If East Carolina baseball coach Cliff Godwin was assigned to write an essay on “What I did this summer,” he would have plenty of material from which to draw.
Godwin was an assistant coach for the Collegiate National Team, which completed its schedule Saturday in Cuba with a 12-3 record.
“It was an awesome experience,” Godwin said. “You’re playing teams from different countries. You’re wearing USA across your chest. It’s really neat to see how other countries approach the game, how they play, how they pitch differently, how they hit differently.”
Godwin witnessed a corner of the world that was isolated for decades.
“The trip to Cuba was an unbelievable experience on many different levels,” he said. “Their culture is so much different than ours, some good, some bad. It was special just to see how the people of Cuba go about the business of their day-to-day lives, to see a lot of great sites and meet the people and, obviously, play baseball in a facility (Estadio Latinoamericano) that is huge, but all the nice amenities that you have in either a college baseball stadium or a professional baseball stadium are not necessarily there.
“The infield is bumpy and balls take weird hops. The outfield is the same way. You don’t have any cages. You just can hit on the field. That’s what you do when you’re able to.
“It was an awesome experience and then to spend 22, 23 days with Paul Mainieri (LSU coach and head coach of Collegiate National team), Brian O’Connor (Virginia coach and pitching coach for the Collegiate National team), Jim Hendry (New York Yankees special assistant, bench coach Collegiate National team) and Jorge Perez (St. Thomas coach, assistant coach Collegiate National team) — a lot of great knowledge with those guys.
“An awesome experience and then you add on the fact that Jake Agnos and Bryant Packard, two East Carolina guys being on the team, it was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The ECU coach had an impression of the island nation before he arrived.
“I knew that things would not be as nice as what you have in America,” Godwin said. “The cars were the first thing that you saw that you noticed that were different. You have a lot of like 1950 cars, older Russian cars. You very rarely saw a car that you would see in the United States today.
“People were all happy. That was one thing. The places they’re living in are not as nice as the places we’re living in but everybody was happy. To some extent, they don’t know any different. There are no homeless people because the government pays for all of their education and also health care. It’s not like you would see in New York City where you would see homeless people.
“Havana is a big city but you didn’t see homeless people. Very rarely did people come up to you and ask you for anything. They wanted some USA stuff, because they just think that’s really cool because they can’t get their hands on any of that stuff. But it wasn’t like they were asking me for money or anything.”
Independence Day was a special occasion for the Collegiate National team.
“July 4th was a highlight,” Godwin said. “We won 1-0 at the Durham Bulls Park. We beat Japan. Japan had won game one and that was game two. America’s birthday. That was awesome. I don’t know how many people (7,624). It looked like it was packed. The crowd was awesome and there were fireworks after.
“Highlights, Jake Agnos pitching unbelievable (0.96 earned run average) this summer for the USA team. Just winning every series. We swept Chinese Taipei. We beat Japan three games to two. We beat Cuba three games to one. That was the highlights and, like I said, spending time with the coaching staff was a highlight.”
Godwin got the number he has at ECU, which honors the memory of his former ECU coach, Keith LeClair.
“I wore 23,” Godwin said. “I got to keep the jerseys.”
Packard got 18 at-bats and hit .333.
“To my knowledge, I don’t know of any East Carolina player who has ever been on the Collegiate National team. To have two, that was a great honor for East Carolina University and for those guys who earned it. . . . I think their confidence will be more so than when they were just up in the Cape Cod League playing against American players. To get the experiences of traveling to Cuba, I don’t know if any of us would have gone to Cuba if it wasn’t for USA baseball.”
The Japanese have a unique approach on the mound.
“Well, No. 1, they don’t ever throw a ball over the plate,” Godwin said. “Their catchers always set up off the plate. If they’re going away, they’re going to hit a spot black off, which is really off the white part of the plate. If they’re going in, the same way. If they’re going elevated, it will be the top of the zone or up.
“They’re not afraid to get 2-0 or 3-1 because then they can throw a split finger or a breaking ball for a strike. Most of them have two different breaking balls, a slider and a breaking ball. The guy we faced in game two struck out 16 of our players in seven innings. Four of our guys had the hat trick. In our lineup, you’re talking about the best collegiate hitters in the country that are freshmen and sophomores.
“They really pitch different than Americans do. It was really hard for our guys to hit. We had to pitch and play really good defense, which we did the entire summer.”
Godwin watched portions of the College World Series.
“I watched a little bit of it, not a ton, but a little bit of it,”Godwin said.
How did he feel like ECU measured up?
“We competed against the best competition in the country all year,” Godwin said. “I never worry about if we can compete at that level. We can compete at that level.
“It’s just that you’ve got to win the games when it counts to be able to get there. East Carolina beat Washington two out of three. We beat North Carolina two out of three. They were both in the College World Series. That doesn’t mean that we’re better than them, but that means that we can play with them.”
Godwin didn’t watch the American League’s 8-6 win in 10 innings in the All-Star game on Tuesday night.
2019 season outlook
ECU likely will get some national preseason attention for the upcoming season, similar to 2017 possibly, when the Pirates were ranked as high as No. 6 nationally at the outset. Injuries were a factor that kept ECU from performing to expectations.
The Pirates finished 44-18 in 2018, won the American Athletic Conference tournament and hosted an NCAA regional.
“You look on paper and we’ll be as good as any team we’ve ever had here,” Godwin said. “What that means, on paper, nothing. Hopefully, our guys can learn from two years ago, the preseason stuff doesn’t matter. I knew last fall that the way our guys went about their business each day that we were going to be good. … I knew that our guys went about their business the right way. If we do that, we’ll be in fine shape come this spring.
“That’s why they hired a great coaching staff at East Carolina, for us to be prepared when guys sign professionally and guys graduate. It’s like I told my Mom, we’ll have somebody to play third base. We’ll have somebody to pitch on Friday night. We’ll have somebody to play in the outfield to replace Dwanya (Williams-Sutton) and Andrew Henrickson. We are very prepared for that.”
Pirates, USA on display
Godwin has an international showing to savor before classes resume for the fall semester at his alma mater.
“We had a good group of guys who were very talented,” said the Pirates coach. “It was a fun summer. … There were seven million people in Cuba that watched the game on Tuesday night, game one when we played Cuba. There are 11 million people, somebody told me, in the country and seven million were watching.”