CONWAY — As coach Gary Gilmore tells the story, the Coastal Carolina baseball program landed one of the biggest recruits in its rise to national prominence due in large part to some sage advice from another player who had gotten away.
A year after Jerry Oakes had bypassed his plans of playing at Coastal to instead sign a professional contract with the Milwaukee Brewers organization, he was the one on the phone with his old high school buddy Mike Costanzo encouraging him to head to Conway and make his mark with the Chanticleers rather than chasing the bigger situation.
“He was just extremely frustrated with the whole process [of pro ball], and he and Mike were very, very, very close friends,” Gilmore said of Oakes, who later served on his coaching staff. “Jerry had a lot to do with Mike basically turning down offers at South Carolina and Clemson – which were good legitimate offers. ... I think Oakes’ conversations with him in the end were the thing that turned the tide in our favor from a big school to a small school where you’re the big fish instead of the little fish in the big bowl and the idea that, hey, you go to Coastal and you’re going to be a guy that changes the course of that program.”
As he reflects back now a decade later, Gilmore says Costanzo did just that.
It was probably the first time, he said, that Coastal had gone head-to-head with those big schools for a coveted recruit and won. Costanzo would go on to slug 45 home runs from 2003-05 while twice being named Big South Player of the Year and becoming the first Chants baseball player to be honored as a consensus All-American. His baseball career has continued to progress since then as he made his Major League Baseball debut this season with the Cincinnati Reds.
And Friday night, he’ll formally be inducted into Coastal’s Sasser Athletics Hall of Fame as part of a five-person class in a ceremony inside Adkins Field House.
“I think he was a game-changer for us,” Gilmore said. “He and I were talking about it yesterday – he was one of the very first guys that was ever recruited here to be a front-line playing freshman. When he walked in the door, we had just started to make some strides forward. And he left an incredible mark on this program, this institution.”
The same can be said for the impact Gilmore and Coastal left on Costanzo. He joined the baseball team for practice Wednesday, wearing his Chants gear and talking fondly about his time in Conway.
“It’s such an honor,” he said of his addition to the school’s athletics hall of fame. “... This place is like a second home to me.”
And even though he last played here more than seven years ago, some things never change.
Sitting in his office earlier in the day, Gilmore talked about how he always implored Costanzo to pursue a professional career as a pitcher rather than as an infielder. After all, he had set a program record in 2005 with 14 saves and would have surely been a high draft pick thanks to his arm alone, Gilmore believes. The two still disagree on the topic.
“I always thought he was a better pitcher than a position guy, yet he’s played in the Major Leagues as a hitter so that tells you what I thought of him as a pitcher,” Gilmore said.
Said Costanzo, shrugging off the notion yet again with a smile: “He’s still on me about it because I threw hard and had a good slider.”
He doesn’t seem to have any regrets, though, about a professional baseball career that has spanned eight seasons and several organizations.
Drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the second round in 2005 (No. 65 overall), he was later traded to the Houston Astros and then the Baltimore Orioles during the 2007 offseason before being released by the Orioles at the end of spring training in 2010. They too wanted to make him a pitcher, but that’s not how he saw his baseball future.
So he went to play independent ball for a couple of months until the Reds picked him up. He would make the Double-A All-Star game that season and continued to hit well enough to earn his first big league call-up this past May.
He was in Louisville, Ky., when the call came at 6 p.m. and he made it to the ballpark in Cincinnati by 7:30 after driving “warp 8” down the highway.
“I got there in the third inning, and it was Joey Votto bobblehead night so it was 45,000 people,” Costanzo recalled. “I just walked up the tunnel and I was like ‘Oh my God.’ It was crazy. It was awesome.”
He was sent back down to the minors at the start of August, though, after collecting just one hit and two RBIs in 18 at-bats over 17 games. He acknowledges he was putting too much pressure on himself early in his stint with the Reds, but that’s part of the process and struggle of professional baseball – there’s no guarantee when the next opportunity will come.
“He’s overcome a lot of heartache in that whole thing, getting so close so many times,” Gilmore said. “I mean, heck, one spring training he led the Phillies in hitting in spring training and they sent him down. ... It’s how you deal with it from one thing to the next, just trying to continuously push, push, push to try to get on the field and establish yourself.”
Costanzo is a minor league free agent and will have to wait until after the World Series to find out if he’ll be back with the Reds’ organization or elsewhere next season. His preference is to stay, but now’s not the time to worry about any of that. He’s busy watching his Cincinnati teammates compete in the playoffs.
“Oh yeah. I’m trying to get a World Series ring!” he said.
As for Friday night, Costanzo said it will be “special.” His family will be in attendance as he’s formally recognized for the mark he left on Coastal baseball – just as he planned to when he decided to come to Conway.
And wherever he is next year, he’ll continue to try to do the same as a professional.
“I’ve accomplished a lot, more than the average person in the baseball world, but I want to accomplish a lot more,” Costanzo said. “I’m 29 and it feels like I’m actually getting better. So the next couple of years are going to be big for me.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.