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Paul Stevens, Northwestern, and the end of a long baseball marriage

After 31 years coaching for the Northwestern baseball program, Stevens managed his final game Saturday.

It was a Thursday night in Evanston, and everything was coming back to Paul Stevens. With the end of a 31-year career now frighteningly near, it was all coming full circle. No, the longtime Northwestern baseball coach wasn't reflecting on his time at NU. He wasn't letting the past overwhelm the present. In fact, just that afternoon, he had begun his final series with a 1-0 win over Maryland. So no, it wasn't thoughts that were coming back to him.

No, they were coming back to him.

They came from all over. They came from California. They came from Texas. They came from New York. Some came to see a man that they hadn't seen in 20 years. Others came to see a close friend.

Every single one though came to see a man who had had a profound effect on their lives.

They were Stevens' former players. And the occasion that brought them together was a special one. Stevens was less than 48 hours away from leaving something that had monopolized literally half of his life. And they were the ones who had helped make Stevens' life so special for so long.

One last trip to the park. One last button of the jersey. One last buckle of the belt.

No, not yet. Even two days after the get-together with former players, those types of thoughts hadn't hit Paul Stevens just yet.

"I'll worry about that tomorrow morning," he said. "I haven't even thought about that. I haven't looked at it. I haven't talked about it."

When Stevens announced on April 2 that he would be retiring at the end of the season, the countdown had begun. From an outsider's perspective, the end seemed near. In a month and a half, the 31-year tenure, 28 as head coach, would be no more, and Stevens' career at Northwestern would be over.

But when Stevens awoke on Saturday, May 16, there was only one thought in his mind. It was time to go win a baseball game.

One last batting practice hurl. One last fight song. One last national anthem.

There's a short list of things a person, any person, truly loves. For Stevens, one of those things is definitely baseball.

But another one of his loves is Northwestern University. And for 31 years, those two loves were fused together.

"It's the greatest privilege anybody can have," Stevens said, "to put the uniform on representing this university."

And whenever he speaks of "this university," Northwestern, or anybody associated with it, you can hear the sincerity in his voice.

"I've got it made," he said Saturday, shaking his head, as if in disbelief that he's been so fortunate. "I've just absolutely got it made."

"Sometimes you move away from your family. But you don't forget about them. As I get older, what's in my head is going to be frayed. But what's inside is special."-Paul Stevens

"Never sit there and think for one day that the grass is greener some place else. Because it isn't. Because this place will make you accountable for the things you do, it will only let you be entitled to what you work your ass of for. And then it's all about what you do next. Don't ever forget how this place made that all happen."

One last ping of the bat. One last clap of the hands. One last pop of the glove.

Paul Stevens always loved Northwestern. But a few years ago, that love was forever strengthened.

That's because late on the night of June 15, 2012, Stevens didn't know if his son, Cody, was going to live.

Cody, not only Paul's son but also one of his players at Northwestern, had been hit in the head by a pitch in a summer league game, and after he began to feel numbness and tingling in his extremities, he was picked up by an ambulance on the side of the West Virginia turnpike and rushed to a hospital. Soon, he learned that a blood clot had developed on his brain, and that he would need emergency surgery.

Following the surgery, which required a gruesome incision into the left side of Cody's head, he would spend the next week in the hospital.

"You have to understand, we thought there was a life and death thing in there," Paul said. "We didn't talk about anything in between."

In the subsequent months, as Cody made his recovery, and as both he and Paul tried to get back to their normal lives, they realized what a special place Northwestern was.

"I will tell you this," Paul said. "If it wasn't for the individuals at this university wrapping their arms around myself, and my wife, and my family when Cody had his issue, I wouldn't have made it through that turmoil in my life.

"I'm telling you," he goes on, the passion oozing from his voice, "the people at this university embraced it, and put their arms around us and kept us standing. And I'm eternally grateful, because that is when you find out who your real friends are. In times of adversity, you know who steps up, those are the people, and there's a lot of them here."

One last trot out to the third base coaching box. One last smile at the crowd. One last joke with an umpire.
One last swipe of the chest. One last touch of the nose. One last tap of the cap.

It's the bottom of the 6th inning, and Paul Stevens is still coaching. His Wildcats lead Maryland 3-0, and look to be on the verge of their first three-plus-game series sweep in the Big Ten since 2007.

In the grand scheme of things, one last win or one last loss is irrelevant. But Stevens doesn't know any other way. He's honing in on one last ‘W.'

Stevens behind 3rd
Stevens coaching 3rd base. | Photo: Henry Bushnell

"C'mon now!" he cries out to one of his batters from his perch behind 3rd base. "Through it!" he yells as he brings his hands and an imaginary bat through the zone.

Later, he mutters about leadoff walks, and slams a bat back into its rack in the dugout. Nothing can remove him from the moment.

One last frantic wave of his right arm at third. One last pace in the dugout. One last concerned trip to the top step.

The fact that he was so engrossed in the game represents one of the things that makes Stevens so special. He cares. He means what he says, and cares about others — his colleagues, his players.

Heck, he even cares about student journalists. Consider this story from The Daily Northwestern's Alex Putterman:

Freshman year I was covering the team, which meant three or four stories a week and a lot of interviewing Paul Stevens. So one day I joked to him that I talked to him more than I did my own dad. Coach Stevens got really serious and asked if everything was OK with my dad. I said everything was fine, I was only kidding. He said he wouldn't let me interview him again until I had called my dad. The next time I saw him I had to show him the phone as proof.

Even Saturday, with the last out recorded, the field clearing out, and the final postgame interview question asked, Stevens went out of his way to care -- to even care about somebody (me) who, up until Saturday, had never talked to him once.

If we, three student journalists, needed anything, we better not hesitate to call him, he said. And he meant it.

One last 7th-inning conversation with pitching coach Tim Stoddard. One last never-ending 4-run top of the 8th, his chin propped up by his left palm. One last crushing loss.

Thirty-one years is a long time. Thirty-one years is an especially long time to coach a baseball team without having considerable success. And that's what makes Paul Stevens' reign at Northwestern so unusual, and frankly, so remarkable.

Stevens won over 600 games at NU, by far a school record. But he also lost over 800, and never once led the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament.

But chances are a conversation with Stevens about his time here won't yield any discussion of historical perspective or career win percentage. Instead, it will yield a lot of talk about the 18-to-23-year-olds that he encountered along the way.

"[These kids] turn into men before your eyes in four years," he said as he leant against the dugout railing at Rocky Miller Park and watched his seniors take pictures with their families. "And [they] become not only great players, but great citizens, and guys that I know are going to give back to a lot of different things in the world."

"There's great dreamers on this team," he continued, his voice cracking, his eyes exuding emotion. "Great dreamers. The thing is, a lot of them are going to turn what they dream about into realities. And then it's going to be extraordinary."

It's easy to wonder why Stevens was allowed to continue for so long as manager without establishing a winning pedigree. But for every loss, there was also a life lesson. There was also an emotional conversation. There was also a special relationship formed.

You can decide for yourself whether all that was worth the losing. But for those involved, it almost certainly was.

When former players come back to Evanston to reminisce about their years at NU, Cody said, they don't talk about the wins, they don't talk about the home runs or the diving stops. They talk about, for example, the time they went out to dinner and conspired to tell a waiter that it was one player's birthday. And they talk about how Paul touched their lives.

The length of Paul Stevens' tenure speaks to his qualities as a person, not merely his qualities as a coach.

"You hear a lot about that in coaching," Cody said. "‘Oh, this guy's a family guy, this guy's a character guy.' But [these coaches] actually are."

One last handshake with an opposing coach. One last senior day ceremony. One last duck into the dugout.

Paul Stevens is leaving. With every senior day ceremony hug, with every post-ceremony photo, his departure loomed ever nearer. For the first time in 31 years, it wasn't just his seniors that were saying goodbye; now, he was too.

Stevens hug
Stevens hugs Cody, his son and his shortstop, during the ceremony. | Photo: Henry Bushnell

But wait. Stevens isn't saying goodbye.

"I've got a lot of family here, and a lot of things that I'm not leaving... Because they're in my heart," he said.

"Sometimes you move away from your family. But you don't forget about them. As I get older, what's in my head is going to be frayed. But what's inside is special."

Everyday, somewhere in America, baseball careers end. Everyday, people bid farewell to those irreplaceable afternoons on the greenest grass under that heartwarming sun. They bid farewell to the camaraderie, to the early morning workouts, to the phrases and idioms that, outside of the confines of a baseball field, sound ridiculous. And it's tougher to give those things up than anything else, because more than any other sport, baseball isn't just a game. It becomes a way of life.

Stevens' situation is different though. He's still got something to hang onto. Even in the absence of the ping of the bat, of the pop of the glove, of those ridiculous exclamations like "hum bay naaah" that are universally understood within those white lines, he still has Northwestern. And because the two have been fused together, he still has baseball.

"This is something that's entrenched," Stevens said. "It always has been, it always will."

"This is my life. This is the game I love."