Wayne Graham turned 80 years old on Wednesday. The night before, his Rice Owls defeated the Texas A&M Aggies 4-3. The win improved the Rice record to 18-10 for the season, with the Owls having now won 15 of the last 20 games.
There are plenty of ways to talk about Graham. There’s the discussion of his age and how he moves a touch more slowly than in years past but how he’s still in excellent shape. One can go back and reminisce about Graham’s years in baseball. Or of being a high school history teacher and coach. He’s coached Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte and Jose Cruz Jr. and Bubba Crosby and David Aardsma and Lance Berkman and Anthony Rendon.
Or maybe talk about how he took the Rice job, a job his peers tried to warn him away from, and has turned the school into a national college baseball powerhouse. His teams have won Southwest Conference titles, and WAC titles, and Conference USA titles. The 2003 national championship team is thought by some observers to be one of the greatest college baseball teams ever. And whenever one steps into Reckling Park, one knows that it wouldn’t exist were it not for Graham.
But on Wayne Graham’s 80th birthday, let’s try a different way to show fans and observers what Wayne Graham is really like. Not just Wayne Graham the Hall-of-Fame baseball coach, but Wayne Graham the person. The teacher. The friend.
“I love him,” Wade Townsend told the Press last month. “He’s an unbelievable human being.”
Wade Townsend is a Rice graduate. He was also one of Wayne Graham’s pitchers. And wow, was he a pitcher. He won 25 games against just 3 losses for his college career, going 11-2 as a starter for the 2003 title squad and 12-0 in 2004. He struck out 164 batters in 2003. Townsend was drafted in the first round twice, after the 2004 season, and when he didn’t sign a contract with the Baltimore Orioles, by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2005. Townsend never made it to the majors, however, as he fell prey to injuries.
There are some people linked to baseball who accuse Graham, time after time, of destroying Townsend’s career through overuse. But Townsend’s not one of those people. Townsend will tell you his injuries came about in the minors, after he’d had to sit out a season because of the draft rules.
Because to Townsend, Wayne Graham did more than just teach him about baseball. Graham taught him about life. Graham, according to Townsend, taught him how to think.
“He’s one of the smartest men I’ve ever met,” Townsend says of Graham. “He continues to use his mind. He’s cutting-edge. He continues to change and evolve.”
Townsend calls Graham the most well-read person he knows. He further calls Graham emotionally intelligent. A man who knows how to read his players, to read people, who knows how to take hopes and fears and make those hopes possible while taking away the fears.
“He did everything to help me,” Townsend said.
Townsend remembers meetings on the pitching mound, or in Graham’s office. Meetings in which Graham would talk to him, get into his mind. About how Graham got him to realize that he didn’t trust himself and was just scared to throw the baseball.
Because of Rice, Townsend says, Graham can’t just take any player he wants. He can’t always get the guys with the most talent. He can’t just go grab anybody he wants from junior college ball. Graham’s got to take guys who can fit into Rice, get grades and be part of a collegiate environment that isn’t centered around sports.
“He looks for special kinds of players and he develops them,” Townsend says.
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In many ways, this is just another season for Graham and the Owls. The team’s near the top of Conference USA, and beginning to make its push for the NCAA postseason. The team has played one of the toughest schedules in the country. The strength of the team lies in an outstanding starting pitching staff. It has problems scoring runs, but then again, it wouldn’t be a Rice baseball season if the team didn’t have trouble scoring. Then again, it’s got to be hard scoring runs with such a strong schedule.
Townsend’s still close to Graham. He treasures that he can call Graham, or visit him, and that when they’re together, Graham doesn’t ask him about baseball. Townsend appreciates that Graham wants to know how he’s doing as a person, how his life is. They talk about books, about life.
“I have a friend for life who cares about me,” Townsend says. “I treasure that.”
So forget about Wayne Graham the college baseball icon. Think of him now as Wayne Graham, friend, mentor, teacher. And, most important, molder of strong, intelligent, well-rounded human beings.