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Baseball: Former Ohio State player Mike Stafford’s journey to coaching alma mater

Ohio State associate head coach Mike Stafford played for the Buckeyes from 1994 to 1998, serving as the closer his last two seasons. Credit: Courtesy of OSU Athletics

Mike Stafford had spent the last seven seasons coaching pitchers at Ball State on the staff of then-head coach Greg Beals. But when Ohio State head coach Bob Todd retired in 2010, Beals emerged as the front-runner to take over the position.

Stafford played for the Buckeyes from 1994 to 1998, serving as the closer his last two seasons. After graduating from Ohio State, he dreamed of returning to his alma mater to coach. And with Beals potentially heading to Columbus, the dream looked like a possibility.

All this excitement was stored in the back of Stafford’s mind while on a recruiting trip to Chicago. While evaluating a recruit, his phone rang.

“[Beals] called me on his way home from somewhere and said that ‘[Ohio State Athletics Director] Gene Smith just called and said that he offered me the job,’” Stafford said. “And I remember I was in Chicago, I took the call and went running behind the stadium and I was like ‘Wow this is, this is another life-changing moment.’”

The opportunity had been a lifetime in the making for Stafford, who recently became Ohio State’s associate head coach.

Stafford was born into a baseball family. He’s the only son of pitcher Bill Stafford, who won two World Series titles with the New York Yankees in the 1960s.

Stafford said he constantly felt pressure from the media in Canton, Michigan, to live up to his father’s level.

“There was awfully a lot of pressure to either match what my dad did or be better,” Stafford said. “But at the same time I felt like I learned a lot from it and made me a better player and person, and now a coach because of that.”

Growing up 9 miles from Ann Arbor, Michigan, meant a majority of Stafford’s friends attended either Michigan or Michigan State, but he wanted to do something different. He wanted to leave the state. His high school baseball coach knew Todd, and after a visit, Stafford knew Ohio State was the place for him.

Settling into first base to begin his Ohio State career in 1994, Stafford saw little playing time until his redshirt junior year. The Buckeyes had several left-handed pitchers leave the program and an opportunity appeared.

“The biggest thing I wanted to tell coach Todd was, ‘I pitched in high school, I can help this team as a pitcher,’” Stafford said.

The coaches gave him a shot in fall workouts and he won the closing role in the bullpen.

Stafford saved six games in his redshirt senior season of 1998, 12th most all-time in a single season at Ohio State. His ERA was the lowest on the team in both 1997 and 1998.

The Toronto Blue Jays felt Stafford was worth a 41st-round draft pick and he played in the minor leagues for four seasons. His professional career came to an end with the High Desert Mavericks, the Advanced Class-A team of the Brewers, after the 2001 season.

“I was looking in the mirror, just thinking, ‘I’m 27 years old, I’m in high-A. I’m not making the progress that I feel like I need to to make my career as a big leaguer,’” Stafford said. “I felt like the writing was on the wall and I really needed to think about my future, and my future was I wanted to stay in the game of baseball somehow.”

Doors soon blew open. The Yankees called Stafford to ask if he would be interested in becoming a scout. He accepted the opportunity and made plans to train for the position. But his plans changed.

“A week before I was supposed to go to Arizona to go to scout school, my dad passed away,” Stafford said. “Scout school’s only offered once a year, this many days. And I wasn’t going to be able to do that and make that a priority over my family.”

After some time off to grieve, Stafford instead became the bullpen coach for the Columbus Clippers. His stint lasted two seasons, ending a short time before Beals entered the picture.

“After my first year at Ball State, I realized that I needed to have somebody to take care of our pitching staff,” Beals said. “Coach Stafford’s name came up a couple of times from professional scouts.”

The same scouts told Stafford about the opportunity and worked to get him a phone interview. Beals called him in fall 2003.

For almost an hour, the two discussed pitching, coaching philosophy and player development. Both recall an instant connection.

“It almost felt like we knew each other before we even knew each other,” Stafford said.

After an on-campus interview it was a done deal. Stafford was Beals’ choice for pitching coach.

Fast forward more than 14 years, Stafford has produced five players selected in the first 10 rounds of the MLB draft and more than a dozen total picks. He’s won two conference titles with Beals. Now, before the 2018 season, he has been promoted to associate head coach.

“The promotion is a loyalty thing for me,” Beals said. “One thing that you never want to have in your program is status quo, so to say. I want for there to be progression. I want there to be progression in our program, and so I want there to be progression in our coaching staff.”

John Kuchno, a player who failed to make the team at Wake Forest as a freshman, was recruited to Ohio State by Stafford. He finished his collegiate career as a draft pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Current major-league pitchers Brad Goldberg and Drew Rucinski still ask for Stafford to evaluate them and offer advice.

“Whether they win 12 games or two games, the work they put in, the accountability and the commitment that they have to get their education and play baseball at Ohio State is second to none,” Stafford said. “I still have a great relationship with all of them.”

Beals made clear that one of Stafford’s greatest attributes is his ability to relate to players.

Redshirt senior pitcher Adam Niemeyer was a fan of Stafford’s personality before even arriving at Ohio State, having met Stafford when he was recruited.

“He seemed like a really genuine, down-to-earth person that wasn’t telling me stuff for me to believe him just to get recruited,” Niemeyer said. “He was telling me stuff that I could genuinely learn from.”

Through the years, Stafford and Beals have maintained a strong relationship that has clicked since the early days at Ball State. Stafford is more laid back and soft spoken. Beals is a high-energy guy.

After 14 seasons together, the promotion is a signifier of the camaraderie between two coaches who might coach together until one or both retire.

“We have a friendship that goes beyond just our jobs,” Beals said. “You develop a level of trust, there’s more than just ‘this is your job, this is my job’ when you spend that much time with somebody.”

Stafford sees himself staying at Ohio State for the foreseeable future.

“I don’t feel like I have any aspirations of going anywhere else,” Stafford said. “I’m a Buckeye, I’ve always been a Buckeye, and this is my home.”

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