By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Before the UVa baseball team’s final regular-season home game Sunday, Brian O’Connor‘s seniors will be honored at Davenport Field.
No member of that group has a story more improbable than that of right-fielder David Coleman, who leads the nation’s top-ranked team in hitting with a .390 average.
“I’m as proud of him as I have been of anybody,” said O’Connor, Virginia’s eighth-year coach. “Over the course of a player’s career, sometimes things don’t work out in your favor. He’s kept a real positive attitude, and he’s come out this year and done what he’s needed to do for his team to have success.
“He’s just been Mr. Consistency for us all year.”
As a freshman in 2008, Coleman started 41 games and hit .288 for a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers continued to win big in 2009 and ’10, while Coleman all but disappeared from view.
“We just had a lot of talent and a lot of depth,” O’Connor said.
In 2009, Coleman had only 75 at-bats, as his classmates Phil Gosselin and Dan Grovatt moved ahead him in the outfield rotation, and that total dropped to 23 last year. Another classmate, Jarrett Parker, was entrenched in center field. And then there was John Barr, who had enrolled at Virginia in 2007, too.
“They beat me out straight,” Coleman recalled, but he didn’t resent his friends’ success.
“They got their shot, and I knew that I was going to get mine,” he said.
That opportunity came when Gosselin, Grovatt and Parker chose last summer to leave UVa early and sign professional contracts. Coleman impressed the coaching staff during practice in the fall and has been a steadying influence for the Wahoos (20-4 ACC, 43-5 ACC) this season.
Coleman has not committed an error. He’s third on the team with 34 RBI.
“He’s a great example of keeping the right attitude, being a great teammate,” O’Connor said. “He was playing every day as a true freshman and then not much at all the next two years. And now he’s making the most of his senior year and has got a chance to leave his own legacy here. He’s an example to other players that if you’re a good teammate and keep a positive attitude, at some point you’ll be rewarded for that.”
Coleman said: “I know that this year, baseball pretty much could be coming to an end for me. I was able to prove that I can still play at this level, after sitting out for two years, pretty much.”
Not every player would have persevered in that situation. Transferring was an option that Morton and Cynthia Coleman discussed with their son.
“They brought it up maybe once or twice,” said Coleman, a graduate of Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond. “They did say, ‘Dave, you’re behind Phil Gosselin and all these studs. If you want to have a good chance to play, you’re probably going to need to look at somewhere else for the next couple years. But whatever you decide, we’ll support you.’ “
Coleman said he never seriously considered leaving UVa.
“I just wanted to stick with it,” he said. “I didn’t want to give up. I really love these guys and the coaching staff, and I knew eventually my time would come.”
Coleman acknowledged, though, that it was difficult, after a freshman season in which he made the all-ACC tournament team, to “walk to the dugout to see your name not in the lineup. But I didn’t dwell on that. I didn’t go home and whine or complain about not playing. They beat me out, so it was fair.”
As a part-time player, he hit .307 as a sophomore, but his average plummeted to .217 last year. Coleman hit .609 as a Trinity junior and .503 as a 12th-grader, so this was unfamiliar ground for a player known for his prowess at the plate.
“It’s hard to keep that confidence when you’re not getting at-bats,” Coleman said. “When you’re on the bench and you’re not seeing live pitching regularly, it’s really tough to keep that confidence. Oak would give me a couple pinch-hits every now and then, and it was tough for me, obviously.”
The support of his teammates, including Parker and Gosselin, helped Coleman deal with his reduced role in the program.
“It’s funny, Phil was the guy that was in front of me, but he was also the guy that I rode beside on the bus trips,” Coleman said. “He was there supporting me and making sure I had my head on straight.”
Final exams are under way at UVa, and O’Connor’s team hasn’t played since beating VCU 14-3 in Richmond last Tuesday night. Virginia’s season resumes Friday night against ACC rival Miami (16-7, 31-16) at Davenport Field.
The Hurricanes are No. 17 in the latest Baseball America rankings. Starting times for the three-game series are 7 p.m. Friday, noon Saturday and 12:30 p.m. Sunday. Before the finale, a Senior Day ceremony will recognize Coleman, Barr, Tyler Biddix, Kenny Swab, Tyler Wilson and Cody Winiarski. (Fifth-year senior Corey Hunt was honored last season.)
Starting this weekend, the stadium’s capacity will be 5,074, thanks to the addition of 249 seats behind the right-field wall. These are heady times for UVa baseball. The ‘Hoos are virtual locks to again host an NCAA tournament regional, and Coleman is thrilled to be part of such a successful program.
“It’s really exciting, because every night somebody else steps up,” he said. “The same players aren’t getting the clutch hits every night. It’s somebody else, and I think that’s why our team is so strong and why we’re so good right now.”
A politics major, Coleman will graduate this month. Then what?
“I really don’t know,” he said with a smile. “I’m just enjoying this year, and I’m just going to play baseball until somebody says I can’t any more.”