and powerful.
"Baseball is important here," says Aoki, in his third season leading the Irish's program. "But of course football gets the lion's share of attention, and they should. If it wasn't for Knute Rockne and [the football program], nobody would know what Notre Dame is. It'd be just another small Catholic school in Indiana. The more they succeed, the better it is for everyone here.
"So yeah, Brian Kelly -- long live Brian Kelly."
Aoki doesn't say this, but the metaphor is impossible to miss: The football is a tangible connection to every intangible string attached to his day-to-day life. It's the identity and prominence of the institution at which he works. It's the standard -- rich in relevance and tradition -- he wants his program to eventually be judged by. It's the bloodline to his father, to his Japanese roots and, in a full-circle way, to baseball.
"Baseball is the only sport I remember sharing with my dad," Aoki says. "Just before going to bed, I'd sit down with him and watch a couple innings of the Tokyo Giants. I remember watching [Japanese legend] Sadaharu Oh hit, but at the time I didn't know how good he was."
This was the early-to-mid 1970s. Aoki was born in '68 in Yokohama, Japan, where Kemichi Aoki grew up. Kemichi went by "John" and met Ruth, an American girl, when he was getting his MBA at Penn and she was studying at Boston University. They'd marry and eventually move back to Japan when John found work at McCann Erickson, a U.S. advertising firm. They had Mik (pronounced "Mick") and moved to Tokyo when he was 2, around the time Mik gained a sister, Naomi.
"It was a normal childhood," Aoki says. "An upper- to upper-middle-class upbringing. We lived in an apartment complex with a lot of kids around, and we played cops and robbers and sports, things all kids do."
Aoki's father was a swimmer who liked baseball and football -- all sports, really -- and Aoki would play all sorts of things as he grew up, too. But baseball stuck early, partly because of the Japanese culture and the pickup games he could easily find in the Tokyo streets, and partly because he could do it himself. He got his first glove when he was 5 years old. His father took him into an M & M Sporting Goods in Plymouth, Mass., when they were in town visiting his mother's family, picking it out and showing him how to oil it, how to care for it, how to love it.
He hauled it back to Japan and would spend afternoons throwing rubber balls against the side of his apartment building, up in the air to himself, probably not knowing he'd grow to be a fine hitter at Davidson but certainly envisioning himself becoming something. Those days shaped him in ways that were unimaginable, too.
Before an 8-year-old Aoki moved to Plymouth and adopted Boston as his home city -- developing a humor and accent both subtle but recognizable to the town -- he was toughened by Tokyo. He had never known another home, but still there was a divide between himself and Japan, a genetic wall that was impossible to climb.
"Japan wasn't as Westernized then, I guess you could say, and I wasn't 100 percent Japanese descent," Aoki says. "Sometimes kids would make fun of me for that and call me Gaijin, which basically means foreigner, and I reacted like any 5-, 6- or 7-year-old would: I'd get pissed. I'd come home crying, and my mom would say, 'You have two choices: Sit around and cry the rest of the day or go back out and play.'"
There's no pain or anger in Aoki's voice when he says this -- he almost laughs about it -- and it "obviously wasn't a big deal, because after 10 minutes of crying I'd be back out playing with the kids." He brushes it off like a ballplayer, the same blunt tone, the same fight-or-flee attitude that comes across with his players now. Yet he remembers. It was the first layer of real-world hardness he acquired in Japan.
The other was much thicker. Aoki moved to Plymouth because his father passed away. Cancer. "We moved back around my mom's family so she could have some support raising two kids," Aoki says.
Aoki took memories from Japan, but in almost 36 years since moving, he hasn't returned. The ancestral pull has come and gone, but it's never burned at him, he says, never forced him to go back and trace anyone's footsteps.
He did cling to that old leather football, though. It was a gift from Aoki's father. From Japan to Plymouth to college, from coaching stops at Manchester (Conn.) CC to Ohio University to Dartmouth to Columbia to seven years at Boston College (his final four as head coach), that football has followed him around.
Even if he doesn't say it, it's a subconscious reminder of where he's been, what he's gone through, how he wants Notre Dame baseball to be. That's why this weekend is important.
The Irish are 8-2 and head to Los Angeles to play in the Dodgertown Classic, where they'll see USC, No. 9 UCLA and No. 12 Oklahoma. Notre Dame went 23-29-1 in Aoki's first season and 31-27 last season. Aoki doesn't see this weekend as a barometer of how real the Irish's early success is, but it is the first test in what could be considered a yearlong exam for the on-field progress of his program.
"This year's club will tell us a lot," Aoki says. "Each year we want to be a team people are talking about as a contender on a national level. We're not there yet, obviously."
Aoki thinks about it. He says he's pleased with the culture the Irish have now. And, hey, there are other ways to measure progress, other barometers of success at this level. Aoki listens to his players. He watches them. He has a character trait in mind for Notre Dame, one he wants to make clear.
"I like the idea that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing the very best you can do it," Aoki says. "I know math class sucks, but understand that at some point in your life some part of your job description will be terrible, but you have to do it. Yes, changing a diaper at 3 a.m. sucks, but you have to do it. Baseball is a good teacher of that, because it's about managing failure.
"And life is like that in a lot of ways. Some parts are great, some aren't, but you have to get up and do all of it every day."
Vanderbilt goes to the Northwest
This weekend's slate isn't as loaded as last week, but it is headlined by one tremendous series in particular: No. 2 Vanderbilt (13-1) at No. 13 Oregon (10-3).
The Commodores' only loss came on the first Sunday of their season against Long Beach State. Since then, they've beaten up on Monmouth and Illinois-Chicago on the weekends and scored 40 runs in five midweek games against overmatched teams. Heading across the country will be a little different.
"More than anything, it's an opportunity to grow," Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin told me this week. "We'll be tested with our first two tough series on the road, at Oregon and then at Auburn [to open SEC play]."
Left-hander Kevin Ziomek threw a shutout last Friday with 15 strikeouts (view all of them here), and Corbin said the video can't even do it justice because of the wintry mix in the Nashville area that day. "Considering the conditions, it was one the best performances I've seen," Corbin said.
Maybe Vandy should pray for some Oregon rain on Friday.
Atlantic Coast Conference play begins
The ACC slate gets underway this weekend, with the best series in the league being Clemson (7-4) at No. 14 NC State (11-2) and Wolfpack ace Carlos Rodon pitching on Friday.
When I chatted with NC State pitching coach Tom Holliday earlier this spring about Rodon, he thought the left-hander could pitch in a big league bullpen right now because his fastball and breaking ball are so good.
And we saw a little bit of that last week, as Rodon struck out a career-high 16 hitters in seven innings against Florida Atlantic. As a sophomore, Rodon isn't eligible for the MLB draft, but he's a surefire first-round pick in 2014.
There's buzz building among some pro evaluators that he's already making a strong case to go as high as No. 1 overall. Of course, he has probably somewhere around 200 innings of college ball left to pitch -- not including the summer -- before that decision will be made.
The Aggies go to Goodwin Field
Texas A&M (9-5) goes on the road to play No. 9 Cal State Fullerton (11-2) this weekend in an intriguing series. I caught up with Aggies head coach Rob Childress this week, and got a few quick notes:
• The staff is very impressed with freshman hitter Jonathan Moroney, who earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors for last week's work. Heading into the weekend, he's hitting .390 with a .585 slugging percentage. "He's a strong, physical kid with life in his body," Childress says. "He has outstanding bat speed, and the ball comes off his bat a little differently. But like most power guys, he'll chase the breaking ball in the dirt from time to time."
• If you get to see the Aggies take batting practice, don't watch the hitters. Watch shortstop Mike Reynolds. "If you take guys out to the field and ask them what they want to do, almost all of them will grab their bat," Childress says. "He's going to grab his glove first. Mike is a come-and-get-it shortstop and just loves defense. It doesn't take long to notice him at shortstop." Oh, he can hit a little too, with a .500 slugging percentage and .508 on-base percentage heading into the weekend.
• Friday night starter Kyle Martin has been a little unlucky so far this season, as his 5.09 ERA isn't totally indicative of how he's thrown the ball. The numbers that stand out more: 20 strikeouts and only two walks in 17⅔ innings. Missing bats and avoiding free passes are good signs going forward for the 6-foot-7 right-hander. "He's a big guy who's 88-92 mph and pitches down in the zone with great sink," Childress says. "His changeup is his pitch, to both righties and lefties."
Who needs it more: Aztecs or Razorbacks?
We knew coming into the season that this was an important one for Tony Gwynn and San Diego State. The Aztecs need to sustain a little life in the program and show that they can compete with San Diego and other Southern California schools for NCAA regional bids.
We also knew coming into the season that there were expectations of a different kind at Arkansas, with the most pressing question being: Are the Razorbacks the best team in the country? They finished third at the 2012 College World Series and brought a lot of talent back, and they're still a good bet to come out of the SEC and return to Omaha.
But this weekend, as SDSU goes to Fayetteville, the Aztecs (7-5) and No. 19 Hogs (7-5) are programs both in need of a series win. SDSU dropped four to Oregon State two weekends ago before getting healthy on Seton Hall last weekend, but it needs a series win against a quality opponent. Arkansas played in the Coca-Cola Classic in Arizona last weekend and went 0-4, losing twice to Arizona State, once to Gonzaga and once to Pacific. The Hogs are probably ready to flush that this weekend.
Prospect Watch: Adam Plutko, RHP, UCLA
There should be plenty of pro heat at UCLA's Jackie Robinson Stadium for the Dodgertown Classic this weekend, with Oklahoma's Dillon Overton and Jonathan Gray both scheduled to pitch. But the guy to watch is Plutko, who leads John Savage's pitching staff that is rich in arms.
Plutko, a 6-3, 192-pound right-hander, is slated to face Notre Dame on Friday night, and it could be seen as his first big opportunity of the spring to start creating some buzz for the June draft. He'll work in the low 90s with a breaking ball and change, and given his long frame, there's some room for pro evaluators to project with Plutko.
He's not in the same class as Stanford's Mark Appel, Indiana State's Sean Manaea or Arkansas' Ryne Stanek in terms of pure stuff, but he has the body and arsenal to be a first-round pick if he shows well when the scouts come out.
Today in Omaha: High of 44 degrees, mostly sunny with a few clouds, 100 days until CWS Game 1 (as of March 7)