Joe Urso played at the University of Tampa, becoming an eighth-round pick in 1992 and playing six seasons in the minor leagues. He has been the head coach there for 10 seasons, so he's well acquainted with the school's baseball history, which includes five Division II national championships.
But when his phone rings these days, it's just as likely to be a call about an obscure former player as it is to be about the baseball program. Tampa got thrust into the national spotlight when alumnus Roberto Martinez, who graduated in 2005, turned out to be the winning contestant on "The Bachelorette," an ABC reality show that matches up single men and women. In the most recent season of the show, Martinez emerged early as a favorite of bachelorette Ali Fedotowsky, and his baseball connection came out early as well. Both Ali and viewers fell for his winning personality and good looks—at least that's what they tell me. And when Martinez brought Fedotowsky to Tampa for their "hometown date," part of the day was spent on the field at the university, with Martinez wearing his old uniform and the two playing catch. And that's when publicity for the school exploded.
"After that date here, that's when all the phone calls started coming in," Urso said. "There's been a bunch of attention, a bunch of calls, from former players, from all kinds of magazines, television stations . . .
"It's been nothing but great publicity. It will do nothing but great things for us in the future, with players and maybe with the female population as well."
It's far from the first time the baseball and reality TV worlds have collided. You may have known about former major league pitcher Matt Keough before "Real Housewives of Orange County," but it's a good bet that show introduced him and his family to a much wider audience. Indians third-base coach Steve Smith and his daughter made a deep run in "The Amazing Race," a CBS show that features teams competing in around-the-world travel. The Pirates may have combined the worlds most when they signed baseball novices Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel from a reality show in India called "Million Dollar Arm," which drew 30,000 contestants in an effort to find athletes who could throw strikes at 85 mph or better.
And Taylor Bills, who played at UC Riverside and pitched briefly for the Mariners' Rookie-level Arizona League team in 2007, won the ABC show "True Beauty," which matched up people who were ostensibly in a contest of physical beauty but were actually competing to see who was prettiest "on the inside."
But none of those shows has the pop-culture status of the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise, which draws high television ratings and often commands the cover of People magazine and similar publications with the romantic entanglements of its former contestants. During each season of the show, one bachelor or bachelorette picks from a field of 20 or more potential spouses, winnowing the field down each week until only one remains.
Martinez, who now works in the insurance business, seemed to gain an early advantage by playing catch with Fedotowsky and playing up his baseball background. And it was not an idle boast. Martinez was drafted twice, in the 21st round by the Rockies in 2001 out of high school in the Tampa area, and again in 2002 in the 30th round by the Twins, after he spent a year at St. Petersburg (Fla.) JC.
Urso said Martinez was a good prospect, and he wanted him at Tampa straight out of high school, but scouts talked him into going to junior college as a draft-and-follow.
Martinez was better regarded as a righthander, but Urso said he had potential as an infielder as well. His swing was long but generated raw power, and he obviously had a strong arm. On the mound, he pitched in the upper 80s and low 90s with a hard slider.
"And of course he had that great athletic build, which he has kept and the viewers got to see," Urso said.
Martinez's baseball career was derailed by shoulder injuries, and he ended up pitching just 20 innings for the Spartans, going 1-1, 7.20 with 20 strikeouts and 16 walks in nine appearances, including five starts.
Still, he picked the university as the backdrop for his date and essentially gave it a half-hour of primetime network television exposure for free.
"I think it says a lot about him and what he thought of the university to have his hometown date here," Urso said. "It shows that special feeling he has for the school, and it's great what happened for him."
Urso said the date took place in March, but he and others kept everything quiet until the episode aired in July. They've been basking in the attention ever since, even touting it in stories on the university's Websites.
Attention will turn back to the field soon enough, though. "I still think we're a baseball school rather than a 'Bachelorette' school," Urso said.