Jim Penders didn’t host a party during Game 7 of the World Series. No former players, no coaches, no big gathering of friends and family.
Penders was sitting on his couch when he watched the final out, getting ready to send the soon-to-be World Series MVP George Springer a text message – the last in a series of several personal notes he wrote during this year’s epic Fall Classic.
“After the World Series, I sent him one,” said Penders, who coached Springer during his three-year stint at UConn. “I had it tee’d up and ready to go. As soon as the out landed in (Yuli) Gurriel’s glove, I hit send. I wanted to be amongst the first of hundreds that he’d receive after the end of that game.”
“I really did not move from my couch. It would have been fun to watch it with some other people, but I wouldn’t have been able to hear anything. I wanted to hear everything. I wanted to soak everything in,” he added.
With Springer in the spotlight throughout the MLB postseason, the UConn baseball head coach has been brimming with pride over the past few weeks.
Every game along the way, Penders said his phone kept buzzing – seemingly “every 30 seconds” – with former players and other coaches around the country talking about his former stud.
Springer was a key part of UConn’s 2011 team that reached the program’s first-ever NCAA Super Regional – the closest the Huskies have come to the College World Series since the restructuring of NCAA postseason play in the 1980s and ‘90s. He batted .343 with a team-leading 77 RBIs and 12 home runs that season, which earned him the title of Big East Player of the Year.
“I was getting texts from Jack Leggett, who was the head coach at Clemson when we beat Clemson in 2011 with George in center field,” Penders said. “I was getting texts from him in Game 7 saying how proud we should be of him, how well he’s played and led his team. So, it was kind of impossible to ignore the possibility of George winning MVP.”
Springer’s MVP chances seemed like a long shot before the World Series started. He batted .474 in the ALDS before going cold in seven ALCS games with an abysmal .115 batting average. While the media clamored for Springer to be taken out of the leadoff spot, Astros manager A.J. Hinch laughed it off.
Penders scoffed at it, too. He said he was “never really nervous” watching George play. He knows how Springer is – streaky offensively, but always solid defensively.
“The thing that most people don’t recognize or appreciate is the fact that, even though he wasn’t hitting the crap out of the ball against the Yankees, he helped them win some games defensively. He was making some really good plays,” Penders said. “And that never goes on vacation. He’s never been streaky defensively.”
But it’s not just performance on the field where Springer exceled this postseason. When the Astros walked off in Game 5 for a 13-12 victory, hero Alex Bregman didn’t talk much about his game-winning hit. He pointed to Springer’s enthusiasm and encouragement in the dugout when Houston was down 4-0 against baseball’s best pitcher.
“He’s the glue,” Penders said. “You’ve always got one eye on George.”
Millions of people across the country had their eyes on George, too, but before he stepped out onto baseball’s biggest stage, Springer took the time to thank at least one person who got him there. Before Game 1, he sent “some really nice words” to his college coach. Penders didn’t text Springer much during the actual World Series, only “a nugget here and there.”
“When he broke out in Game 2, I said, ‘Look out, No. 4 found right-center again.’ I’m sure he got a chuckle out of that,” said Penders.
Penders couldn’t help but compare Game 7 to UConn’s second NCAA Regional game against Clemson in 2011. The parallels are almost uncanny: Both were the visiting team against a powerhouse. Both teams stole third in the opening inning and rattled the opposing starter. Both teams took early leads and piled on runs to deflate the opposing team.
While Houston only ended up winning 5-1 and UConn dominated that game 14-1, Penders remembers the “deer in headlights” look the Clemson starter had, similar to that of Yu Darvish in Game 7. When Springer doubled to lead off the game for the Astros, Penders knew Houston was poised to have a historic night.
“It all started with George getting that base hit,” Penders said. “I had a really good feeling in the first inning when the air was kind of taken out of that stadium.”
And when the final out was made and Springer led the charge to celebrate, Penders was overcome with emotion – a thrill, he said – not unlike the kind of feeling he said he gets from being at his players’ weddings.
“It’s that same kind of euphoria, it’s just on a very different scale when it’s the World Series. It’s the same kind of feeling. You still get that warm feeling in your heart, you get goosebumps sometimes,” Penders said. “You just feel very full. Tim Corbin from Vanderbilt describes that feeling very well when he says it’s like watching your kids open their presents on Christmas Day. That’s really what it’s like. You just enjoy their enjoyment with such a privilege to be in that position.”