By Pete LaFleur
Feb. 3, 2004
Notre Dame’s 1997 baseball team remains one of the top hitting units in the program’s history. That 41-19 squad closed with a 20-7 record over the final month, losing to upstart Villanova in the BIG EAST Tournament and coming up just shy of a spot in the NCAA Tournament (then a 48-team field, before expanding to 64 in 1999). The ’97 team established the still-standing ND record for slugging percentage (.529) and tied the team batting average record (.334) while also setting Irish records for home runs (66) and doubles (127, both now third all-time) – thanks to a starting lineup that included eight starters with batting averages of .308 or higher and six at .365-plus.
Former Notre Dame infielder Cory Mee (’92) was a six-year assistant with the Notre Dame baseball program (’93, ’95-’99) and played a lead role in developing the potent 1997 starting lineup. Mee – who served as the top assistant at Michigan State from 2000-2003 – now is about to embark on his first season as the head coach at the University of Toledo and one of his assistant coaches is none other than Mike Amrhein, the hitting leader of that ’97 squad and a six-year professional baseball player who nearly cracked the Major Leagues.
Former Irish slugger Mike Amrhein has joined Cory Mee’s staff at Toledo, after a six-year pro baseball career that nearly landed him in the Major Leagues.
The two newest Toledo Rockets recently took a few moments to reflect back on their days with Notre Dame baseball and discuss the challenge that list ahead of them in the Mid-American Conference (Toledo went 22-29 overall in 2003, but just 8-19 in MAC play).
“The first thing in building a program is trying to develop a positive attitude and winning environment, where guys look forward to coming to practice everyday, having fun and looking to improve,” says Mee, who followed Brian O’Connor (now head coach at Virginia) as former Notre Dame assistants who were named Division I head coaches in a span of three days during the summer of 2003.
“Our players have done a great job with 100% effort and I’m a firm believer that hard work pays off. You have to develop a consistent approach to the game and come prepared to play every day. It’s not always the difference in talent that determines who wins, but who comes to play.”
Cory Mee helped coach Notre Dame’s record-setting 1997 offense, with Mike Amrhein earning MVP honors as the 3-hole hitter on the ’97 team.
Mee joined O’Connor as the assistant coaches on Paul Mainieri’s first five Notre Dame teams (’95-’99), with Mee’s primary duties including catcher and hitting. He helped shape a five-year span in which the ND hitters averaged a .315 team batting average and 65 home runs per season while also tutoring four catchers – Bob Lisanti, Amrhein, Jeff Wagner and Paul O’Toole – who earned all-conference honors during their careers.
His responsibilities as the top assistant at Michigan State from 1995-99 included serving as hitting and catching instructor, recruiting coordinator and baserunning instructor, as well as assisting with academic advising, fundraising and summer baseball camps. The 2002 Spartans posted 38 wins (most at MSU since ’94) and finished fourth in the nation with a .344 team batting average while setting team records in hits, home runs, doubles and runs scored.
“At Michigan State, we also had to build that program into a wining environment, with the win total climbing from 20 wins to 29 and them 38. You could see improvement over time and it was very gratifying,” says Mee.
“It also was beneficial to get experience coaching at a state university. Things are done a little big different from an administration standpoint and it’s helpful to learn how things work in that setting.”
Mee – who graduated with a 3.3 GPA as a biology major and was an Academic All-American as senior with the Irish in ’92 – has developed a clear gameplan for his recruiting strategy.
Cory Mee’s coaching experience include six seasons as an assistant at Notre Dame and four at Michigan State.
“We are trying to attract talented student-athletes to attend Toledo, the type who want to achieve in the classroom, on the playing field and in their personal life – winners who place a big importance on being all they can be,” says Mee.
“Our focus is in Northwest Ohio and in general throughout the state. There is a lot of good baseball talent in Ohio, like the many great players we recruited to Notre Dame such as Steve Stanley, Paul O’Toole, Andrew Bushey, Ben Cooke and Steve and Scott Sollmann,” says Mee.
“We also can recruit well in the Detroit and Fort Wayne areas. There have been several first-round draft picks come out of this area in recent year so the talent base is there.”
Mee also had little trouble getting agreement from his wife Susan that Toledo was the place for them. “This has been a very easy adjustment for us as a family. The people here are great and it truly feels like home for us,” says Mee, whose growing family includes daughters Reilly and McKenna and newborn son Grady.
Mee views the Mid-American as a tough but undervalued conference. “There have been some great MAC trams left out of the NCAAs the past few years but every weekend is a big challenge,” says the Hilton, N.Y., native. “I learned from Paul (Mainieri) to set regular-season goals first, such as qualifying for the conference tournament. And we are changing from three-game series to four games this season, so each league game will be very important.”
As expected, much as Mee’s coaching can be traced back to his days working alongside Mainieri.
“I learned so much from watching Paul and Brian (O’Connor), things like working with players and motivating them on an individual basis, recruiting and dealing with media,” says Mee.
“Paul’s teams at Notre Dame always have carried themselves in a professional manner, as representatives of the University and a reflection of the program. He makes the players take responsibility for themselves to make good decisions, and they take ownership of the program.
“That’s something we want to do here at Toledo, where the players feel daily pride in being part of this program.”
Cory Mee was a valuable utility player during his Notre Dame career while helping the Irish make 1989 and ’92 NCAA regional appearances.
Mee played third base, catcher and second base with the ’89-’92 Notre Dame teams, helping the Irish make NCAA Tournament appearances in ’89 and ’92 while playing alongside future Major Leaguers Dan Peltier, Craig Counsell and Chris Michalak (among several others who are firmly entrenched in the ND record book).
In addition to still holding the Irish record for career sacrifice bunts (47), Mee ended his career ranked third in record games played (219, now 9th), 5th in RBI (164, now 12th) and 6th in walks (104, now 11th) while posting a .303 career batting average.
“I have some vivid memories of those NCAA regional appearances. It was a unique experience just getting their during my freshman season in 1989, when we had to win five games in 36 hours to win the MCC Tournament. And then in 1992 we were just one win away from going to the College World Series,” says Mee, who holds the unique distinction of having played and/or coached in the Horizon League (formerly the MCC), the BIG EAST, the Big Ten and now the Mid-American Conference.
“It makes me feel proud to have played there during a successful era and then coached there for some great seasons, when so many players developed and matured. It’s great to see them go on and have so much success and it feels good to have been a part of it.
“I look at Notre Dame as the model of a successful program, as opposed to one that is good every three of four years. Paul and the other coaches and players have taken success and built on it, to the point where the bullseye now is on them. It’s a challenge to stay on top for so long but it’s my goal to create a program with that level of success.”
Mike Amrhein reached triple-A in the Chicago Cubs organization.
The next stage in Mee’s coaching career will be include a fellow Notre Dame alum by his side, as Amrhein dives into coaching following a successful six-year career in the minor leagues.
“We want players at Toledo who have great baseball ability and athleticism but who also have a strong work ethic and are very coachable,” says Mee. “That’s why Mike is such a great fit for this staff, because he’s the perfect example of the type we want to have here: a self-made player who did whatever he could to help the team. He’s a perfectionist who turned himself into a catcher and almost made it to the big leagues.”
Amrhein’s duties include working with the catchers and position players in general. He also serves as the coaching staff’s contact with the academic center and is enrolled in graduate school (he set a good example in the ’03 fall semester, with three As and an A- while studying to improve his skills as a special education teacher).
“Mike and I were very comfortable when we worked together as a coach and player at Notre Dame and he has a lot of credibility with our players because of his experiences in pro baseball. They really have taken to him and you can se some huge improvement in the players’ performance,” says Mee.
“I always thought of Mike as a great self-starter and it’s the same way in his coaching. There have been many times when I will think of something we need to do and he’s already done it. He takes great pride in things and won’t do anything half way – and that has an influence on our players.”
Mike Amrhein made a successful position switch to catcher as a senior at Notre Dame in 1997.
Amrhein’s six-year career in the Chicago Cubs organization saw him reach triple-A Iowa in the 2001 and ’02 seasons, in addition to stints as an invitee or call-up to Major League spring training in 2000, ’01 and ’02.
“After that 2002 season, I made the decision to retire and went into teaching in the Chicago area. I was a history major and have some experience during the offseason teaching social studies,” says Amrhein, who had married the former Jill Lahey on Dec. 30, 2000.
“But then Cory called me one day last summer and said he had a proposal for me. I didn’t even know he had been named coach at Toledo but I came out and talked to him about it. The more I thought about it, I knew it was just a great opportunity.
Amrhein quickly realized that his college position coach still possessed some of the great qualities he remembered from those mid-90s days.
“Cory and I worked closely at Notre Dame and I’m glad to say that he’s still the same type of great person and coach,” says Amrhein. “He rolls up his sleeves and gets in there with the players on the field and in the cages. Not much has changed, although he has a lot more responsibilities. He still has a great love for the game and is the same coach I loved at Notre Dame … he’s just a little more seasoned.”
Amrhein’s initial concerns about a return to the diamond proved to be nothing but cautious anxiety.
“Whenever something comes to an end, there will be some feeling of not reaching your ultimate goal such as playing in the big leagues,” says the native of Oak Park, Ill. “It took some time to get over it and get past it, but it’s been nothing but a positive experience for me here at Toledo.
“I thought it would be hard to be close to the game so soon, but it has showed me that my experience as a player can make a difference for others. There are days when I start telling a story about pro ball and the next thing you know, there are players crowded around to listen. It gives me validation that I made the right choice.”
The return to college baseball has required an adjustment for the former Irish slugger. “I was used to being around players in pro ball who have a certain knowledge base,” says Amrhein “But my first few days here, I’d be talking about fundamentals of hitting and the players would be looking at me like I was talking some bizarre foreign language.
“It was an adjustment for me to get everyone on the same page. I had to force myself to assume nothing and work my way up. But the players have made huge strides since the start of last fall and we are teaching then how to play the game right, with new drills and development of the mental side of game.”
The most memorable moment of Amrhein’s professional career fittingly was the one that reminded him most of his college days, as a member of the 2000 West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx team that won the double-A Southern League title.
“The playoffs in minor-league baseball are kind of weird, because you’ve played 140 games and everybody just wants to go home. Often times, you also see your best players get called up at the end of the year. But this year was different and the Cubs left all the star players in double-A so we could try to win that title,” says Amrhein, whose teammates on that Jaxx squad included future big leaguers Corey Patterson, Hee Soep Choi, Juan Cruz, Courtney Duncan and Carlos Zambrano.
“We won a few games and the players started to change our tune. We wanted to win the title and the players were up on the steps, rattling the fences.”
Amrhein came to bat in the bottom of the 9th of the fifth and final game, with two outs and the Jaxx trailing by one. Runners were aboard on first and second and Amrhein was determined not to make the last out, nearly leaving the yard on an opposite-field double that smacked off the rightfield wall. The potential winning run was tagged out in a home-place collision but the Jaxx scored in the 10th.
“Notre Dame has won some tournaments since I played there but I never had experience a dogpile for something like that, so it was a great experience winning that title and playing a key role in the championship,” says Amrhein.
Amrhein’s experience at Major League spring training allowed him the chance to talk hitting with the likes of Mark Grace and Sammy Sosa. He also developed a camaraderie with fellow catcher Joe Girardi, who took Amrhein under his wing (they had a connection via Girardi’s previous team the New York Yankees, where former ND assistant coach Gary Tuck served as the bullpen coach).
The friendship between Amrhein and Girardi included a regular swap of gloves – with a unique twist.
“One day Joe told how much he loved how I broke in my gloves and asked if he could have one of them,” recalls Amrhein. “He offered to trade me one of his top-of-the-line gloves, which his name embroidered on it, for something I bought off E-Bay.
“That ended up being a regular thing where we’d swap gloves and I remember seeing him wearing one of my gloves in the All-Star Game. It was interesting to think that I had broken in that glove and now it was being used in this big game.”
Amrhein regularly was one of the top-hitting catchers in the Cubs organization and received good feedback from the coaches and scouts.
“There were guys with similar or lesser ability in the big leagues but it’s often a numbers game and a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” says Amrhein. “But that’s why I went to Notre Dame, to get a degree and a great education. Baseball was going to come to an end one way or another but I knew I’d always have my education to make use of and be a contributing member of society.”
Mike Amrhein’s impressive 1997 season included nearly as many home runs (14) as strikeouts (17).
Amrhein’s MVP season as the 3-hole hitter for Notre Dame’s 1997 squad included ABCA first team all-region honors, after batting .394 (now 17th in ND history) with a BIG EAST-leading 91 hits (now 7th in ND history), 71 RBI (7th), 14 home runs (9th) and 70 runs (10th). His 37 career home runs tied the Irish record (now 3rd) while Amrhein and Eric Danapilis (’93) currently are the only players ranked sixth or higher in the ND record book for hits (269, 6th), RBI (202, 3rd), home runs, runs (195, 6th) and doubles (58, 5th). His .361 career batting average ranks ninth in Irish baseball history.
A look inside the numbers of Amrhein’s 1997 season reveals a truly great performance: he totaled nearly as many home runs (14) as strikeouts (17) and finished with almost double the number of walks (33) as Ks; he struck out just six times in the first 34 games (none “looking”), including a stretch of 65 plate appearances without a K, ultimately averaging 16 plate appearances per K for the entire ’97 season (roughly one K every four games); he collected hits in 25 of the first 26 games, including a 21-game hitting streak that has not been matched during the nine-year Mainieri era; and he did not go hitless in a nine-inning game until the 43rd game of the season while flirting with a .450 batting average well past midseason.
That final season was preceded by another position switch (he earlier had moved from the outfield/first base to third base), with Amrhein developing into a pro prospect as a catcher in 1997. His jump in production from 1996 to ’97 included 71 batting points (.323 to .394), 22 more RBI (49 to 71) and a drat slot 89 rounds higher, as one of the highest-drafted seniors in ND baseball history (10th round, to the Cubs).
“One great thing about catching is that you quickly have to drop you offensive worries and get focused on your pitcher and helping the team win,” says Amrhein. “When I was not hitting well, I was not a pleasant person to be around but catching helped me deal with that because there was a more pressing concern than whether I was going to get a hit the next time.
“When I played left field, or even third base, there was too much dead time to think about your offense. Catching keeps you totally focused on the task at hand and makes you a better all-around player. It also gives you better insight to the opposing pitcher’s strategy and gives you a mental edge. One of the main reasons that catchers don’t appear to be great hitters is that they get worn down during a pro season. But there are a lot of catchers who truly are great hitters.”
Amrhein is eager to provide words of advice for the group of current Notre Dame players who have a pro baseball career in their near future.
“The only major thing that I’d do differently is try to enjoy the whole experience more, because it can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders,” says Amrhein.
“You also have to be prepared for a totally different atmosphere than at Notre Dame. In pro ball, everyone’s goal simply is to get to big leagues. Most players are happy after a 30-0 loss if they had three hits, even though a successful team can help bring more attention to the individuals. It’s a cutthroat existence and that was a big adjustment for me.”
Amrhein knows that his return to Eck Stadium for the ND-Toledo game on April 21 will awaken some special memories.
“Everything in pro baseball fell short of my Notre Dame experience,” he says. “I look back at that 1997 team and think most of the great friendships and great teammates. We all went through the ups and down together and it’s magical any time we get back together or talk on the phone or on e-mail. It’s like going back in time and you pick up right where you left off. You get transported in time to your Notre Dame experiences and they are some great memories.”