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UC Irvine’s Mike Gillespie shows players how to deal with adversity

UC Irvine baseball Coach Mike Gillespie was already working on the rehabilitation minutes after everything had unraveled and abruptly ended.

The Anteaters on Monday were one strike from going to the College World Series. Then their season was over. Four consecutive Virginia players reached base, ending with Chris Taylor’s two-run single for a 3-2 victory that sent the Cavaliers to Omaha.

Sifting through the rubble a short time later, Gillespie was asked to give an opening statement at the postgame news conference.

“I think that I’m going to state the obvious,” Gillespie said. “You can imagine that for us this is a very difficult spot. I’m proud of our guys. I hope they know that.”

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Gillespie then went into promotional work for the Charlottesville, Va., chamber of commerce. He recommended “The Boathouse” and “The Downtown Grille.” He praised the “Southern hospitality.”

The message to his players seemed clear: Life goes on.

At Gillespie’s age — 71, something he prefers not mentioned — he has more than a little to offer in the way of perspective. His postgame stance could be summarized as “Hats off to Virginia.”

That Gillespie ended up at Irvine “couldn’t have worked out any better for Irvine,” said UCLA Coach John Savage, who was an assistant to Gillespie at USC. “He’s a remarkable man.”

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That certainly will help the Anteaters in the aftermath of Monday’s crushing loss.

Moments after the game, Anteaters players were already following their coach’s lead.

“They beat our best, so hats off to them,” shortstop D.J. Crumlich said.

Said pitcher Jimmy Litchfield: “It’s been a great year and a great experience. It’s been amazing.”

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Oh, and about Virginia, Litchfield added: “Hats off to them.”

Gillespie did not hold a players’ meeting after the Anteaters returned Tuesday, sending the bulk of the team off to summer college leagues without another rehash of Monday’s game.

“They were devastated after the game,” Gillespie said. “When you get this close it’s hard to find the good things.”

But he tried.

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“It was a very, very impressive effort by all our players,” Gillespie said. “That’s all you can ask.”

This was a coach put out to pasture by USC after the 2006 season. He had spent 20 seasons as the Trojans’ coach after replacing legend Rod Dedeaux. USC made five trips to the CWS, winning the title in 1998 and finishing second in 1995.

He learned he’d lost that job when a messenger from then-athletic director Mike Garrett told Gillespie he was retiring. That was the party line, that the coach was retiring, something he didn’t publicly contradict until last week because Chad Kreuter, his son-in-law, was his replacement.

“I didn’t want to muddy the waters,” Gillespie said.

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Being “retired” was one thing, actually “retiring” was quite another.

“I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I retired,” Gillespie said.

He spent a year as a scout and minor league manager for the New York Yankees — “They rescued me,” Gillespie said. A year later, the Irvine job opened up.

In his four seasons as coach, the Anteaters are 169-72 and have appeared in the postseason each season.

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“I like getting a paycheck,” Gillespie said.

But, he said, “I think retirement is a great idea for people with something to do. I’m not proud of this, but I wish I could call myself a fisherman or golfer. I have never done it. I couldn’t sit home and watch TV, but I would be asking some high school coach if I could hit fungoes.

“Some people might say that was pathetic.”

Not around Irvine.

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“He’s a Hall of Fame coach, who wouldn’t want to play for him?” Irvine third baseman Brian Hernandez said. “He does a great job pushing guys and knowing when to pick them up.”

On Monday the coach, who has been down himself, was picking guys up.

chris.foster@latimes.com


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