Friedlander: Diamonds are forever, but not for Wake Forest basketball coach Steve Forbes
WINSTON-SALEM, NC – Steve Forbes took to social media Saturday night with an energetic post urging Wake Forest baseball fans to return to the park after a 5-hour rain delay.
They obviously heeded his message.
Because despite the 10:30 p.m. starting time, the stands were packed, providing a raucous atmosphere for the Deacons’ NCAA regional win against Maryland.
Big in stature with an even bigger personality, Forbes clearly knows how to deliver a sales pitch.
But that’s not the only kind of pitch he’s adept at delivering.
Although he’s best known now as the colorful basketball coach at Wake, Forbes’ most memorable moments of his athletic career were achieved on the diamond.
He was an accomplished pitcher who didn’t play basketball during his senior season at Southern Arkansas University.
A hard-throwing right-hander, Forbes helped the Muleriders to a 3rd-place finish at the 1987 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletic College World Series and was a member of a team inducted in the school’s athletic hall of fame.
It was a success that came more by accident than design.
“I really wasn’t planning on playing baseball when I went to college,” Forbes said. “I went my freshman year (at Muscatine Community College) just to play basketball. But I was an all-state pitcher and the baseball coach grabbed me one day and asked me to throw.”
The coach, Tim Strellner, now serves as Forbes’ insurance agent. Back then, he was so impressed with the youngster’s pitching ability that he asked him to come out for the team.
Forbes balked at first.
“I was like, ‘I don’t think my basketball coach is going to let me,’” Forbes said. “But then he left, so that’s when I started playing baseball.”
He played both sports for the 2 years he spent at Muscatine and another year after transferring to Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa. When things didn’t work out for him there, he followed three former junior college teammates to Magnolia, Ark., to concentrate on baseball at Southern Arkansas.
Three decades later, he refers to the decision as one of the best he’s made, though at the time it might not have seemed like it.
“It was very small and it was a suitcase college, so on the weekends I was very lonely,” he recalled. “It was just me and my teammates. Most of us were from the Midwest who came South to play because of the weather.
“The funny thing is that they said it was a dry county when I got there. I was like, ‘what, you don’t get any rain?’ They said no, we don’t have any beer. What? I just transferred for my senior year to a place where there’s no beer? But it was just one of those things.”
Even without the beer, Forbes still managed to have a positive experience at Southern Arkansas. He met his wife Johnetta there. He got his degree from there. And he pitched for a team that went 46-7 overall with an incredible 25-1 record in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference.
Forbes was 4-2 with 2 saves in 16 appearances with a 3.78 ERA that was the 2nd-best on the team.
He also accomplished a feat that can’t be found on any website or record book.
“True story. I gave up the longest strike in the history of college baseball,” he said proudly. “We were playing (Louisiana) Tech and they had this railroad track outside the stadium. I’m pitching to David Segui, who played in the majors for the Orioles, and he turned on one and hit it so far that it went over the track.
“It was a bomb. But I ended up getting him out. Funny thing is that I ended up coaching at Tech a few years later and the guy who wrote for the Ruston paper comes up to me and says, ‘Didn’t you pitch for Southern Arkansas?’ I said, ‘how do you remember that?’ And he says, “because you gave up that foul ball to David Segui that went over the railroad track.’”
He wasn’t as lucky when he faced another future big leaguer, Tim Salmon of Grand Canyon University, at the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho.
He blew a save opportunity by giving up a grand slam to Salmon, who hit 299 homers in 14 seasons with the Los Angeles Angels.
But things still turned out well in the end.
“I vultured a win against Grand Canyon,” he said. “I came on in relief and gave up a grand slam. Then I settled down, we came back and I got me a win in the World Series.”
After the Muleriders lost to eventual champion Lewis & Clark and Emporia State in the double-elimination tournament, Forbes put baseball in his rearview mirror forever.
It’s a decision that begs the question, how did a guy who didn’t play basketball in his final year of college end up as a big-time basketball coach?
Simple, Forbes said.
“I was good at baseball, but I didn’t love baseball,” Forbes said. “I just loved basketball. Basketball is my passion.”
He felt so strongly about it that he began sending out letters, typed on a manual typewriter, to virtually every basketball coach in the country offering his services as a graduate assistant.
The only interview he got was at a school in Omaha, Neb. He went there with his newlywed wife on their honeymoon. And he didn’t get the job.
He spent the next year student teaching and working at Southern Arkansas as the sports information director until catching on as an assistant at Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa.
That began a long, slow climb up the basketball ladder that finally led him to Wake Forest in 2020.
Even though baseball isn’t his passion and he’s no longer involved in the game, Forbes hasn’t gotten it completely out of his system.
He frequently uses baseball analogies in his postgame interviews and when he’s not making hype videos, he’s a fixture at David F. Couch Ballpark showing his support for the top-ranked Deacons.
FIRST PITCH 10:45PM pic.twitter.com/p0FF8YEIoT
— Wake Forest Baseball (@WakeBaseball) June 4, 2023
He still keeps in touch with most of his old Southern Arkansas teammates and nearly had a chance to see his alma mater play in person.
The Muleriders were the top seeded team in their region, but they were eliminated early and were denied a 2nd straight trip to the Division II College World Series in Cary, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Winston-Salem.
Forbes believes that his background in baseball has helped him become a better basketball coach by teaching him to think at least one play ahead and paying close attention to matchups – as a manager would with late-inning pitching changes.
It has also served him well during those times in his career when he seemed to be going nowhere fast.
“A lot of people in life hit a single and want to land on third base. And you ain’t doing that, in life, in coaching, in anything,” he said. “I’ve learned that to be successful, you’ve got to work your way around the bases 1 at a time.”
Photos courtesy of Steve Forbes.