User ID: Password:

May 9, 2011

RASH'S CAREER A HOME RUN - Despite losing several family members at a young age, including his father, Tech outfielder Andrew Rash overcame his grief and has worked to become one of the best power hitters in school history

By: Marc Mullen

Andrew Rash

Everyone is aware of the numbers. But just to refresh your memory, as of May 1 Andrew Rash was leading the Atlantic Coast Conference with 16 home runs, 120 total bases and a .759 slugging percentage. At the time, those numbers put him in the top 10 in the nation in each category.

Numbers like that – in the face of the new bats being used this season – have not been seen in Blacksburg since Kevin Barker was patrolling centerfield. Back in 1996, Barker was proving he was the man for the Hokies, hitting 20 home runs, collecting 160 total bases and producing a .792 slugging percentage. He was the last Tech player to hit at least 15 home runs in a single season, before Rash, and finish a season slugging over .700.

Ironically, during that same time, a five-year old boy living in Anderson, S.C. was quickly becoming a man himself. On May 21, 1996, Alan Rash lost a six-month battle to prostate cancer and left behind a wife, two daughters and a son, Andrew. If losing a father at such a young age weren’t hard enough, Andrew would see both of his grandfathers pass away within a year.

“When I was five, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer and he had to go to Houston, Texas for treatments and he was there for approximately four or five months,” Andrew recalled. “My mom was down there and never left his side, except for Christmas. So, my older sisters and I lived with my grandmother, who lived just two blocks from our house from October through February.

“Through that whole time it was tough and I was so young, I really didn’t know what was going on, but through all of that, it made me a lot tougher. I grew up a lot faster than I probably would have if I still had my dad here, because at that time I was like, ‘I really got to take care of my family, I got to look out for my sisters, I got to look out for my mom’.

“It’s still hard today. I’m sure it will be hard later on with what else I want to accomplish in life. I really would love to have my dad here, but I’m not sure if I would be here playing college baseball if he were here. I know that sounds weird, but it made me a harder worker and made me not take things for granted because of what all took place then.”

Rash’s family is very important to him and that is one reason why he chose to come to Virginia Tech out of a number of schools actively recruiting him out of high school.

Anybody who has attended a Tech baseball game over the last five years since head coach Pete Hughes has taken over in the dugout can understand why Rash made the decision.

During any home contest, or away game for that matter, those in attendance will see two, sometimes three, shorter Hokies wearing the same Tech gear as the players in the mix during pregame batting or infield practice – the coach’s sons, who are openly welcomed on to the team.

“I saw how Coach Hughes was around his own family, and how he was a great father figure for his boys and how he puts family first,” Rash said on his decision on coming to Tech. “And with what I had gone through in my life, I wanted that. I wanted someone that put family first. You only have one family and at any moment in time, they can be taken away from you.

“I knew if I ever needed anything, if I ever needed to go home because of family things, he would be understanding because he and I were on the same page with where family is in our lives. Coach (Mike) Gambino is the same way, and he stuck with me through thick and thin and never gave up on me. I really have to give a lot of credit to both of them because they gave me a chance to play in the ACC and not a lot of people did.”

Not getting the chance to play in one of the top baseball conferences is one thing. But being held back from playing for a travel team when he was 10 is another.

Rash, who admittedly didn’t like playing baseball at first – “I played in the outfield and didn’t really pay attention. I also played catcher some, and I always just played in the dirt and my mom would get very mad at me” – was more interested in a future in basketball.

“I played basketball up until I was 12. I thought I was going to have a chance to play basketball, because I loved playing it, and that was my dad’s sport. My dad loved basketball, and that’s probably the one sport that I worked the hardest on. I just loved it. He loved it. We always watched it together.”

A man named Buck Hall changed all of that. He was the coach of a travel team in Anderson and called Rash’s mother, Frances, a number of times trying to get the OK for Andrew to play on his team.

“My mom was like no, I just don’t think so,” Rash said. “Finally, I can still remember that day, my mom and I had come home from eating and there was a message on the answering machine from him, and he said ‘Hey, we are playing over in Greenville and I really want Andrew to come play with us this weekend. It’s a doubleheader on Saturday and if he doesn’t like it, I’ll leave you alone and I’ll never bother you again.’

Andrew Rash leads the ACC in home runs and was the ACC player of the week for the week ending April 24 when he hit three homers and drove in six, including a two-homer game against Maryland.

“So, I begged my mom and she finally let me go play with him and I loved it. His son and I became good friends and I loved the other guys on the team as well.

“I still give my mom a hard time about that. I tell her that if she never let me go play with him, I probably would never be playing college baseball. And she says, ‘I know’. But she didn’t know what to do at the time, because it was so close to my dad passing away, but it was good for me, I could get away and it gave me a father figure in my life.”

According to Rash, Hall was the biggest influence when it came to learning the game of baseball.

“When, I started playing with him all I could do was play defense and, at that time, I was a terrible hitter. I worked really hard with him, and today, he is still my biggest critic. He knows how to get to me, but he motivates me a lot. Honestly, I got to say, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here, because he taught me so much and really helped me so much with the baseball aspect of things.”

So, Hall helped a kid who used to throw a baseball against a huge wall on the side of his house until it was totally dark with only a floodlight on into an ACC prospect. [Side note, Hall also helped his own son Brooks become a fourth-round selection (136th pick) of the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2009 MLB Draft.]

But when Rash arrived in Blacksburg, he found playing on the ACC team a bit overwhelming.

“I had a terrible fall here, it was quite miserable. Baseball-wise it was just awful. I probably couldn’t hit a beach ball in the fall,” Rash said. “I feel like if you took someone off the street in New York – a tourist – and took him to the stock market and let them walk through there and see all those people running around – it’s like that to a high school player coming into college and going out to a practice for their first time.

“It’s new. There are a thousand things going on. The upperclassmen that have been here know what’s going on. So they’re running here and you’re like ‘well should I go run with them or should I go over here with this group?’ There is just so much going on.

“The game speeds up. Even practice, it’s so fast! You’re doing this for 30 minutes and then you’re going over here. Half the guys are up in the cages hitting, other guys are down here doing defensive stuff. It’s hard as a freshman to slow things down and just relax, because you want to do so well coming in and you want to have a great freshman year. Actually, I made it even faster because I was so nervous.”

Now, it was time for Rash, who carries a cross that his father held in his hand through his cancer treatment with him in his wallet, to lean on another father figure when he struggled in his first year at Tech. That man turned out to be Coach Gambino (who is now the head coach at Boston College). Rash spent a lot of time with him in the cages that first year trying to simplify his swing, eliminate the holes and bring out the best of his tools.

Thanks to countless hours in the batting cages with former Tech assistant Mike Gambino, Andrew Rash has become the best power hitter in the ACC.

“During my freshman year, I sat down with Coach Gambino and talked to him [about my struggles],” said Rash. “He’s like ‘you’ve been through so much more, your dad passed away when you were five.’ Once I thought about it, this is nothing. And that is what I go to now when I struggle. I tell myself, ‘It’s nothing. I’ve been through worse. I can get through this.’ And it’s really helped me and I think it is really going to help me get to where I want to get to in life.”

And wherever he ends up, he will always be as close as he can to his family. He is still very close to his sisters, Alanda (29) and Alexa (25), and owes so much to them as well.

“I’ve got two great sisters who have had a great deal to do with where I am today,” he said. “They both took me to practice, because my mom worked, and if it wasn’t for them – I have to give them some of the credit too – because they helped me by going to practice, by picking me up, to get me to where I am today.”

Now, as much as he can be, he is there for them. He stepped in and walked each down the aisle on their wedding days and he serves as probably the greatest uncle to his three nieces – ranging in age from 4 to 1.

After his monster season, Barker was named a second team All-American by Baseball America. He was also a third-round selection in the Major League Baseball draft, taken with the 73rd overall pick by, interestingly enough, the Brewers. He played 14 seasons as a professional and spent five seasons in the major leagues with four different teams.

Rash, who will be draft eligible this upcoming summer, only says this in regards to his future, “I’m just kind of going with the flow, I want to take it one day at a time, and see what happens. I try not to get caught up in it, because it can all change tomorrow. I think back and what has happened in my life, it kind of has helped me out to get me to where I am today.”