Over His Head?
Feb. 26, 2009
By Larry Watts
Justin Miller was told he was getting in over his head -- by his grandfather no less.
Coming out of Turner Ashby High School, which has an enrollment of 1,100 students in Bridgewater, Va., Miller was examining his baseball opportunities. The standout catcher had an offer from St. Joseph's University, a small Division I school in Philadelphia, and several offers from Division III schools. He was also in talks with Virginia Tech, but no scholarship had formally been given.
Then along came Ohio State at the last minute. He took a visit, fell in love with the school and signed up to become a Buckeye.
"Our pitching coach, Eric Parker, was going into his first season at Ohio State and he was from Harrisonburg, Va., so I guess that's how they heard about me," Miller says. "He told (head) coach (Bob) Todd and they followed up on it. There is nothing wrong with playing Division III ball, but I really wanted a shot at Division I."
But Miller had his doubters, especially his grandfather.
"He had done his homework," Miller says. "He knew about Ohio State's rich tradition in baseball and he told me when I signed that 'I was in way over my head.'
"But that's not the first time people have told me that. They were telling me the same thing when I made the varsity team (at Turner Ashby) as a freshman. I think my grandfather wants to take those words back now."
All the senior has done for the Buckeyes is post a career batting average of .348 (.387 in Big Ten games). He is only the seventh Buckeye to lead his team in hits in two consecutive seasons.
During his team's three wins in the recent Big East-Big Ten Challenge, he reached the 200-hit plateau and is currently on pace to crack Ohio State's all-time top-five list for hits and runs batted-in (currently at 125). And his grandparents, who maintain a winter residence in Florida, were on hand to watch him reach his hitting milestone.
But Miller's days as a catcher are basically behind him. Aside from a handful of times he is called upon to give Dan Burkhart a rest behind the dish, Miller has been a fixture at first base.
"The coaching staff saw me fielding some ground balls one day during my freshman season and I was told to go grab a first baseman's glove," he says. "That was the first time I ever played first base and it was weird, but I was willing to do anything to get into the lineup. Burkhart is an absolute stud back there and playing first sure helps keep my legs fresh."
Miller is not one to talk at length about his accomplishments, which have him on the preseason watch list for the Brooks Wallace Player of the Year award. He would rather talk about how the Buckeyes intend to rise again after a disappointing sixth place finish (15-15) in the Big Ten and their overall record of 30-26.
"That's embarrassing, plain and simple, for the program to finish that low in the standings," he says. "We have all said we're not going to accept anything like that this year. Throughout our workouts in the offseason, someone would always mention it, and that inspired a little more effort in the weight room and while we were running sprints. It's not something you want to happen, but these guys handled it well and used it for motivation."
It's probably safe to assume Miller may have been the one mentioning that finish the most. Surrounded by a young squad, mostly sophomores, the lone returning senior starter has been elected team captain for the second straight year. He is the 14th player in Buckeye history to serve as captain more than one year.
"It's a big honor for the guys on the team to have that kind of trust and faith in me to lead this team," he says. "It's a privilege to represent them when talking to the coaches. It's easy to be captain of this team because everyone knows what is expected of them and they're going to get their work done the right way."
And if someone is not pulling their weight or steps out of line?
"They have to answer to me first," he says with a laugh. "I'm not too hard on them. I actually try to take it easy because after they see me, they have to go see coach Todd and he gets pretty hard on them sometimes."
Miller got a chance to briefly test his skills last summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League, long known as a grooming ground for college players with big-time aspirations. He admits he might have been over his head this time and was sent home after a month with a batting average hovering around .250.
"I was on a temporary contract because several players on the rosters were still playing in the College World Series," he says. "Once those players joined the teams, most of the temporary players were sent home.
"I really had my eyes opened up there, it was unbelievable," he says. "Those guys (pitchers) were ridiculous. Everybody throws 93-95 mph and everything had movement. The fastballs had movement and the breaking balls were out of this world. Hitting with wood bats can really drop your average because you can't make any mistakes with wood."
But that experience in Cape Cod hasn't dampened Miller's thoughts about playing at the next level. He's already had a taste of playing on some of diamonds at Major League training facilities during Ohio State's annual spring trips to Florida.
"That's still a long way off, but I do like to dream," the longtime Baltimore Orioles fan says. "Coming into my senior year, I told myself I wasn't going to get my hopes up (for the draft). Last year I had a lot of teams talking to me and I got my hopes up, but I didn't get the call (on draft day). I was disappointed, but I decided I just need to be worried about playing time and winning games here at Ohio State and, hopefully, the rest will take care of itself."
An avid watcher of the CSI and Law & Order programs, Miller is completing his degree in criminology.
"I really don't know what I want to do," he says. "I've got a lot of friends of the family in law enforcement, but I still have to worry about speeding tickets because they don't cut me any slack. I can see myself doing police work or investigation."
But if he doesn't get the call on draft day, the Ohio State coaching staff already has plans on bringing Miller back as a graduate assistant next year. He has already proved to be good recruiter, luring former Turner Ashby teammate Andrew Armstrong, now a sophomore, to join the Buckeyes' stable of young pitchers.
"When the coaches came to see me in both of games, Armstrong was the winning pitcher and they really liked him," Miller says. "They told me to put in a good word with him and I called him a lot. And when he came out here for a visit, he stayed with me and signed.
"I've always wanted to coach. If I'm back at Ohio State, it will give me a good foundation for my future."
But he would still like get that shot at the big time just to prove he's not in over his head.