Auburn baseball: 'Wildest dreams' come true for Columbus native and Tigers' ace Michael O'Neal

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 16, 2014 

AUBURN, Ala.Michael O’Neal never imagined he would be in this position.

He thought back to when he began his high school career at Pacelli in 2006. This was before the 2008 state championship. Before his record-setting two-year stay with Chattahoochee Valley Community College. As a high school freshman, the only thing O’Neal hoped to do was find a way to play baseball collegiately.

Now, he’s the player who has been hand-picked to anchor Auburn’s pitching staff.

“It’s one of your wildest dreams to go from a small school to here,” O’Neal said earlier this week. “It’s pretty much a dream to be here and now I’m just trying to make it into a reality. That means doing well, getting us to Omaha and then going pro.”

To truly appreciate how far O’Neal has come, though, one must retrace his steps, embarking on a journey that began many years before he ever set foot on the Plains.

‘Baseball is supposed to be fun’

Few people have known O’Neal as long as Ken Miller.

Growing up in Columbus, O’Neal was Miller’s next-door neighbor. The young O’Neal was a mainstay at Miller’s house. O’Neal’s mom and grandmother would often drop by as well. And as Miller — who coached O’Neal and others along with O’Neal’s father David in the Northern Columbus Little League — tells it, he was able to watch the pitcher’s progress from age seven all the way up through high school.

O’Neal’s talent was always evident.

Serving as his coach at Pacelli, the biggest improvement Miller noticed over time had nothing to do with his physical capabilities.

“It was in his thinking, the way he approached everything,” Miller said. “If a guy was starting to sit on a certain pitch, he would change his approach there. He’d learn different pitches. He was always improving and it was always driven by his thought process.”

Above all else, O’Neal was always willing to do whatever was needed to help the team.

He played first base. He filled in as an emergency catcher. He came out of the bullpen. And of course, he was a starting pitcher, departing Pacelli with 31 victories to his name.

At times, that greatness was hard for outsiders to appreciate.

Miller recalled one instance when a travel ball coach approached him before a game. Before O’Neal even took the mound, the coach told Miller he “couldn’t do anything” with the pitcher. The coach pointed out that O’Neal, who was a starting offensive lineman for the school’s football team, would have to “lose 30 or 40 pounds” before he would ever consider adding the Columbus native to his roster.

“And I’m thinking, ‘You haven’t even seen him pitch or do anything. How can you make that assessment?’” Miller said. “That’s just basing off a metric they had where you had to weigh a certain amount, throw a certain speed, etc. You can’t ask Mike to put on 60 pounds to play on the line and then come into baseball season and lose 40 or 50 pounds.”

Of course, that didn't hamper the team in 2008, when O’Neal helped Pacelli win the state championship.

Not surprisingly, that’s his fondest memory when he reflected on his high school career.

“Especially because my catcher (at Auburn), Blake Austin, was who we beat in the state championship,” he said. “So I give him a hard time about once a week about it.”

What’s the biggest thing that O’Neal learned from his years under Miller’s tutelage?

“Baseball is supposed to be fun,” he said. “He was very laid-back. If you get paid to play one day, oh well. But it’s for fun and that’s what I always remember.”

Not that it was hard to do. That’s the approach Miller said he takes with everything, using one question as the litmus test: If you’re not enjoying what you do, why bother?

And did he ever enjoy his time coaching O’Neal and others during his long coaching career in the Columbus area.

“You’ve got to stay loose,” he said. “Tight muscles don’t work real good. Tight minds don’t work real well. That’s just my nature in general. And I’m glad Mike enjoyed that part of it. There’s a time to do things, and if you’re getting stuff done, you have to enjoy what you’re doing.”

‘He was just a guaranteed win’

Adam Thomas had never seen anything like O’Neal’s 2011 season.

And CVCC’s baseball coach was accustomed to being around major league pitching talent. He rattled off some of the names that came to mind.

Chuck James.

Johnny Gunter.

Derek Varnadore.

Tim Hudson.

But Thomas vouches that O’Neal’s first year at CVCC topped them all. He went 11-2 with a 2.30 earned run average, striking out 110 batters against just 11 walks. In addition, he set single-season school records for complete games (10) and innings pitched (121).

For good measure, he even notched four saves.

“The season he had, you can’t put into words how valuable it was. We don’t win the conference that year without Mike,” Thomas said. “He did it all. He started and then he ended up being the closer at the end of the year. He would start on Friday and close on Tuesday of the next week — something like that. Everything about Michael was the proverbial definition of clutch. And he was just a guaranteed win every time out.”

Thomas credits O’Neal’s dedication to getting in shape as one reason for the record-setting freshman campaign. No longer playing football, O’Neal was free to shed weight. When he joined CVCC, he was “probably pushing 260 pounds,” Thomas said. The two worked out together at Crossfit Inception the entire summer. By the time he reported to camp, O’Neal had dropped nearly 40 pounds.

When the season began that spring, he had dropped another five pounds to weigh in around 215.

Thomas cited that commitment to getting into better shape as just one example of O’Neal’s indomitable work ethic.

“He worked at it and he became just a consistent force for our pitching staff,” he said. “We knew exactly what we were going to get every time. He was going to compete his rear end off and he was going to pound the strike zone with three pitches.”

Leading into his sophomore season, it was a fair question: What could O’Neal do for an encore?

A quick look at the numbers show it paled in comparison to his first year. O’Neal finished 4-7 with a 3.65 ERA, compiling 79 strikeouts in 91 1/3 innings of work.

Why the drop off in production?

Thomas pointed to two factors. The first was an elbow injury O’Neal suffered while playing summer ball in the Great Lakes League. In hindsight, Thomas believed it would have been better if O’Neal had taken that summer off. Due to the elbow ailment, he didn’t pitch during the fall, which was fine with Thomas since “we already knew he was our No. 1.”

When the 2012 season began, O’Neal got off to a slow start. Though he picked it up as the year progressed, the early season slump brought down O’Neal’s overall numbers at the end.

For this, Thomas takes all the blame.

“I think what happened was Mike became reliant on his fastball early in the year and didn’t use his off-speed pitches as much as he did his freshman year,” he said. “That’s got nothing to do with him. That’s us saying, ‘Hey man, you can go out there and win with one pitch.’ And once we kind of got back to do what Mike did and him getting healthy, he was that guy again. So you know, I’ll take the brunt of the criticism for hampering some of those statistics his second year.”

Ever after O’Neal left for Auburn, the lessons imparted by Thomas stuck with him.

“He basically put in my brain that when you throw three pitches, two out of those three have to be strikes,” O’Neal said. “He emphasized first pitch strikes, he emphasized competing. I was a competitor in high school, but nothing (compares) to when he put you into what was basically a game of tug-of-war every day. He wanted you to compete and win every day. That’s why I’m thankful for him.”

Thomas said he has preached that pitching philosophy his entire career.

“Strike one, out one. If you don’t throw strikes, you don’t pitch for me,” he said. “I keep a lot of detailed stats that aren’t your typical ‘back of the baseball card’ stats. And the ability to throw strike one and the ability to get that first out completely dictates how the rest of the inning is going to go in terms of giving up runs, particularly if you can go two out of three (strikes) on those first few pitches. Then the on-base percentage of the batter goes down dramatically. And Mike’s stuff was so good that if he could do that, he was fine. You very rarely see first pitch hits by guys.”

O’Neal has continued to seek guidance from Thomas after joining the Tigers. Once Sunny Golloway was named Auburn’s head coach last year, he tabbed Scott Foxhall to shape his pitchers. When taking stock of O’Neal’s game, Foxhall wanted to see a slider incorporated into his repertoire.

O’Neal worked on it during the fall, but still wanted to get a few pointers from Thomas.

“I talked to him a little bit over Christmas about my slider, and he was helping me out there, too, so I have to give him some of the credit,” he said. “He would send me photos of his hands and stuff.”

It took just a few tweaks, Thomas said. O’Neal already had a true curveball — “a big, loopy” one, as Thomas described it. It was a pitch that started at a left-handed batter’s hip and then darted into the strike zone. An admitted fan of the slider, Thomas said that’s what he teaches all of his pitchers to throw. Unless they can throw the curve, of course.

So after sitting down with O’Neal and going over the aspects of the slider, Thomas simply gave his advice on how to use it.

“I said, ‘Here’s how you do this, Mike,’” the coach said. “‘You get ahead 0-1 and if you use your curveball to try to get another strike, what you do is you follow that up — let’s just say his curveball is at 72 miles per hour. And then you come back with another breaking ball at 78 mph. A hitter has no chance to hit that, particularly left handers. All that does is give you another pitch and another opportunity at being successful in general at Auburn.’”

‘You don’t want to be watching people on ESPN’

People aren’t expecting much from Auburn this season.

No group has less faith in the Tigers than the rest of the coaches in the SEC. In a preseason poll released earlier this week, Auburn was picked to finish last in the Western Division. What’s more, the Tigers finished with the fewest points (21) of any team in the league.

O’Neal admitted he and the rest of his teammates heard about the results of the poll, and they were far from pleased.

“It does get under your skin a little bit,” he said. “But it’s not like I’m going to lose sleep tonight over us getting picked last. I’m going to be more focused on this week rather than what they say yesterday or today.”

Besides, O’Neal has more important things to worry about than preseason prognostications. Being named the No. 1 starter is a lot to live up to, after all.

But it’s a challenge O’Neal relishes.

“I like it. ‘Coach G’ told me he wants me to win the series or tie the series,” said O’Neal, who will take the mound for the Tigers in the middle game of every series each Saturday. “He told me … that it’s all on me (every) weekend. So I like it. I pitched good in the SEC last year and I feel like I earned it. I’m working hard to keep it up.”

Golloway has already given O’Neal a target to aim for: He wants to see his ace win at least 75 percent of his starts. O’Neal took that a step further.

“Heck, I want to win about 80 to 90 percent, personally,” he said. “I’d love to win 100 percent, but you’ve got to be realistic. Personally, I want to win at least 10 games. Last year I had eight wins and I should have got two more and it just slipped out of my hands. Those things aggravate you the whole summer, the whole fall. You work harder for that, so I definitely want to win at least 10 games.”

If he can accomplish that, the Tigers could be well on their way to reaching their goals this season. That starts with hosting a regional. From there, they hope it eventually leads to Peyton Manning’s favorite city in Nebraska: Omaha. One can’t be around the baseball facilities without seeing references to the city, as Golloway has posted pictures and signs of Omaha in the locker room and the coaches’ offices.

Golloway’s insatiable will to win is infectious, O’Neal said. The first-year coach is tough, but that’s exactly what O’Neal felt the Tigers needed. And who can argue with the results?

In 17 years as a head coach, Golloway has compiled a record of 681-337-1. He spent the last nine seasons at Oklahoma, leading the Sooners to seven NCAA Regionals, four Super Regionals and the 2010 College World Series.

“He’s very strict. He’s very hard on us,” O’Neal said. “I love ‘Coach G’ already. He’s hardcore and very detail-oriented. He wants to win more than he wants to breathe.”

O’Neal can’t get enough of it.

“I love it, man,” he said. “You don’t want to be watching people on ESPN in Omaha. You want to be there. You want to be playing and that means a lot to us. We want to get there and that’s our team goal: to get to Omaha. We think we can do it. We feel like we have the talent here. We’ve just got to show it.”

'He’s got everything in line'

Regardless of how Auburn does this season — for better or worse — O’Neal’s former coaches are in agreement: He has nothing to be ashamed of.

The travel ball coach Miller spoke of wasn’t the only narrow-minded person he came across. As a kid, O’Neal never had the body type one would equate with being a top-level athlete. But as Miller attests, O’Neal was as athletic as they come. In a roller hockey league at the YMCA, O’Neal was installed as a goalie due to his cat-quick reflexes.

And once he set foot on the baseball field, he shined.

“What Mike has done is persevered and fought his way through it,” Miller said. “He achieved the goals he set out for himself, which is great. This is where he wanted to go, that’s what he wanted to do. And he did it. So I don’t know where that ranks on the talent scale. There probably were more talented players (I coached), but he did what he wanted to do, which is worth a whole lot more than the talent.”

And talent has never been hard to come by in the Columbus area, a baseball hotbed. All too often, Miller said, accomplishments in youth leagues turned certain boys into larger-than-life figures who were “treated like deities.”

“Some are put on pedestals at a very young age and that’s tough to deal with,” Miller said. “Mike never got that type of treatment. He just kept his nose to the grindstone. Mike was not given anything to get where he’s at. Mike worked really hard to get everything he’s gotten. He’s earned everything he’s gotten.”

Thomas lauded that work ethic, too. But that was just one small part of O’Neal’s makeup that Thomas respected.

“His love for others, his respect for human beings and just being a leader by example — I just can’t say enough superlatives about Michael the kid and not Michael the pitcher,” the coach said. “People think those things don’t have anything to do with being a competitive athlete. Well, I think they have more to do with being a competitive athlete, because it shows what kind of character and what kind of person you are. Those things carry over into that competitive nature he has.”

Yes, Thomas is proud of everything O’Neal has achieved on the baseball diamond. It should come as no surprise, he said, because of how much work O’Neal has put in over the years. But O’Neal’s on-field exploits, impressive as they may be, can’t measure up to how he comports himself away from the field, in Thomas’ estimation.

Can there be any greater praise?

“His character and his moral compass and his priorities — he’s got everything in line,” Thomas said. “The kid loves baseball just like anybody his age, but Michael the man is 10 times the person Michael the pitcher is, and that’s saying a lot because that kid can flat-out pitch. If my son grows up to be like Michael O’Neal, I’ll be a happy father.”

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