Mike Cole remembers the salad days for Manhattan baseball.
It was back in the mid-2000s and the Jaspers were the toast of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. In his three-year stint as an assistant coach that began in 2005, Cole was part of a staff that saw the Jaspers post a 127-83-1 overall mark, including a stellar 72-27 mark in MAAC play.
It was a time that also saw Manhattan win at least 30 games in each of his four seasons, while also winning the school’s first MAAC championship in 2006 and advancing to the NCAA Regionals. It was there the Jaspers upset a pair of nationally ranked teams in San Francisco and Nebraska.
But the Manhattan program has fallen on hard times in recent seasons, posting five straight overall losing records, and just one MAAC ledger over .500.
But when Cole was named Manhattan’s new head coach last fall, he not only came in remembering the good old days, but he came intent on returning the Jaspers to MAAC royalty.
“I think there is plenty of talent here to make a run at a MAAC championship,” said Cole, who spent the past five seasons as an associate head coach at MAAC-rival Fairfield. “I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think there was enough talent here to compete right away.”
A turning point for Cole’s new team came early on when the Jaspers stumbled from the season’s starting gate and appeared to be headed for another less-than-memorable season.
“We started 0-6 after a couple of tough losses in Florida, and then we went out to Cal State-Northridge and we got our butts kicked a little bit,” Cole said. “Our message to them at that time was, ‘We can go two ways. We can go downhill from here, or we can go battle and show some character.’ Then we rattled off 11 wins in the next 14 games.
“They’re tough-minded kids. They could have quit early and they didn’t. As a coach, that’s the most important thing, that they come to play hard every single day.”
Victories tend to pile up when Cole is around. During his stint at Fairfield, the Stags posted three 30-win seasons, won back-to-back MAAC regular-season titles, and earned a berth in the 2016 NCAA Regionals. Prior to that, he led a New Jersey Institute of Technology team to a program-record 25 wins while mentoring current Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Mark Leiter Jr.
The Jaspers went 18-35 overall last season and 12-12 in MAAC play. Through late March this season, Manhattan has already won 11 games overall, and is 3-0 in conference play. Cole likes what he sees from his team so far.
“The kids are what I expected,” Cole said. “Coming back here has been great. Do we have all the bells and whistles that other schools have? No. So you have to be tough-minded. Not just physically tough, but mentally tough to play at Manhattan.”
Some of those bells and whistles Manhattan does not have? A home field, for starters, which means by the time the Jaspers play their first “home” game at Dutchess County Stadium in Wappingers Falls on April 14 versus Fairfield, they will have played 32 straight games on the road. Not the greatest perk for the Jaspers, but Cole tries to use it as a way to build camaraderie on his team.
“We’ve definitely put some miles on,” Cole said. “Everyone in the northeast is going to travel. I think the kids understand that. But the amount of time these kids spend in hotels, on buses, in airports, I think brings our team closer together. Do I like playing my first 32 games on the road? Obviously not. But I think it helps the team bond.”
Cole said talks are underway between the school and the city to once again make Van Cortlandt Park the Jaspers home field, but details were still in the early stages. Until then, Cole will go about the business of turning around a Jaspers program that was picked 10th in the MAAC preseason poll, and is looking to return to the top of the conference for the first time since 2012 when they last won the MAAC title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
“On paper, because of the record last year, we should have been picked 10th,” Cole said. “But from a talent standpoint, do I think we should have been picked 10th? No. As a coach it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. But we’ll definitely use it as motivation and it’s definitely been talked about at practice.
“We want to prove some people wrong and get back to the top of the conference where Manhattan should be.”