Davis breaks into coaching as a Gator

 * Lars Davis (Grand Prairie, Alta.) had a job waiting for him when he retired after eight years of minor-league ball: with a good program. He's a volunteer assistant with the Florida Gators. Photo: Alexis Brudnicki. ....  

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By Alexis Brudnicki

Canadian Baseball Network

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – For some players, the toughest part about leaving the game is knowing exactly when to move on and figuring out what’s next.

When Lars Davis stopped playing after finishing his eighth season of professional baseball in Triple-A with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs last September, he knew what awaited him: a position as the volunteer assistant coach of the baseball team at the University of Florida. But the 29-year-old needed to figure out whether he was ready to change his career path.

“Nobody is ever going to say that they were happy to hang ‘em up,” Davis said. “I’d be lying to you if I said that I was happy that I didn’t make it to the big leagues. That’s everybody’s ultimate goal. But the transition has gone very well for me. Everybody’s been very supportive, and I was happy that I got to leave the game on my own terms, that I wasn’t forced out or that I wasn’t invited back.

“Everybody I talked to was incredibly happy for me. And everybody thinks that this is going to be a great fit. I’m happy to start my coaching career, but at the same time it has been a little difficult and it is a little sad not playing.”

The former catcher’s sentiment was amplified when spring training games began earlier this month and he wasn’t a part of them, but still being around the game day in and day out has helped to ease the change.

“Once the games started to come on TV, and not being in that dugout on a spring training field and watching a spring training game, it feels a little different,” Davis said. “But this job has kept me busy and we’ve got a good ball club here.

“I’m not going to say that it’s comparable to watching big-league spring training, but it is still good baseball. It’s definitely been a bit easier than if I weren’t doing anything in baseball at all.”

While it is a definite change, taking on the job with the Gators has given Davis a chance to get back to the game at the college level, a place he left when he was selected by the Colorado Rockies in the third round of the 2007 draft out of the University of Illinois, and enjoy an atmosphere focused entirely around winning.

“It’s what you want to believe baseball should be,” he said. “Playing through the minor leagues, you’re more in it for yourself, as narcissistic as that may sound. It is your career and you want to move up as fast and as long as you can through the system.

“In college baseball, it’s all about wins. It’s all about winning, it’s about coming together as a team, finding your role, and doing the job to ultimately get that win. The season is a lot more compressed [with] 56 regular-season games, so the wins are harder to come by and they do mean a lot more.”

Florida is off to a 14-2 start in their Canadian coach’s first season, without having played any games against Southeastern Conference competition as of yet. With a little bit of time under his belt again at the collegiate level, Davis is beginning to adjust to his new role.

“The learning curve was steep to start with,” he said. “It has been eight or nine years since I was in the college game, and you forget a lot in that time. But in terms of coaching, I had great coaches coming up through the minor leagues, and learning from them definitely helped me transition into this job.”

His first task upon arriving to the Gators staff was to work with the team’s backstops, passing along everything he learned along his way, and from there Davis has spent time with everyone on the squad, looking to help them on the road to Omaha.

“The coaching staff wanted me to work with the catchers when I came in,” the native of Grand Prairie, Alta., said. “That’s all I did throughout the minor leagues and I had good coaches doing that.

“Then trying to get everybody ready for a championship season. I’ve worked with every player up and down – not just a specific group of players – trying to get them to work together as a cohesive unit and play hard every day. The season is very compressed … so I try to keep them energetic throughout the season. Every game matters, so we’re trying to get the most we can out of each and every guy.”

Appreciative of everything Davis has to offer, the Gators quickly asked him to be a part of the staff when the volunteer assistant coaching position opened up last year.

They had gotten to know him a little bit after the left-handed-hitting backstop’s wife Katie was hired as the athletic trainer for the softball team at Florida – which is off to a 27-0 start to the season after winning the Women’s College World Series last year – and Davis prepared for his last season of pro ball with the team at the university.

“It was talking with different coaches, a couple scouts, and just to sit down with my wife Katie,” Davis said of what helped him make the final decision. “I decided that I would be home for the year, get to spend a little bit more time with her, and kind of settle down.

“It’s a great position to start coaching in, and we’ve got a great staff here with Kevin O’Sullivan, Craig Bell, and Brad Weitzel. So it’s a great chance to learn as a coach and get my feet wet in the coaching industry.”

The decision wasn’t an easy one for Davis.

“Not at all,” he said. “It’s always a hard choice to make a decision to stop your playing career. But after weighing all the options and talking to everybody, coaching is something that I did want to get into eventually. But I’m not going to lie, it was a very hard decision to say I wasn’t going to come back and play this year …

“[Deciding] was something that was in the works for a couple weeks. It wasn’t just [them saying,] ‘Hey, we need an answer by tomorrow.’ It was, ‘We’d like to have you and we’ll give you a little bit of time to think about it.’ It wasn’t a split decision. I had to do some hard thinking about it. But overall, I’m very confident that I made the right decision and I’m happy to be here at Florida.”