Baseball was Meyer's first love

Ohio State football coach was Braves Minor Leaguer from '82-83

Baseball was Meyer's first love

Mark Lemke was 17 years old, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound infielder from upstate New York embarking on a career in professional baseball that he had no idea would one day take him to World Series glory.

Lemke was surrounded by talent: future Braves do-everything outfielder Ron Gant, all of 18 years old himself, at a nearby locker. Sturdy future reliever Paul Assenmacher, a team statesman at 22, getting his daily work in. And in another corner of the clubhouse, one of the most athletic and promising members of the 1983 rookie-level Atlanta Braves: a tall, rangy 18-year-old shortstop named Urban Meyer.

"I remember being wide-eyed and young and not knowing a whole lot back then," Lemke said now. "But I think we all thought Urban, more than any of us, even, would be in the big leagues someday."

Meyer, now 52, has gained fame as the steely eyed, maniacally prepared and amply decorated coach of the Ohio State University football team. Meyer won a national championship with the Buckeyes in 2014 after pulling the same trick with Tim Tebow and the University of Florida Gators in '06 and '08. He resurrected the football programs at Bowling Green University and the University of Utah in his other college coaching gigs, a career that began in 2001.

On Saturday, the country will watch Ohio State compete in yet another national semifinal when Meyer's third-ranked Buckeyes take on second-ranked Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. The winner of that game will play the winner of Saturday's Peach Bowl, which pits No. 1 Alabama against No. 4 Washington, in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Jan. 9 in Tampa, Fla.

These lofty national rankings and ultra-important postseason matchups have become commonplace with Meyer at the helm. Going back to those Minor League baseball days, it's not a surprise at all, according to Lemke.

"You knew he would succeed in whatever he did, because he was that type of guy," Lemke says. "Even back then as a teenager, he was always asking questions and always wanting to learn more."

And boy, was Meyer competitive.

Lemke describes rooming house ping pong games that became pitched battles if Meyer was involved.

"You could see it in his eyes," Lemke said. "He did not want to lose. No matter what, he was going to beat you. He had to beat you. And I'm sure he did beat me most of the time, because he was better than I was, but I do remember that whenever I did happen to get lucky and win a game, he did not take it well.

"He probably would leave the room in silence and not want to talk to me for a while."

Meyer's baseball career did not pan out, which was difficult to take for the future gridiron coach. Meyer had been drafted in the 13th round by the Braves out of St. John's High School in Ashtabula, Ohio, but he slashed .170/.267/.245 in 61 Gulf Coast League at-bats in 1982, improved only slightly to .193/.365/.281 over 77 plate appearances the following year while splitting time between the Rookie-level Braves and Appalachian League team in Pulaski, Va., and hit only one home run. Then he got hurt. Then he quit baseball for football.

And now Meyer's a legend.

"I just wasn't good enough," Meyer told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper when asked about his baseball career in 2014. "I was a really good high school football player. I was doing OK my second year [with the Braves], and then I had an injury to my arm. But I had already probably maximized my ability."

Meyer made lifelong friends, including Lemke and Fred McGriff, out of the baseball experience. Plus, he got a doozy of a baseball yarn that he makes sure to tell high school football players from Georgia that he recruits to Ohio State, according to the same newspaper article. When he was released by the Braves, the papers were signed by Hall of Famer Henry Aaron, who was manning the position of director of player development.

"That is a great story," Meyer told the Journal-Constitution. "I have those papers in a scrapbook somewhere at the house."

Lemke said he always smiles whenever he turns on a game and sees his old rookie-league teammate patrolling the sidelines for Ohio State. He said he'll be rooting for Meyer on Friday.

"I'm just proud of him," Lemke said. "I knew he'd make it, one way or another."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.