Five years, no regrets

Matt Forman

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The game of baseball breeds cerebral players.

Over the last five years, Northwestern coach Paul Stevens has had one of them: Mike Kalina.

“Let’s put it like this,” Stevens said. “The fact of the matter is that he’s used his head for us this year in more ways than one.”

After hitting .447 his senior year of high school and qualifying as a candidate for Indiana’s Mr. Baseball award, the Munster, Ind., native anticipated an easy transition to the collegiate ranks.

That was not the case.

“You’re young as a freshman or sophomore coming in this new collegiate environment,” Kalina said. “There’s a lot you’re trying to learn about life and the game and yourself. It’s a tough time. It’s a soul-searching process, and it certainly was for me.”

On top of the normal transitions an 18-year-old freshman has to make, Kalina faced several injuries.

The ailments started at the end of his senior year in high school, where he battled a series of injuries that carried over into his first year as a Wildcat. As a sophomore, Kalina suffered a torn labrum in late March, forcing him to miss the remainder of the 2005 season. He took a medical redshirt in the 2006 season to rehab his right shoulder.

“I missed a lot of time in the first three years that I was here,” the fifth-year senior said. “It was really tough and took a huge toll.”

When the young third baseman was trying to recover from injuries, he took a unique approach to battling back.

“I made each day my goal and competition,” Kalina said. “Even if I couldn’t play, I made rehab and therapy my competition. That was the biggest part for me. Last year having to come back and have a lot to prove after injuries that was the approach I took.”

Kalina said he had no regrets about his five-year career at Northwestern.

“I’m a pretty positive guy,” he said. “Even when things don’t go my way, I think of how things can turn out for the best. I wish I didn’t get injured as much, but I think how I responded to it was the most important thing. That leaves me with a smile on my face.”

GROWING PAINS

After missing the Cats’ 2006 run to the Big Ten tournament, Kalina was finally ready to play in 2007. If things hadn’t been hard enough already, Kalina faced more adversity.

“A lot of that was just still trying to get comfortable with seeing at-bats on a consistent basis against live pitching,” Kalina said.

“It’s tough when you go a day or a week without seeing live pitching, but it was the better part of three years on and off.”

While Kalina said he wanted to prove himself more than anything after returning from injuries, his desire for success did not show in the stat book. The now-converted outfielder went 2-for-50, an .040 batting average, through the first half of last season.

Kalina started the season as NU’s five-hole hitter. But after the team’s first 27 games and first two Big Ten series, Kalina found himself at the end of coach Paul Stevens’ bench.

“Mike is one of the toughest young men who has gone through adversity that I’ve ever seen,” Stevens said. “From what happened his freshman and sophomore year to what happened in his junior year to how things didn’t roll his way at the beginning of last year. I think that Mike is just someone that you never question his mental toughness.”

Still, Stevens sensed something had to change. The Cats were struggling mightily at the plate, hitting .214 in conference play. At the time, Stevens said he was searching for a member of his team to “grab the bull by its horns.”

The man that he found was Kalina.

BREAKING OUT OF THE SLUMP

Now, Stevens says Kalina grabbed a hold of something else: what it means to be successful.

“There’s something to be said for people that fail and fail and fail – they learn that the more you fail, the more you learn how to be successful,” he said. “I think that’s what Mike really, really grabbed a hold of.”

Throughout his ups and downs, Kalina said one constant has been his interest in learning.

“I’m fascinated about learning as much as I can on all subjects,” Kalina said. “I read a lot and just try to absorb everything that I can. And I love asking questions too, that’s a great way to get more information. It’s a nice little dialogue and exchange of information; it’s what I love.”

One of Kalina’s favorite subjects is Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who created the ‘science of hitting.’ He said he read Williams’ books on hitting several times, trying to internalize the information, and make himself the best possible hitter.

With his constant pursuit of knowledge, Kalina earned Academic All-Big Ten honors in both the 2005 and 2007 seasons. This season, ESPN The Magazine named him a third-team Academic All-American.

His wealth of information impressed his teammates.

“He’s probably the smartest guy I’ve ever had contact with,” senior centerfielder Aaron Newman said. “I’ll ask him something about a class I’m taking and for some reason, he knows it. He knows everything. He’s like Wikipedia.”

Because of his intelligence, Stevens decided to let Kalina figure things out on his own to break out of last season’s slump.

“We had a talk earlier before the weekend started that he had gone through some trials and tribulations,” Stevens said. “I said, ‘Look, we’re going to insert you in the lineup, and I’m not going to look at you until the end of the weekend, and you do what you need to do.'”

But Stevens did look at Kalina on his first plate appearance of the Illinois series, giving him the bunt sign.

“He got the drag bunt down, and the rest is history; I didn’t look at him for the next four weeks. He just kept rolling and rolling and rolling. I just credit him with having the intestinal fortitude to battle those types of adversity.”

Kalina said that everything fell into place; he started seeing live pitching more with the added confidence of his coach. In turn, Kalina experienced a boost in self-confidence.

After barely beating out the bunt in what was a 6-2 loss, everything clicked for Kalina. He hit at a .710 clip for the remainder of the season, leading the team in RBIs during conference play with 25.

“He just went on one of the longest jags I’ve ever seen,” Stevens said. “I wouldn’t let anyone get near him with a pen, scissors. You couldn’t go near him. I didn’t want to pop the bubble. He was on one of the best rolls I’ve ever seen a single athlete on.”

The success carried over for the oldest player on Stevens’ 27-man roster. In his final season in Evanston, Kalina hit a team-best .384 to go along with a .439 on base percentage, 19 multi-hit games and five outfield assists.

THE FINAL CHAPTER

But even his senior year did not come easily.

Kalina started the year on a tear, hitting .490 through the team’s first 12 games. In the Cats’ 14-12 defeat of then-No. 21 Oklahoma State in Tampa, Fla., Kalina led NU offensively, going 4-for-5 with two RBIs.

After the team’s 12-11 loss to Kansas in Bradenton, Fla., Kalina suffered a freak injury. Kalina said Northwestern’s associate sports information director hit him in the head with a bat while he was picking up equipment in-between games.

Kalina suffered a concussion and missed the next nine games, while the team sputtered. NU lost six of its first seven games without its usual cleanup hitter in the lineup.

After his head injury, Kalina returned to the middle of the Stevens’ lineup, but without the same impact. His batting average dropped nearly 100 points. But he persevered, hitting .400 until the final weekend of the season, on his way to third-team All Big-Ten honors.

If Kalina struggled at times, throughout his senior season or career, it was not because of a lack of effort, Newman said.

When the team runs its cycle drill for conditioning – a single, double, triple and home run in succession – Newman said most players “will trot around the bases and do crazy things when their home run comes.”

That is not th
e case for Kalina, who sprints from home to home every time.

“I guess what I’m thinking is that a home run trot is easy, so you don’t have to practice that,” Kalina said. “You might as well practice something harder that you might have to do in a game. I’m always trying to think of everything I do on and off the field of what can make me a better player. What can I do next?”

Kalina’s approach to the game mirrors that of Stevens. Drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1976, Stevens was a member of two NAIA Championship teams at Lewis University (Ill.). His individual accolades included the Charlie Hustle Award in 1975 and a Golden Glove Award in ’76.

“His approach to the game is mine,” Stevens said. “I don’t know that there is any other way to play the game than completely all out, all the time… There isn’t any moment of relaxation. He is on warp speed with everything that he does. “

And though he said the chips were stacked against him early in his career, Kalina fought through the difficult times. He ended his NU career a .331 hitter with three home runs and 67 RBIs.

While his statistical achievements are praiseworthy, Kalina said he learned most from the valuable life experiences at NU.

“Based on what I’ve observed and experienced, hard work rarely lets you down,” Kalina said. “Therefore I’m going to work as hard as I can every day. That’s the approach I’ve taken to this day and it’s paid off.”

Besides acquiring knowledge, Kalina loves passing it on. In hindsight, he said he now knows you don’t have to contribute immediately to make a national impact.

“It rarely happens where guys come in and contribute right away,” Kalina said. “It’s OK – there’s no need to panic or hit the alarm. If you believe in yourself and work hard towards that goal, it doesn’t really matter, you can really accomplish great things.”

matthewforman2007@u.northwestern.edu

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