Twenty fours after officially receiving the news he would start the St. Louis Cardinals home opener at Busch Stadium, Jack Flaherty was still taking in its full effect.
“We always try to give these professional answers, but that’s just one of those, I said it yesterday–it’s frickin’ cool,” Flaherty gushed. “That’s sweet. It’s an awesome feeling. I’m really just excited for it.”
Besides still enjoying that news, Flaherty used a rare day off in the Grapefruit League for the opportunity to complete his March Madness bracket.
“I try to stick to doing only one or two and not make too many changes so I don’t regret any decisions, I stick by what I choose,” he explained. “I don’t go in with any strategy, I just go with my gut and what it says and whatever I’ve watched or what I’ve seen by teams or how teams have done in the past. I do like to pay attention to the conference tournaments, the teams that are going in hot, the teams that are playing well–I like to ride with those teams. I’ve got my favorites–I was committed to North Carolina so I’m always a little biased towards them.”
The approach seems to be working as three of the last four years, Flaherty has gotten the NCAA champion correct. This year his favorite to win it all is starting out with a questionable placement, as Michigan State seemed to be punished for winning the Big 10 regular season and conference tournament by being placed in the same region as Duke.
“To me it doesn’t make sense,” Flaherty said. “So Duke’s the number one overall seed, that makes complete sense. Then you’ve got the three other number ones, they didn’t win their conference tournament. Granted, Gonzaga was 30-3 on the year, Virginia lost three games all year, North Carolina lost to Duke by one and beat them twice when the didn’t have Zion. So you can’t argue with them being number ones and Michigan State being a number two. But you reward Michigan and put them in Gonzaga’s region and they lost to Michigan State and you reward Tennessee and put them in Virginia’s region and they got beat by 20. And Kentucky…I don’t understand how the only one where you have two conference champions are in the same region.”
Had they won their conference tournament, some believe Gonzaga would have been the top seed in the tournament and Flaherty has a healthy respect for the Zags, but he also refuses to pick them to win the championship.
“I have to show a little bit of love to Gonzaga because my mom went there and my brother currently goes there, but I’ll never pick them to win it all–just to get at her a little bit,” Flaherty chuckled. “It’s always fun to let her know that I have them losing at some point.”
Teams like Buffalo, Cincinnati, Iowa State, Liberty, Oregon, and Texas Tech have all caught the eye of Flaherty, who admits that his brackets haven’t always been the strongest en route to being correct about the champions.
“Currently, I have Nevada picked to beat Michigan but that’s one of those where I’m flip-flopping back and forth,” Flaherty said. “My Elite 8 is very chalk. I’ve got Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Texas Tech, North Carolina, Kentucky, I’ve got Virginia getting there and then I have one I’m not confident at all in is Villanova, getting back there as the sixth seed. They’ve struggled a lot through the year. I think they started to figure it out and turn it around a little bit as the year went on. I don’t know, something about the region has me with Villanova getting there to play Virginia and beating Virginia to get into the Final Four.”
As for that potential matchup between Duke and Michigan State?
“That was my toughest one,” Flaherty admitted. “The weirdest one for me has to be the West, where I don’t love any team there and anything can kind of happen. In the East, with West Virginia–it’s tough after what happened a year ago with what they have going. Midwest, you have a lot of powerhouse names in North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky.”
That of course is part of the madness–so many teams that bring strong resumes to the table. But who will be left to stand alone?
“At the end of the day, I have Michigan State beating Duke, that’s just a team that I started to really like at the end of the year,” Flaherty said. “Nova beating Virginia getting there. Gonzaga getting into the Final Four. North Carolina beating Kentucky, if that happens it’s going to be an unbelievable game to watch. Then Carolina and Michigan State getting there, but I think I’m going to ride with Michigan State to figure this thing out.”
CARP AND #dontthink
–Last year in Spring Training, Flaherty regularly shadowed Adam Wainwright, talking shop and picking up every tidbit he could from the Cardinals veteran. During the season, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson reached out to the young right-hander to establish a relationship. This spring, Flaherty has made it a triumvirate of influence by spending a good deal of time with Chris Carpenter.
“Carp looks a lot at the mentality and the work that goes into it,” Flaherty shared. “Making sure everything matters. He’s really big on every single thing you do counts. Every single thing you do matters. Every pitch you throw matters and every bullpen–it matters. You’re never out there just getting your work in, you always need to be working on something or you need to be getting better.”
The approach is not unlike the familiar #dontthink that Flaherty uses often with his social media posts (@Jack9Flaherty).
“It may not come across as #DontThink but the messages are very similar,” Flaherty agreed. “The way your mentality is, it has to be very strong. You can’t think about what everybody else worries about or maybe what other people think about you or other things you have going on. It’s gotta be focused and locked in as to what you can do to get better and improve each situation that goes on.”
One might recall the fight scene between Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins in the film Bull Durham, where the veteran catcher explains to the young pitcher that he just learned lesson one–‘don’t think’, but that’s not what inspired Flaherty.
“No, I don’t know how it started for me,” Flaherty said. “It’s one of those things, it was last off-season and I was just kind of going over my stuff from the year before. Going back over, kind of analyzing everything going into last year. I saw an interview or an article on Russell Westbrook, who’s one of my favorite athletes right now, his motto is ‘why not?’. Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I do that? His whole thing is ‘why not?’ and I was trying to figure out what mine would be. I don’t know, like what works for me? What is something I try to do?”
“It was something that just came to me as I went over and thought about when I was at my best, what went on for me. When I’m playing well and when I’m pitching well and when things are going right–what is going through my head? It was really not much. Not much was going through my head–it was just go out there and play. Take care of things and when you had to analyze things, analyze them. But don’t overthink. Don’t overanalyze. Get in a situation and just let your athleticism take over. And then be so prepared that there’s no situation you’re not prepared for. You know when you get into a big spot, you know what you’re comfortable doing and you know what you’re not comfortable doing. You don’t have to think about it. It’s just something that comes to you.”
The approach is clearly working for Flaherty and while #TimeToFly is the official MLB hashtag for St. Louis this season, there’s a pretty good chance #dontthink will be trending at least every fifth day for Cardinals fans.
photo credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports, Brian Stull/STLBaseballWeekly.com