Roth Star: A Day In The Life Of South Carolina’s Improbable Ace

COLUMBIA, S.C.—Michael Roth can’t sit still.

To be certain, Roth does a great many things exceedingly well. Entering his senior year, South Carolina’s ace lefthander is the most accomplished pitcher in college baseball, the reigning national ERA champion and a driving force behind back-to-back College World Series titles.

He is an International Business and Marketing double major, with a minor in Spanish, and he boasts a 3.83 grade-point average. He is a dynamo in the weight room, a leader in the clubhouse, and a giver in the community. He has an easy charisma and a natural comedic sense.

But Roth is a fidgeter, a twiddler, an irrespressible bundle of energy. Anyone who has watched South Carolina in the College World Series over the last two years surely recalls image after image of Roth goofing around in the dugout on days he wasn’t pitching—and after his outings were completed. He is the rally cap ringleader, the organizer of coordinated cheers and handshakes, the man who lightens the mood when it needs lightening.

“This game’s supposed to be fun, especially for us pitchers—we’re not doing anything, we’ve got to find a way to keep us in the game, too,” Roth says.

On a Friday in January, Roth takes a seat in the back row of his Marketing 457 class—personal selling. Sporting a day’s worth of dark stubble on his chin and dressed in blue jeans, gray Nikes, a white Under Armour Gamecocks polo with black stripes and a lightweight gray national champions jacket, Roth looks like just another South Carolina student bursting with pride about the recent accomplishments of his school’s baseball team.

A guest speaker shares his experiences in sales and offers advice; Roth is fully engaged. He takes copious notes—with his right hand, which is the first to shoot up during the ensuing question and answer session.

But his green, plastic chair squeals when he gently swivels in it—frequently—and he occasionally clicks the top of his ball-point pen, or tucks the clip of the pen into his lip.

Later, after a full day of workouts, he lounges casually in South Carolina’s media room with a brown towel draped around his neck, talking about his approach to pitching and his upbringing and a dozen other topics that spring up organically during a session with a reporter. It doesn’t take long for him to start fiddling with the towel—twirling it idly with one hand, wringing it with both.

Even Roth’s workout regimen is tailored to keep his active mind stimulated; he bounces from one exercise to the next, never dwelling too long at any one station. On this day, he starts his workout by running into strength coach Billy Anderson’s office and setting a dance song called Super Bass by Nicki Minaj to blare over the speakers in the weight room (“Can’t you hear that boom, badoom-boom, boom, badoom-boom bass?”).

“If you listened to one of Roth’s workout CDs, you’d think a girl’s team made it,” Anderson says, shaking his head.

Roth’s older brother Adam is a personal trainer and has helped him make some adjustments to his training routines. He loves to work out using a broad, heavy “battle rope,” even though South Carolina pitching coach Jerry Meyers worries the workout puts too much strain on his shoulders.

Soon he makes his way to an incline bench and lifts 30-pound dumbells in each hand, from his sides up over his head. After a break, he goes to 60-pounds in each hand.

“That’s about as much as I’m comfortable with him doing on this one,” Anderson says.

Roth then adds 10 more pounds to each dumbell and does another set.

Anderson shrugs. “I said that’s what I was comfortable with. That doesn’t mean that’s what he’s going to do.”

On any given day, Roth alternates his cardio workouts between jumping rope, elliptical machines and running.

“I have to mix it up because I get real bored running,” he says. “Like, really bored.”

“Michael is just . . . curious,” South Carolina media relations maven Andrew Kitick says later, grasping for the right words to describe Roth’s personality. “He will engage you in a way that is unusual. He has real awareness.”

That combination of personality traits has helped make Roth a darling of South Carolina’s oversized media contingent and rabid fan base, and a favorite of his coaches and his teammates. But his emergence as college baseball’s figurative and literal poster boy owes even more to his improbable, overnight rags-to-riches transformation and his repeated dazzling performances on the sport’s biggest stage. As everyone knows, America loves a triumphant underdog—especially if he has a big personality.

Plenty Of Fans

After meeting at 10:30 a.m. on the spacious concourse at Carolina Stadium—the palatial House that Ray Tanner Built—Roth leads the way to his Honda Accord (call it garnet-colored, with black interior). He turns on the engine, and a hip-hop/electro/dance/pop blend begins blaring through the speakers.

“Sorry—jammin’,” Roth says, turning down the volume.

As he drives over some railroad tracks near the stadium, Roth tells the story of his car accident last spring, on his way to South Carolina’s game against Clemson, which he started on the mound.

“It’s not a bad railroad track, but people in the South can’t drive,” he explains. So when the SUV in front of him slammed on its brakes going over the tracks, Roth was reaching down to get his parking pass, and he plowed his car up underneath the SUV, resulting in $2,500 of damage to his Accord.

“The police officer gave me a ticket, then shook my hand and said, ‘It was a pleasure to meet you,’ ” Roth recalls with a wry smile.

Strangers are always delighted to meet Roth around Gamecock-crazed Columbia. After eating lunch at a sub shop near the stadium, Roth makes his way to the exit, and a man calls out from a corner booth: “Michael, Michael! Congratulations, Michael.”

“Going around town, many people know who he is,” says Adam Matthews, Roth’s roommate for each of the last four years. “He’ll speak to them, and he’s really good about taking pictures, signing. He’s an easygoing guy, and he’s willing to do that stuff.”

Later, Roth poses for photos in the baseball office with South Carolina’s two national championship trophies, cradling one in each arm. As he’s mugging for the camera, South Carolina administrative assistant Kristi Davis calls out from her office, “You’re the only one?”

“The only one,” Roth answers. “I pretty much won them by myself. No big deal.”

He pauses a beat, then turns and explains, “I get plenty of ribbing around here.”

The barbs reached a crescendo in Omaha last year, when CWS billboards adorned with a giant action photo of Roth were plastered all around town—and on the side of TD Ameritrade Park.

“I got Tweeted at and somebody told me about it, and I was like, ‘Uh-oh,’ ” Roth says. “The first practice, sure enough—bam!—there it was. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s bad.’ Then we got up to the stadium and I was on the big one on the side of the stadium, and I was like, ‘Ho-oly crap.’ So I got plenty of crap.”

Roth’s path to celebrity makes for a captivating tale. He grew up in Clemson territory—he went to Riverside High in Greer, S.C., outside Greenville—and while he denies that he was ever a fan of the Gamecocks’ in-state rival, he admits that because his sister went to Clemson and many of his friends rooted for Clemson, he would cheer for the Tigers when he was young.

“Now I would never root for Clemson. Ever,” he says emphatically.

His father, David (a former college baseball player at Binghamton), used to throw him Wiffle balls over and over again in the back yard, and when it got dark they would turn on their flood lights and keep going. David carefully monitored his son’s development as a pitcher, prohibiting him from throwing breaking balls until he was almost 13, at which point he could only throw them in his pitching lessons. Roth thinks that helped him develop his killer changeup, but also might explain why his breaking stuff has not progressed as quickly.

Roth’s father and his mother—Deborah, who moved to the U.S. from England when she was 13—drilled the importance of academics into their children’s heads. Roth says straight A’s were simply expected of him.

“My sister was third in her class in high school, and they always said I was smarter than her,” Roth says. “But I would be like, ‘But I’m cooler than her, Mom!’ My sister would always study a lot, and not that I don’t study, but I’m the type of guy that can just sit in class and remember most of what was said. I can look it over once or twice and go take a quiz or test. I was blessed with having a very intelligent mind; I got that from my parents.”

Over the course of the day, Roth interrupts himself a few times to correct his grammar. That’s an imprint of his mother’s influence.

“My mom, being English, the typical thing you think of is prim and proper,” Roth says. “Well, she would always get on me about the grammar. My mom is amazingly intelligent. I’ll admit it: I’m a mama’s boy. I talk to my mom on a daily basis . . . We don’t talk a whole lot of baseball; she’s always been like, if it’s a good game, she’ll say, ‘You played great.’ If it was a bad game, she’ll be like, ‘Wow, you sucked out there.’ She’s just very honest and up-front, and that’s where I think I get a lot of my personality from.”

Roth initially wanted to go somewhere far from home for college—traveling is one of his great ambitions, in keeping with his curious mind—but eventually decided to go to South Carolina, primarily as a power-hitting first baseman. Adjusting to college baseball was not easy for him.

“My freshman process was a lot harder than anybody knows,” he says. “I went home for fall break not knowing if I wanted to come back. That was because coach Tanner was messing with my swing so much, and I just didn’t like it anymore. I’m the type of person that if I don’t like it, why am I doing it? I’ve never been a quitter—ever—so I didn’t quit and stuck with it, and I’m glad I did, obviously.”

That spring, Roth went just 2-for-13 at the plate. He made more of an impact on the mound, going 1-1, 4.22 in 32 innings, including two starts. But he still remembers getting booed at Carolina Stadium early in his freshman year against Clemson, when he entered a game with two men aboard and walked in a run on eight straight balls.

“So I’ve been booed here, and I’ve been cheered here,” Roth says. “That process you go through as a freshman—you either learn how to take things in stride, or you can’t be successful here.”

After spending that summer in the New England Collegiate League, Roth returned to campus still hoping to win the DH job and expecting to pitch as well. One day in fall practice, after Roth finished some defensive work at first base, then-pitching coach Mark Calvi asked him if he’d ever considered dropping to a lower arm slot on the mound.

“I was like, ‘No. Why?’ I thought he was insane,” Roth says. “And he was like, ‘Well, just try it.’ I wasn’t resistant, I was just skeptical, like, ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do it.’ I wasn’t excited to be a sidearm thrower. That first couple weeks my arm wasn’t feeling right, because it’s a different position. There’s more stress because you’re down like that. I think my body got used to dropping down, but I still wasn’t happy. We always joked about the sidearmers: You know when you get dropped down you’re only going in for about an out or two. So I was like, ‘I really screwed myself back in the fall when I said I’d be OK dropping down.’ “

Roth continued to work from his normal high three-quarters slot in bullpens, but South Carolina used him almost exclusively as a sidearming, left-on-left specialist for the bulk of 2010. He made 23 appearances prior to the College World Series, working less than an inning in 21 of them.

“That’s probably the most bitter he’s ever been,” says Tanner, the Gamecocks’ 16th-year head coach. “Sometimes he’d get two hitters, or an inning, and he’s gone. And I’d try not to make eye contact, because that wasn’t enough for him. But that was a tremendous contribution from him.”

Using a low-to-mid-80s fastball from his low slot and a sweeping slider, Roth excelled in the lefty specialist role, carrying a 1.37 ERA into Omaha. But he showed what he could do in an extended outing against Bucknell in regionals, working 31⁄3 perfect innings of relief. He got to use his higher slot against righties.

The Gamecocks lost their CWS opener, and climbing through the loser’s bracket taxed their pitching staff heavily. So Tanner turned to Roth to start the first of back-to-back elimination games against Clemson, just expecting the lefty to keep the game close for two or three innings. Instead, he allowed just one run in a complete-game three-hitter, and just like that he was part of College World Series lore.

Roth came back on three days’ rest to start Game Two of the CWS Finals against UCLA, limiting the Bruins to a run over five innings in a no-decision, and the Gamecocks won in walk-off fashion in the 11th to capture their first national title.

South Carolina lost its entire weekend rotation after that season, so Roth entered his junior year as the presumptive staff ace, though he had yet to prove he could thrive in a starting role over a full season. But that’s just what he did, going 14-3 (tied for most wins in the country) and leading the nation with a 1.06 ERA, to go along with 112 strikeouts and 41 walks in 145 innings.

For the second straight year, he started South Carolina’s final game of the season on three days’ rest—Game Two of the Finals, this time against Florida. This time, he earned the victory, allowing two runs over 72⁄3 innings.

His contribution four days earlier might have been even more vital—and not just because he held Virginia’s potent offense to one run over seven innings of work in the bracket championship game. Roth’s counterpart, No. 2 overall pick Danny Hultzen, was dominant for three innings, recording eight of the first nine outs via strikeout.

“It was like Hultzen was pitching from 22 feet,” Tanner recalls. “We had no chance—we couldn’t put a ball in play. I think in the third inning he had struck out like six in a row, then somebody fouled one back and our dugout erupted. I’m like, ‘What happened? What’s Roth doing down there?’ Roth got the whole team cheering a foul ball. In the College World Series, he got them cheering a foul ball.”

Hultzen wound up exiting after three innings because he was ill, and South Carolina went on to a thrilling 3-2 win in 13 innings. Roth didn’t factor in the decision, of course, but he settled the Gamecocks down early on, keeping the dugout from getting dejected.

“I’ve been around college baseball for a long time, coaching 20-something years. I haven’t seen a guy that’s been able to work as hard, compete as hard as he does and have as much fun at the same time,” Meyers says. “The fun isn’t in any kind of negative way. It’s always brought something positive to what’s going on. It’s helping us stay loose when other teams are tightening up, it’s helping us compete when things are going good.”

Welcome Back

The day after South Carolina’s championship parade through Columbia and victory rally in Colonial Life Arena, Roth threw all his clothes in a bag and drove home to Greer. He got a call that day from Brad Tyler, the Indians area scout who had drafted him in the 31st round.

“He said, ‘Hey man, how you doing? So, I heard you’re going to Spain,’ ” Roth says. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be back Aug. 8, so we’ll have about a week to negotiate. Talk to you later!”

He left for Spain the next day. International Business majors at South Carolina are required to spend time studying abroad, so Roth decided he would take the summer off from pitching—he had just thrown 145 innings, after all—to take three classes in Spain, including a course in windsurfing. Roth relished the low-pressure academic workload and slower pace of life in Spain. He spent the bulk of his days relaxing on the beach, reading or listening to music.

When Roth learned via Twitter that Matthews had decided to return for his senior year, keeping his close-knit group of housemates intact, Roth was elated.

“I was like, ‘Yes! Hell yeah! Well, I guess I’m going back,’ ” Roth says. “One thing I was afraid of when I came home from Spain was having to make a decision of staying in school and having one more year of college baseball, or pursuing a dream of professional baseball. Because I didn’t know, maybe they didn’t sign their second- or third-round guy, and they came up with an extra $500,000. In which case, you look at yourself in the mirror and say, how do you not sign for that? So I was almost scared to come back. In college, I’m still not in the real world.”

So Roth returned for one more year in the bubble of Columbia, where he is a beloved folk hero. It’s a world where he is free to explore his academic interests, satisfying the appetites of his voracious mind. He places a great value on his relationships with teammates, coaches and friends, and spending another year with them matters to him, just as getting his degree and securing his future after baseball matters.

Meyers and Tanner are convinced Roth has the feel for pitching, determination and moxie to succeed as a big leaguer, despite his underwhelming fastball velocity.

But pro ball can wait.

“He’ll tell you, ‘I play baseball, but it’s not my life,’ ” Tanner says. “I have a great deal of respect for people like that. Sometimes we get wrapped up with what we’re doing, and it possesses us, but he’s not like that.”

Roth’s Twitter profile says only this: “Baseball is something I do, not who I am.”

“I want people to see that I’m actually a person too, I’m not just a baseball player who’s a robot, like Albert—’I am not machine,’ ” he says, referencing a “This Is SportsCenter” commercial featuring Albert Pujols. “When I see people out, they always want to talk baseball, and I would almost rather not talk baseball, I’d rather talk about something else—anything. I think it’s good for the fans to see that we have personalities.”

Ultimately, Roth’s magnetic personality will be as much a part of his enduring legacy as his Omaha heroics.

And that should put even his mind at ease.

College | #2012 #Season Preview

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