How continuity fits hand in hand with Firebird culture

Photo by Raj Das, *ED Photography*|Art or Photo Credit: Raj Das

As another summer of baseball at Eldredge Park was set to return to Orleans, so were many familiar faces. Among the returnees were Evan Truitt (Charleston Southern), Sean Matson (Harvard), Matthew Watson (Texas A&M - Corpus Christi), and Collin Tuft (Tulane), the only non-pitcher. All of whom take great pride in getting the opportunity to spend another summer with the Birds.

Truitt aims to use his past summer experience in Orleans to embody the team’s culture through hard work and professionalism, both on and off the field.

“I hope these first-year guys see how myself and the other returners go about our business, through carrying ourselves professionally or having a routine which is huge for building culture,” said Truitt.

“I also hope they notice how we treat everyone who makes game days run smoothly with respect because, without the interns or volunteers, we wouldn’t get to go out and play every day,” he continued.

Respect was a virtue that came up often in conversations with these returning players, and seems to stem from one man: longtime Firebirds manager Kelly Nicholson.

“Respect is the word that comes to mind when it comes to Skip,” Sean Matson said. “Skip has taught us all how to be the best men we can be, and has always preached discipline and respect.”

Cole Cook, another familiar face within the pitching staff, has returned as one of Nicholson's assistants. “Cookie,” as many call Cook, has experienced firsthand this respect from who he calls “one of the most powerful men in American baseball.”

Cook, who had the privilege of pitching for Nicholson in the summer of 2009, was unexpectedly pulled from a game, and reacted in a way that he describes as “way out of line, like everything, 100% out of line.”

Instead of removing Cook from the team, Nicholson simply told him to take a weekend.

Nicholson might not have known it then, but how he handled that situation would stick with Cookie long after the summer of 09’.

“Kelly is a capital E educator,” said Cook. “He could have just removed me, but he took time to teach me about my misstep, and why it was so egregious. By teaching me, he showed me his own humanity.”

Cook, who has continued to nurture his relationship with Nicholson, now works on his staff to teach young men the same lesson he was taught 15 short years ago: that discipline can go a long way.

“We really want them to be good people in this world,” Cook said enthusiastically. “We’re about people, we’re about accountability, and we’re about respect.”

Sean Matson emphasizes, “Skip is great at bringing in guys he knows will mesh together really well.”

Nicholson’s ability to foster team cohesion is greatly exemplified by the hire of pitching coach, Jim Lawler, as he perfectly embodies the core values of Firebird culture.

“He’s a very calming presence on our team,” Nicholson said. “He’s wise, mature, soft-spoken, well-liked, respected, and most of all a gentleman. We’re extremely fortunate to have him.”

Assistant coach Cole Cook (left) and pitching coach Jim Lawler (right) talking pre-game|Art or Photo Credit: Sophia Soropoulos

Now entering his third summer on Nicholson’s staff, Lawler has developed a deep understanding of Firebirds’ culture and consistently strives to help the team get better each day.

“Our job is to put these guys in the best role to succeed, not only for themselves but what's best for the Birds, and that's something that Jim Lawler does a great job of,” Nicholson said.

With 26 new faces walking into the Firebirds organization this summer, the four returnees became even more crucial in establishing the culture from day one – something that Cole Cook sees as invaluable.

“These guys are like culture injectors. What you can do with that, is talk to them about what we’re trying to do as a team, and they have the previous experience to understand,” said Cook.

“Last year’s team adored each other. They adored playing together and adored winning together. That is one of the reasons we had so much success, and these guys can look back on it and say ‘I remember what that felt like,’” Cook continued.

As Evan Truitt preaches, having continuity in the coaching staff helps the players just as much as returning players help the staff, if not more.

“Having the same group of coaches is huge because you're not having to learn a new system,” said Truitt. “I think for me, it’s more confidence-based than anything. Last year I felt like I had to prove myself to everyone, compared to now where I can just go out and compete.”

This sense of continuity and confidence is especially crucial for the Firebirds to maintain now. With a 2-8 record through their first ten games, they are enduring one of their worst starts to a summer in recent memory. It’s becoming increasingly important for Orleans veterans to continue embodying Birds culture, and for others to buy in.