CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—Out of hundreds of games, Colin Moran guesses he might’ve won once. Maybe twice. But definitely not often.
Brian Moran remembers it differently. He doesn’t think Colin ever won at all. And if he did, it was because rain or some other silly excuse cut the game short.
The fact is, Colin never had much of a chance in those one-on-one wiffle ball games. How could he? Brian was a wicked pitcher with a lefty-on-lefty advantage who could make the ball zip, dance and dart past his flailing brother with ease.
He was also four years older, but Colin never let such disparities discourage him. He played for the same reasons his older brother did: They had grown up watching their uncle B.J. Surhoff play for the Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles. They had been in big-league clubhouses together, collected baseball cards together and shared a collective dream of someday becoming stars themselves.
And so Colin would always play with Brian, whether it was wiffle ball in their backyard in Rye, N.Y., or at baseball academies with children who were much older than Colin was. He wasn’t easily intimidated. He had no doubt that he could compete with them—even if the results said otherwise.
“If Colin was playing with Brian’s friends, he was expected to perform as well as the older kids,” said Diane Moran, Colin and Brian’s mother. “He was never taught that he was a little kid and he couldn’t do anything.
“To play with the big boys, you have to play like the big boys.”
Now a junior third baseman at North Carolina and a surefire first-round MLB draft pick, Colin Moran can finally call himself a big boy, too. There are no older kids. There’s no one bigger or stronger. And his big brother is off playing in the minor leagues.
But the lofty expectations he once faced in his backyard are still with him. They haven’t gone anywhere.
They drive him. They fuel him. And then, other times, they beat him.
Start Me Up
Mick Jagger was, and still is, an electrifying frontman. In his prime, he had the moves, the look and the swagger necessary to grab an audience and never let go.
He still has the same effect when his voice blares out over the Boshamer Stadium PA system, after the classic opening chords and pulsing drumbeat of The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” fill the air.
That sound is Colin Moran’s cue to begin his slow trip to the plate. Without it, you might not even notice he’s there.
He’s a star player without the star persona—a lead singer who’d rather let his guitarist grab all of the magazine covers.
“He’s a little quiet,” sophomore shortstop Michael Russell said. “Before you get to know Colin, he’s just not super open. He can come off as a little shy.”
Even Moran’s approach at the plate can come across as passive. The third baseman is well known for his plate discipline as he waits and waits and waits for the right pitch in the right spot. Pitchers who know what Moran can do to a baseball won’t give him anything to hit, and as a result, many of his at-bats end with a nonchalant walk to first base. Just this season alone, he’s earned 55 walks to only 20 strikeouts.
But, when he does get a pitch to hit, he’s impossible to ignore. He burst onto the scene as a freshman, winning Baseball America Freshman of the Year and first-team All-America honors as he led the Tar Heels with a .335 average, a .982 OPS, nine home runs and 71 RBIs on their way to the College World Series. Moran hit .357 this season, and he’s generally regarded by scouts as one of the best pure hitters in the collegiate game.
“You kind of get lulled to sleep with Colin,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “He just doesn’t do anything to wow you until someone hits him the ball or until he gets in the box. He’s not any of the players that you’re just going to notice. But he’s a pretty special player.”
Moran admits he isn’t a very complicated guy. He’s content with watching TV in his free time and spends more time observing his roommates play video games than playing them himself. He’s soft-spoken, but he also has a sharp—and at times self-deprecating—sense of humor. Just ask him about the mustache he tried to grow in March. “It’s not for me,” Moran jokes. “It got pretty ugly.”
Of course, there’s a whole other side to Moran, too, one you can’t always see. It’s an invisible inner struggle that’s been brewing since his backyard days.
“He looks like he’s calm,” Diane Moran said, “but he’s his own biggest competition. He gets very upset with himself if he makes an error. He expects a hit every time and a perfect throw every time.
“Sometimes he’s his own worst critic.”
You Got Me Ticking
Bill and Diane Moran had no reason to suspect anything was wrong. They just sat and enjoyed the view from the stands of their baseball living room.
For at least nine months out of the year, Rye, N.Y., is the couple’s home. But as soon as baseball season returns to Chapel Hill, so do the Morans. They have a temporary apartment arranged for just the occasion, and when the games begin, Boshamer Stadium is theirs for the taking.
They have every right to claim it. Though the place was built in 2009, it already oozes with family history. Banners and plaques of Diane’s brother, B.J. Surhoff, are prominently displayed like badges of honor throughout the stadium. He’s one of the most prolific players in UNC history, a national player of the year in 1985 and a 19-year MLB veteran. But he isn’t their only connection to the place.
The Morans’ oldest son, Brian, was one of the players who helped break in the stadium in its inaugural season. He was an All-America reliever, and now he’s across the country playing Triple-A baseball in the Seattle Mariners organization. The Morans still watch all of his games over the Internet, even with the three-hour time difference. “We’ll just have to become night owls,” Diane jokes.
On this day, though, the Morans are in the park to see their youngest Tar Heel, Colin.
It was March 24, 2012, a gorgeous spring afternoon—and a day the Morans won’t be forgetting anytime soon. From their left field seats, they can’t see the warning signs. They don’t see the frustration that mounts after Colin throws a ball away and sparks an N.C. State rally. They don’t see the mental anguish building as he grounds out to end the next half inning.
They don’t even notice that Colin doesn’t come out in the on-deck circle—as he should’ve—in the ninth inning, just before the Tar Heels fell to the Wolfpack.
All Diane remembers is the phone call from the trainer in the parking lot after the game. She remembers the ride to the hospital. The X-rays. The bad news from the doctor.
Diane and Bill saw the aftermath, but they never saw the eruption.
In a way, Colin missed it, too.
It had happened so fast: One second he was manning third base, and the next he was in the locker room, right fist smashed against the bathroom door in a flash of self-directed fury. He had never been hurt this badly before. He didn’t know how to react. He saw his hand and immediately and frantically tried to repair the damage, to pop it back into place. He saw the team trainer out of the corner of his eye, just staring at him and shaking his head.
“At the moment, I wasn’t even thinking at all to be honest,” Moran said. “And right after, I was like, ‘God, I’m an idiot.’ ”
All the while, his parents were sitting in the Boshamer Stadium stands, oblivious. They were unaware that their son’s emotions had gotten the best of him—that he was about to learn such a painful lesson.
You Make A Grown Man Cry
B.J. Surhoff doesn’t like to meddle in his nephews’ affairs unless it’s absolutely necessary. He’d rather let them form their own identities on and off the baseball field—just like he does with his own four children.
But when he heard that Moran had broken his hand, that it was self-inflicted and that he could miss a month because of it, he knew it was one of those times where some guidance was needed.
His message was short and simple:
Never do anything with your hands, because those are how you make your money.
“I would say I chastised him in a light-hearted way,” Surhoff said. “He’s lucky he didn’t do some real damage to himself, and, I mean, it cost him. He learned a valuable lesson pretty cheaply, fortunately.”
It’s a lesson that Surhoff had learned himself—though not in such an extreme fashion.
Surhoff was conditioned through years of playing a sport that expects you to fail seven times out of 10 and pats you on the back for the three successes. A career .282 hitter, he was humbled by sharing the field with players who were just as good, if not better than he was. He said his managers’ expectations were never higher than his own, but eventually, he learned to temper them. Eventually, he learned to accept his failures.
And that’s something that Moran will learn, too, Surhoff said, but it’s important that he enjoy his time in college while he still has the luxury.
“When you get into pro ball, it’s a whole different animal,” Surhoff said. “It’s your job. It’s 24/7. In college, you’re allowed to be a kid a little bit more. You have school to deal with, you have social issues, your friends are there, you have the whole capacity of life you’re dealing with.
“He’ll never get his college years back. This is it. Pro ball’s gonna be there. It’s not going anywhere.”
You Got To Never, Never, Never Stop
In the games right after Colin broke his hand, that was coach Fox’s tongue-in-cheek rallying cry. He needed his players to get in the mindset that they could win without their best player—no matter how difficult it seemed.
In truth, it was a tough season for the Tar Heels with or without Moran. They struggled to find offensive consistency, and they ultimately missed the College World Series for just the second time in seven years.
For 21 games that season, all Moran could do was provide moral support. He sat on the bench, watching 13 wins he could’ve contributed to and eight losses he could’ve helped reverse. It was an unusual position for him, made worse by the fact that he had done it to himself.
“It gives you a different perspective,” Moran said. “It definitely makes you not take for granted being up here on the field … Because sitting is not very fun at all, just knowing that you can’t help your team.”
By all accounts, the lessons he learned in those 21 games have sunk in.
Russell said he and his teammates could see how much Moran was itching to get back. They could see how hard he had worked, and they immediately knew how much they had missed him after he homered in his first day back in the lineup.
Months after the season ended, B.J. Surhoff had dinner with Moran in Chapel Hill. He saw how much Moran had grown up from the experience, from being away from home, from having to figure out things on his own. He told him to try to enjoy his junior season, to enjoy his teammates and to not get caught up in all of the draft buzz that was bound to surround him.
Coming into this season, Moran’s parents saw a newfound maturity, a change in perspective from their son. Now, when he talks about punching the door, he laughs. He cracks a joke. He makes fun of himself.
“He learned that it’s OK,” Diane said, “that you can’t take everything quite so hard.”
He’s also a different person on the field—better in every way, with his glove and with his bat.
With 13 home runs this season, he’s exceeded his total from his first two years combined (12). He’s posted career-highs for on-base percentage (.485) and slugging percentage (.579), and in Fox’s eyes, he’s gone from being a good defender to being the first person on the field he wants the ball hit to.
“He’s always had that power, but now he’s gotten bigger and stronger, and he lifts all the time,” Fox said. “I think the development has really just come with him meeting expectations. He’s had to be mentally tough with everyone wanting to talk to him, and the draft’s coming up, so it’s easy to get distracted.”
But there’s no doubt that Moran is focused. He’s doing all of this for a team that goes into the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 national seed. He has his eyes on winning UNC’s first ever College World Series—not on the scouts sitting in the Boshamer Stadium stands.
“If it works out, and I get drafted, you know, I have a dream of playing professional baseball,” Moran said. “If everything falls into place, then I can start that up.”
But until then, he won’t stop.
He won’t stop until he has his own banners and plaques hanging around Boshamer Stadium.