Murray and Bucs struggle through trying season after loss of playerMay 17, 2006
By John Strubel
|CSU head baseball coach Jason Murray|
CHARLESTON, S.C - When Matt Ishee told Jason Murray he had a surprise for him, Murray cringed. He doesn’t like surprises.
It was late October 2005. Murray was in the initial stages of preparing for the next baseball season, his second as head coach of the Charleston Southern University baseball team. While most sports fans were tuned in to football and basketball, Murray and Ishee, the Bucs pitching coach, were pouring over scouting reports, player stats and other personnel matters.
The whole “surprise” scenario irked Murray, and Ishee had exacerbated the situation by making the statement, then making the Bucs coach wait for days. Instead of playing the mental guessing game, Murray wiped Ishee’s tantalizing comment from his memory and went back to work.
Before Murray could forget about it, Ishee appeared again bearing a sheepish grin. “Your surprise is tomorrow,” Ishee told the coach.
Ishee had discovered a diamond in the rough. During a team workout at Pro Level, the Bucs off-season indoor facility, freshman pitcher Grant Ringenberg made a confession.
“Grant told us, I can throw ‘down here’ (submarine-style),” Ishee remembers. “We said, yeah, OK, because everybody thinks they can throw like that. But when he did it, he had some whip on it … he had a good feel for it and we got a little excited.”
Ishee and the CSU coaching staff worked with Ringenberg in the day’s following the announcement, what Ishee now refers to as his “coming out party.” The quiet 18-year old freshman from Apex, North Carolina was beginning to come out of his shell on and off the field. “It was like he was saying, ‘hey, watch this!’” said Ishee. “It was special. He was electric, he had some good stuff. He was a pitcher from down under, not just a guy who could throw from down under.”
Ringenberg’s arm was like a rubberband. He was slinging the baseball, releasing it far south of his waistline, almost under-handed. It’s a pitching style that, when done effectively, is very difficult to hit. Ringenberg was effective, delivering pitches clocked by a radar gun at 82 miles per hour with pinpoint accuracy. It could only get better with preparation and practice.
The next day Ishee approached Murray. “Are you ready for your surprise?” Ishee said. Murray, still reluctant, nodded in agreement. “Come here,” said Ishee.
“We walked back to an indoor pitching mound and there was Grant, throwing underneath,” said Murray. “His ball was just zipping all over the place, it was beautiful. Right there I said, ‘We can win the Big South conference ‘cause I think we’d have a closer.’”
Ringenberg developed a sore arm after making the transition. Murray and Ishee debated the options. Murray made the managerial decision to keep his young pitcher off the mound on Parents Weekend. Murray remembers the decision upset Ringenberg but he also understood the decision to preserve his health and arm.
The 32-year old CSU head coach woke at 1:30am to the sound of his phone ringing. On the other end, Murray’s assistant coach Brian Hoop delivered the bad news: Ringenberg had been a fight with another CSU student on campus and he was in the hospital.
“I pulled up and everything was just chaos at the dorms,” Murray remembers after arriving on campus. He quickly learned the fight was no small scuffle, it was serious. Ringenberg was transported from Trident Regional Medical Center to MUSC. “That’s when I called Mrs. Ringenberg, Diane, his mom, about 2am,” said Murray. “I said, you’re going to need to come on down to Charleston, Grant’s been in a fight and he’s in the hospital. I encouraged her to bring the boys, because it didn’t sound good.”
Word was spreading fast. Ryan Sowers, a junior college transfer from Indiana was in his second year at CSU. He was one of three team captains. Sowers was finishing his homework and getting ready for bed when his phone rang. It was co-captain Josh Evans. “He said Grant’s been hurt, do you want to go to the hospital?,” said Sowers. “At first I didn’t want to go. I thought, it’s OK he got in a little fight.”
Sowers asked Evans if he could call him back. When he did, Evans’ tone changed. “I just heard it’s getting serious,” Evans told his teammate. The two CSU captains drove through the fog, arriving at MUSC hospital just after 3am. They wouldn’t leave until 4pm the following afternoon.
The team, coaches, friends and family prayed, waiting and hoping for encouraging news. It never came. Grant Ringenberg fell into a coma and passed away at the tender age of 18.
It all happened so fast - too fast, too soon. A family lost their son, the university lost a family member and students lost a friend.
“It just sad,” said Murray. “We didn’t say enough to him before he left. He didn’t have enough time. You remember the last conversations … as a coach your always saying, ‘OK, you gotta get better, you gotta …’ instead of just saying, “I love ya’ man, thanks for being here. But now you look back and you’re upset with yourself because you don’t take enough time for each kid. That’s what I struggled with.”
For Murray, a first-time manager, Ringenberg was his first recruit. “He’s one of those baseball players, that every baseball program faces,” said Murray. “A kid that’s overlooked by so many programs and you’re blessed to have an opportunity to get him, because he’s really better than what you should’ve gotten.
“This kid had so much vision and heart for what he really wanted to do with his baseball career … and he could’ve gone to a lot of other places, but he felt this was the right place. For him to accept Charleston Southern as a recruited walk-on …we were fortunate enough that he did accept to come to here. He was a good kid and his family were great people. So we knew we were getting the type of family that we wanted in this program.”
Ringenberg’s death was not something Murray could prepare himself – or his team – for. It was, in no uncertain terms, a tragic event for the program and the entire university. Murray, his coaching staff and team, settled into the surreal life for weeks after Ringenberg’s death, going through the motions day-to-day.
“It’s almost embarrassing to say that, probably for a month, it was so foggy, cloudy and zombie-like, it was almost like you were in a trance,” said Murray. “You tried to do what you were supposed to do, but you never remembered what you did that day … and how many other kids on this team are really hurting and you don’t know it? Because they’re not always going to show it.
“It took me probably two months to call the family. I couldn’t pick up the phone. Then when I did, it was hard, what do you say … and they understood, that’s the beautiful thing about them is it’s like they’re helping us more than we’re helping them, because they have such strong faith.”
Sowers internalized the pain, holding his emotions in check. “If I was a regular teammate I could have stayed in my room, done my own thing, handled it myself,” said Sowers, “but at the time I had 38, 39 sets of eyes on me to see exactly what I’m doing. It was a different perspective. I held a lot of stuff in.
“I tried to be as strong as I could just for these guys. A lot of the freshman were very close to him. I’ve lost some close friends in high school and I know it’s tough, it’s horrible. But knowing that many eyes were on me, it was hard but it was something I just had to do, it wasn’t optional.”
God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. – Matthew 5:4
There was grace and growth as a result of the loss of Grant Ringenberg. The residual affects blossomed this spring. “I think it definitely touched them to where it changed their life and literally made a recommitment,“ said Murray. “As a team we talked about it for a long time, now we’re just letting the kids do their own thing.”
For the CSU Bucs team, “their own thing” is visible, tangible evidence of the affect Ringenberg has had on each of them. From the seats, you can see Charleston Southern players with the #23 written or embroidered on their team hat, or cleats. No one can miss the large banner that reads “RINGENBERG #23” in large block letters draped and blowing in the chilly, spring breeze between center and right field.
This spring the Charleston Southern University alumni association has stepped up to provide the materials to build a bullpen bench, a tribute that will stand for future generations to remember and celebrate his life.
“It puts things in perspective for us,” said Sowers, looking out at the banner draped over the outfield fence. “We started the season really bad, coach talked to us a couple times about Grant. We’re going through (winning and losing) … and his family is going through losing a son.
“I’m glad we’re doing stuff like that (banner and bullpen bench) to remember him. I mean he still is a part of this team, this was his family.”
On February 22, three-and-a-half months after Ringenberg’s death, the CSU Bucs baseball team was 2-8 and struggling to get on track, so to was head coach Jason Murray.
Murray sat in his modest office, eyeing the door to the small closet in the corner. He had avoided opening the door at all costs. When he needed supplies or team gear, Murray let his players and coaches retrieve it.
He dreaded having to go do it, but the time had come. On that Wednesday morning, through his faith, Murray finally summoned the courage to open the door. From behind the extra ballcaps and sweatshirts, he pulled the one remaining players uniform, a jersey embroidered with the #23. With it, came a flood of emotions.
Murray packed up the uniform and sent it to the Grant’s parents in Apex, North Carolina. “I had it for over a month, the stuff we got as a team, “ said Murray. “We’ve got to do it. It’s little things like that, that you’d think you’d be glad to do but you almost don’t want to do it.”
The following week, as Ringenberg’s game uniform arrived in the mail, the CSU Bucs baseball team had another surprise for their coach: four straight wins. That was one surprise that Murray did not cringe over.
Note: On May 6, Murray and the Buccaneers presented Gary and Diane Ringenberg a special jersey with Grant's number on it. The blue jersey with gold trim was ordered during the season and the Bucs wore the jersey only twice during the 2006 season. The left sleeve was decorated with the initials GR. The team also presented the family with a wooden bat with Grant Ringenberg engraved in the barrel.