SOUTH BEND — When a young Mik Aoki had his love for baseball challenged, he responded.
"The guys all knew I expected them to be on time," said Jim Stoeckel, Aoki's coach at Davidson College in the late ’80s. "On time, to me, meant five or 10 minutes early. They knew if they were late for the bus, we were leaving. It was up to them to get to the game.
"Now, this was in the era before cell phones. Mik and a couple other guys on the team had trouble in a class. They missed the vans to Appalachian State, a three-hour drive from Davidson. We got there and I was a little upset. Those were some pretty good ballplayers who didn't make it.
"About the third inning, Mik and the other guys walked in the dugout. They found a car and made the drive. Nobody said much. I think I used (Mik) to pinch-hit in the seventh inning."
What's important is that Aoki made it. Somehow. The game meant that much to him.
That's the attitude, though not the sense of timing, the new head baseball coach at Notre Dame wants from his players.
"We've brought a little bit of the fun back to (baseball)," Aoki said. "That's important. It's serious business. I make my living and provide for my family with it. But when you boil it all down, it still is a game. You're supposed to have fun."
The 42-year-old Aoki has paid his baseball dues. Born in Yokohama, Japan, his mother an American citizen, he moved to Massachusetts when he was 8, after his father died. At Davidson, he was a switch-hitting second baseman who caught his junior season - for the good of the team.
"We were very good Mik's sophomore year (1988), and horrendous his junior year," Stoeckel said. "We needed help behind the plate. Mik didn't hesitate when we asked (him to switch positions)."
Aoki's senior year was a success on the field. Along with him in the infield was Pete Hughes, now the head coach at Virginia Tech, and Robbie Eenhoorn, now the head of the Dutch National Baseball Federation.
A year of professional baseball in the Netherlands scratched the last itch he may have had as a player.
"I realized I was just putting off the rest of my life," Aoki said. "I had to get moving with moving on."
The first job he landed in baseball's professional world was as head coach at Manchester (Conn.) Community College.
"(That first year), I must have been the cruelest, most idiotic head coach in the history of college baseball," Aoki said, shaking his head. "I didn't know what the heck I was doing."
Then he learned. Assistant jobs at Ohio University and Dartmouth prepped him to take over at Columbia for five seasons. Then came a three-year apprenticeship at Boston College before he took over the BC helm in 2007.
"Being at BC was a good experience for me," Aoki said. "It was the first place I worked at that had that faith-based component. It made me more of a complete coach, in terms of looking beyond what just the baseball part of it is."
Baseball is only part of the equation at Notre Dame. Community service has its place. Academics is in the forefront. With more pride in his 3.8 grad school GPA than his 2.7 undergrad performance, Aoki has an ultimate commitment to academics.
In trying to recover from last year's 22-32 record, the rebuilding of the Irish program is different than at most places.
"(Turning things around) has a lot to do with recruiting the right type of fit," Aoki said. "They have to be good students that care about education. If they don't, there's going to be a week; there's going to be two weeks where there are going to be tests, papers, academic demands. If they don't intrinsically care about the value of education, they'll find a way not to do a good job with it.
"Ultimately, they're going to flush out of this place. That's not helping the kid. That's not helping our baseball program. Certainly, that's not helping the University of Notre Dame."
It's a process. Identify the talent. Develop that talent as a baseball player and student-athlete. Tough challenge.
Did the Irish find the right guy?
"Notre Dame got a guy who loves baseball," Stoeckel said. "He was a quiet guy, not the ‘rah-rah’ type. Still is. I've seen his teams at BC. They're smart. They're intense."
And they're always on time.
<i>Staff writer Al Lesar: firstname.lastname@example.org 574-235-6318</i>