Sean Casey, a University of Richmond graduate who played major league baseball for 12 years, announced his retirement on Jan. 27, ending his career playing first base for the Boston Red Sox.
During his career he ran up a lifetime .302 batting average, hit 130 home runs, had 735 RBIs and had more than 1,500 hits. Casey plans to join the MLB Network as a part-time analyst. But oddly enough, the three-time All-Star and winner of the 1999 Hutch Award -- given to players who demonstrate a fighting spirit and competitive desire -- almost didn't get the chance to play Division I baseball in college.
When Casey, 34, looked into colleges during his senior year of high school in 1992, he knew he wanted to play for a Division I school, but had trouble getting recruited. He took his father's advice and hand-wrote 30 letters to various Division I coaches, expressing his interest and desire to play.
Mark McQueen, Richmond's baseball coach and then-assistant baseball coach, had seen Casey play the year before in the Keystone State Games, a tournament in Pennsylvania where six to eight regions would send top players to showcase their abilities. Even though Casey's performance impressed him, first basemen were not a high priority for the Spiders that year, so McQueen didn't recruit him.
But after receiving his letter, Ron Atkins, the Spiders' coach at the time, sent McQueen back to see Casey again. McQueen returned to Casey's hometown of Pittsburgh to watch Casey's high school team.
Originally, McQueen said he had been a little uncertain about what he would see because most of the players had already made their college commitments.
"As I walked up to the field, I could see his team was taking batting practice," he said. "I noticed this big left-handed hitter was taking his swings.
"It looked like the ball was really jumping off of his bat, but I was a little dejected because it was barely reaching the outfield fence."
But as McQueen walked closer to the field, he realized that the fences were much farther away than the average high school fields.
"Once the game started, I realized that this kid could really swing the bat," he said.
During the game, Casey played extremely well, 4-for-4 at bat, 8 RBIs and 4 doubles -- unaware that McQueen was there watching him.
"It was literally the best high school game I ever had," Casey said.
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Atkins said he would never forget McQueen's description and excitement when he reported back about Casey.
"He said, 'Coach, he's a big guy. He's kind of bulky ... but boy, his love for the game and his enthusiasm just expounds everyone around him,'" Atkins said.
Three days later, Richmond offered Casey a $1,000 scholarship.
"I didn't care if I had any money," Casey said, "I just wanted [a chance] to make the Division I team.
"I'm indebted to coach [McQueen] for making that ride up to Pittsburgh in 1992."
During the spring of 1993, Casey played his first season with the Spiders. Atkins said Casey had come to Richmond as a talented player.
"He was a very good hitter," Atkins said. "But he was a very aggressive hitter and he had to learn to be a little more patient."
The coaching staff especially focused on helping Casey wait for the pitch to get into the zone. He improved quickly, Atkins said, and then took off.
Atkins praised Casey's work ethic and self-motivation when it came to practicing.
"There were nights that I'd be there late," he said. "I'd take a walk up to the batting cage and Sean would be in there by himself hitting off a tee."
Casey remembered his late-night practices as well.
"I still miss those days," Casey said. "I would go up there by myself and turn on the radio on full blast, and I would just hit for a couple hours. It was almost like a little getaway."
McQueen said that with the help of the team's weight coach, Casey quickly developed into a professional prospect.
Although he knew he wanted to get drafted, Casey said much of his motivation had sprung from a desire to be the best hitter and player he could.
The demands of baseball also helped to push Casey both on and off the field. He compared Division I baseball to a job, saying the tough practices had taught him a strict work ethic and how to manage his time.
Academically, Casey pushed himself as well. In 1995, he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the second round during his junior year, but came back to finish his degree in 1998. Although it was hard to finish three semesters, he said he was determined to finish what he had started. He graduated with a degree in speech communications, which he said had helped him in his career.
"I'm not usually that introverted," he said, "but it did help me get out there and understand what I needed to do to give a good speech, and talking in front of people."
Not only did Richmond provide an education that was second-to-none, Casey said, but baseball helped him learn a lot.
"I think the baseball team and all the things that go along with baseball in-season and off-season teaches you so much about who you are," he said. "Take every advantage; get every ounce of your talent out, physically and mentally."
Casey was consistently known as one of the nicest players in baseball and a 2007 "Sports Illustrated" poll provided even more proof when 46 percent of his major league peers voted him the "Friendliest Player in Baseball."
Atkins said Casey's positive personality had come through at Richmond, too.
"Even when Sean came in as a freshman, he was very well-liked," he said, citing his energy and enthusiasm for the game as two main factors. "Very seldom would you ever see Sean mad or frowning or having a pessimistic outlook on anything. That pretty much personified his whole career."
Richmond provided many fond memories, Casey said, like the baseball team van rides and time with his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon.
But one memory that stuck out the most was the baseball team's at-large bid to Regionals during his junior year. The team did not win the Colonial Athletic Association conference, which would have guaranteed its spot at Regionals. But they still had a chance to go through the at-large bid process.
"We all went down to the [Tyler Haynes] Commons," Casey said, "and we were sitting there watching the selection show on ESPN ... they announced, 'The fifth team [for the at-large bid] comes with the nation's leading hitter.'"
Because Casey was the nation's leading hitter at the time, he said he wondered whether they were talking about Richmond. And when they announced the school's name, he and his teammates went down to the bridge and jumped into the Westhampton Lake in celebration.
"It was a really cool moment," he said. "Richmond hadn't been [to regionals] in years -- it was a great moment for our school."
His last game at Richmond before moving on to the major leagues was a bittersweet moment for Casey.
"It was a sad moment because I was leaving a lot of good friends, and we had come so far together as a team," he said. "Those were some of the greatest guys I have every played with."
His last at bat for Richmond was a double that won him the National Collegiate Athletic Association batting title, which he didn't realize until the score keeper told him after the game.
Casey's decision to retire from major league baseball came from a desire to spend more time at home with his family. During his career he played for five different teams -- one season with the Cleveland Indians, eight seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, one and a half non-concurrent seasons with the Detroit Tigers (with a half-season with the Pittsburgh Pirates sandwiched in-between), and his final season with the Boston Red Sox -- which meant a lot of moving and time away from his family.
"I want to watch my [three] kids grow up," he said. "I want to be there like my dad was there ... watch them play baseball in the summer."
His family moved to Pittsburgh, and Casey will fly a few times a month to the MLB Network Studio outside of New York City.
Both Atkins and McQueen spoke of the pride that came with watching Casey succeed. McQueen said anytime he had watched Casey play professionally, he had always come over to say hello and sign autographs for McQueen's children.
"Sean was not only an All-Star on the field," McQueen said. "He is a Hall of Famer as a person."
Atkins said he was proud of all of his past players.
"But being a baseball coach, it does give you a warm feeling to see certain guys going and ... [living] their dream playing baseball in the major leagues."
Contact staff writer Jill Cavaliere at email@example.com
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