When you mention the name Mike Papi to Tunkhannock Area High School coach Gary Custer, memories immediately fly through his mind, almost as if they happened yesterday.
It’s difficult to sift through thoughts of game-winning hits, clutch defensive plays or an entire season ending as the second best team in the state.
But one thing is for certain: Players like Papi don’t come around very often.
As Papi, a 2011 graduate of Tunkhannock, and the rest of the University of Virginia baseball team compete in the College World Series finals in Omaha, Nebraska, many residents of Tunkhannock are surely recounting tales of Papi’s playing days at Tunkhannock, Custer included.
“This place on game night was a zoo,” Custer said. “There’d be more than 500 people here with 20 or 30 scouts behind the screen. It was a magical time of year.”
The crowd had been building since Papi’s junior season, when the Tigers went on to win the district championship. As Tunkhannock made a run for the state title in his senior year, more fans filled the stands, including former New York Yankees pitcher Tommy John, and scouts from a myriad of Major League Baseball teams.
“That’s the impressive part, was that he (Papi) never seemed to waiver with all those guys there,” Custer said. “If it was me, my head would have been huge, but he really kept that under control.”
Long before pro scouts took notice, it didn’t take long for Custer to see something special in Papi as coach of Tunkhannock’s freshman team.
“The kid had what it takes to be an excellent player, but it honestly never crossed my mind that he could make it professionally, because why would it,” Custer said. “At that age you don’t think about that stuff, but you could certainly see the kid had it.”
But while he was certainly good, Papi continued to work to become great.
“I think he led by example,” Custer said. “During batting practice, he’d be at the shortstop position, by himself, working his butt off. I think he knew there could be a light at the end of the tunnel and he wanted to get better.”
“You see kids who have all the tools in the world, but don’t put them to use. Very rarely do you get the kid that has the equipment and wants to be there. That God-given talent is a tough thing to compete against.”
But with success comes failure, something that Papi, and his teammates, would also need to learn to handle.
In one particular game, Papi found himself on the bench for not hustling out a pop-up in the game before.
It never happened again.
“I tell all my guys that I expect them to give it 110 percent every time they step onto the field,” Custer said. “I couldn’t excuse Mike for not doing it and punish someone else for doing the same thing. Once you have the equipment and the desire, you still have to have that mental approach to the game of failure. You have to learn how to deal with that and he did it really well.”
The Tunkhannock team dealt with the failure of an early exit in a quest for a state title in 2010 by wasting little time in letting the Wyoming Valley Conference know who would be the team to beat in 2011.
“If you don’t have that team chemistry, I just don’t think you’re going to be successful as a group,” Custer said. “I’m not saying you have to live with each other 24/7, but still be compatable and have a friendship on and off the field and know when to speak up and bark at your brother out there; you have to have that.”
One of the players fueling that team chemistry was Papi, who quietly led by example by batting .556 with six homers, 21 RBIs, 33 runs and a slugging percentage of 1.156.
“When it was a do-or-die clutch situation, he was the guy you wanted at the plate. More times than not, he’d come through.”
That reputation carried over to college, and most recently in the opening game of the College World Series, when Papi drove in the game-winning run to beat Ole Miss.
But just like at Virginia, Papi wasn’t alone when it came to success at Tunkhannock.
“He (Papi) couldn’t have done it by himself, and he would be the first to admit it,” Custer said of 2011’s Co-Player of the Year, an accolade Papi shared with his teammate, Mike Healey. “The batting lineup had no holes one through nine. It was a special combination, and without the mental part and team chemistry it would have never happened. Those guys knew their roles and that contributed to that success.”
And while Papi plays for a CWS title, Custer can see the same attribute in the other Cavaliers as he could see in Papi: desire.
“To get to that level you have to love the game, because every day in college is a grind. You have to get up early and work late, but you have to love it and it can’t become a job.”
“What I saw with (Mike) was desire. He truly loved the game.”