For nearly 15 years, Eric Milton discarded his alma mater, losing touch with the university where he spent three quality years becoming a top-level baseball prospect and eventual first-round draft pick.
The State College, Pa. native played in an MLB All-Star game, pitched a no-hitter and competed in the playoffs, all while the Maryland baseball program he left behind didn't change. The Terps have only had two winning seasons since the pitcher departed in 1996, often playing in front of an empty stadium on-campus while annually crushed by far-superior Atlantic Coast Conferece opponents.
But Thursday, Milton sat at his new desk in the Terps' baseball trailer outside Shipley Field preparing for the team's afternoon's practice. After winning 89 games in the major leagues, he has returned to the program that meant so much to him to serve as the team's volunteer assistant coach.
"I'm just trying to help make this program what it should be," Milton said. "I like teaching young people. I feel like all my years, I have a lot of knowledge and I can teach kids a lot of things about baseball, about life and a combination of the two."
The Terps didn't have a winning tradition or an avid fan base when Milton arrived in the fall of 1994, and they still don't. In his three seasons in College Park, Milton never played for a team that finished with a record above .500. The Terps lost nearly three times the number of ACC games that they won.
But Milton loved his teammates and still looks back to his days in college as some of his fondest. He ranks No. 3 in the program for most strikeouts in a career and posted the second-most strikeouts in a season.
Drafted in the first round of the 1996 amateur draft by the New York Yankees, the 11-year professional tossed the fifth no-hitter in Twins history in a 1999 game against the Angels. He received an all-star selection in 2001 and signed a $25 million contract with Cincinnati near the end of his career.
Despite his success, Milton never became a huge factor for the Terps baseball program until the athletics department introduced Erick Bakich as the team's new head coach two years ago. Bakich made it a priority to reconnect with former players, specifically Milton who had then recently retired.
"I kind of lost touch with the previous coaches, but that's what intrigued me. Coach Bakich reached out to me," Milton, 36, said. "He is running this program the way it should be. He's implementing a lot of good things that weren't here 10 or 15 years ago, even five years ago."
"We just hit it off and developed a friendship over the past two years," said Bakich, who has compiled a record of 38-74 in his two seasons with the Terps. "You could tell that he was a tremendous baseball guy, but also a guy passionate about teaching. I knew he had that coaching gene in him. I had in the back of my mind if the opportunity ever presented itself on our staff, I would love to have him be a part of this."
Bakich finally had that shot when former volunteer assistant coach Nolan Neiman decided to leave the staff to become the recruiting coordinator at Millersville University in mid-August. Bakich immediately phoned Milton, who now lives in Arnold, and offered him the position.
After conversations with his wife, Kim, and two children — 11-year old Kody and 7-year-old Kylie — Milton gladly accepted the offer a day later.
"We felt we hit an absolute home run by getting him to join our staff," Bakich said. "You've got a guy that had a wealth of experience and knowledge at all levels of baseball and a ton of success at the highest level. He also brings the passion of being an alumnus and having a lot of pride in this school and for these players. And he's a tremendous boost on the recruiting side."
"Milty" as the coaching staff refers to him, will deal primarily with the team's pitchers and catchers, working five to six hours a day.
As Bakich continues to rebuild the dormant program — updating the team's facilities, bringing in top-level recruits and developing his current talent — he believes adding Milton will be a major step toward achieving national success.
"He's going to be involved in every aspect of every single thing that we do," Bakich said.
And Milton couldn't be happier. The chance to develop young baseball players, return to his alma mater and still have time to play an active role with his children was too good to pass up.
"Seeing how things are run now compared to 15 years ago when I was here, it's amazing what these kids have access to," Milton said. "With coach Bakich here and the recruits we have coming in now, I believe he's going to turn this program around."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times