Dad plays catch-up with former players at CWS - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 12:01 am / Updated at 1:01 pm
BASEBALL
Dad plays catch-up with former players at CWS

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***

As the 2012 College World Series was about to open, a guy in UCLA Bruins blue shouted to a Stony Brook relief pitcher trotting off the field after batting practice.

“Josh!”

Josh Mason looked into the stands near the Seawolves' dugout. He smiled when he recognized the man — with close-cropped hair that's starting to gray, and an artificial leg — as a former youth team coach from California, Bill Keep.

“I got your seeds!” Keep yelled.

He tossed a bag of cracked pepper-flavored Spitz sunflower seeds. It landed in Mason's hands right in front of his breadbasket.

That toss Friday was one of three sunflower seed deliveries from Keep to a College World Series player he had helped coach. He also pitched Spitz to Trevor Brown, UCLA's multitalented first baseman, and to Alex Mejia Jr., the star shortstop of the Arizona Wildcats.

Three years ago, the three ballplayers cracked seeds in the dugout while competing in summer ball for the same Southern California youth team, the Playa Vista Orioles. Keep was an assistant coach. The Orioles came within one game of making it to the Connie Mack World Series in Texas.

Today, Brown, Mejia and Mason suit up for three different teams in the College World Series. The Playa Vista Orioles' former pitching coach will cheer them on from the stands in one of those harmonious convergences that happen at the end of the road to Omaha.

“Chances of that are very little,” Mejia said Saturday. “It's great to see it. ... It tells you how much talent and skill Southern California has.”

Keep observed, “I guess you can see that (Playa Vista) team did so well. It's easy to coach talent.”

As cool as it is to see his former players on college baseball's biggest stage, it's not their presence that brought Keep. He traveled to Omaha from Thousand Oaks, Calif., to watch the College World Series with his 10-year-old son, Connor. They first attended a CWS in 2010. It became their Father's Day tradition.

They're in the UCLA contingent with Bill's buddy Steve Heineman, whose son Tyler plays for the Bruins.

Brown, Mejia and Mason played together in 2009.

“Connie Mack ball is a little laid-back,” Mejia said. “Our high school careers had just ended, and it was summer. Even at that level, though, we had a bunch of competitive guys.”

He and Brown recalled Keep as a good complement to head coach Tim Oliveros.

“He was just a really good coach, a good guy to play for,” Brown said of Keep. “He was someone that you could talk the game with, and he was very energetic in the dugout.”

The three players from the Playa Vista Orioles haven't done much catching up with each other. That's probably for the future.

“Our time here now is a little more business rather than pleasure,” said Mejia, the Pac 12 Conference Player of the Year.

Keep gave the book on the players in an interview at TD Ameritrade Park before Friday's first game of the series, UCLA vs. Stony Brook.

Keep said Brown was “the consummate professional,” taking the same approach to practice and games while playing catcher, third, first or outfield.

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“He was very serious, had that professional attitude, mentality even as a high school kid,” Keep said.

Mason was “a jokester, a lot of fun to be around,” the kind of ballplayer who'd put his batting helmet on backward, but became all serious when he stepped between the stripes, Keep said.

“A smile on his face. Glad to be at the ballpark. Super strong arm, fast as can be. He led off for us, and could hit the ball out of the ballpark.”

Mejia was the team leader.

“He was our shortstop, and the attitude of our team went through him,” Keep said. “He had just won the L.A. city title at El Camino High School. He was signed, sealed and delivered to play at Arizona.”

When Mejia was loose, the Orioles were on a roll. When things were tight, Mejia knew the right thing to say.

“Constantly positive guy,” Keep said.

Mejia said something similar about Keep's approach to living without one of his legs.

“It doesn't seem to hold him back,” Mejia said.

Keep, who had played college baseball and then became a high school coach, lost most of his left leg in an accident when he was hit by a car in 2001. It happened outside a Department of Motor Vehicles office in Culver City, Calif., Keep said.

“My brother was borrowing my car,” he said. “Nice day, Aug. 11, I was just sitting outside.”

A car came accelerating toward Keep. He tried to jump over the front of it, but didn't make it.

“I didn't realize how much I was bleeding,” he said. “A nice gentleman ran over and tied a belt around my leg like a tourniquet to slow down the bleeding. I'm a very fortunate guy.”

He lost all but the top 10 inches of his leg. Eleven surgeries and five prostheses later, Keep's hiked around TD Ameritrade Park and downtown Omaha with sunflower seeds.

Keep made the sunflower seeds a dugout tradition, supplying different flavors. Brown's not a big seeds guy. Mason took to cracked pepper. Mejia prefers chili lime. Keep and Connor took him a bag at the Arizona team's hotel before the series, and spent about a half-hour catching up.

Mejia said he was grateful for the visit, the seeds and that Keep remembers about the chili lime.

“It shows that he keeps us in mind,” Mejia said.

Keep, though only 44, recently retired from his baseball coaching career after 20 years with high school teams. He wanted to focus on coaching his son, Connor, and spending more time with family.

Like a lot of moms and dads and boys and girls who love baseball or just each other, Bill and Connor Keep are having quality family time at TD Ameritrade.

“The feeling of being able to sit at a field and talk to him about the plays, about why things are done, and explain baseball to him, it's just one of the best feelings you can have,” Keep said.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1057, christopher.burbach@owh.com

Contact the writer: Christopher Burbach

christopher.burbach@owh.com    |   402-444-1057    |  

CWS SCHEDULE »
Friday, June 14
Opening Celebration

Saturday, June 15
Game 1: Mississippi State 5, Oregon State 4
Game 2: Indiana 2, Louisville 0

Sunday, June 16
Game 3: N.C. State 8, North Carolina 1
Game 4: UCLA 2, Louisiana State 1

Monday, June 17
Game 5: Oregon State 11, Louisville 4
Game 6: Mississippi State 5, Indiana 4

Tuesday, June 18
Game 7: North Carolina 4, LSU 2
Game 8: UCLA 2, N.C. State 1

Wednesday, June 19
Game 9: Oregon State 1, Indiana 0

Thursday, June 20
Game 10: North Carolina 7, N.C. State 0

Friday, June 21
Game 11: Mississippi State 4, Oregon State 1
Game 12: UCLA 4, North Carolina 1

Championship Series

Monday, June 24
Finals Game 1: UCLA 3, Mississippi State 1

Tuesday, June 25
Finals Game 2: UCLA 8, Mississippi State 0
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