Column: Against All Odds

University of Michigan's Mike Dufek caps baseball comeback
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Michigan first baseman Mike Dufek stepped up to the plate in the tenth inning. The bases were empty, which in this game was rare.

Northwestern had shot out to an early 14-0 lead. We’re not talking football here, folks, but baseball. Then, incredibly, the Wolverines clawed back, run by run, until they tied the game with a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth. That brought Dufek up in the tenth inning, with the game in his hands.

That Dufek had even gotten that far was a story in itself.

His genes surely helped. Mike’s grandfather, Don Dufek, Sr., played football for Michigan. In the 1951 Rose Bowl, against undefeated Cal-Berkeley, Don Sr. ran for two touchdowns in the final six minutes to win the game and the MVP award.

Mike’s uncle, Don Jr., played both hockey and football at Michigan – the last guy to do that. The Red Wings drafted him, and so did the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, where he played for nine years. Mike’s other uncle, Bill, also played football for Michigan, and signed with the New York Jets.

Mike’s dad, Joe, turned down Michigan for Yale, where he became an All-American as an outfielder and quarterback. He started eight games for the Buffalo Bills, and played several years in the Canadian Football League. Clearly, Mike had the DNA.

He grew up in Scottsdale, where he played quarterback, too, but excelled in baseball. He wanted to play for Michigan in the worst way, but Michigan wasn’t that wild about him. They finally let him walk on – making Mike the first Dufek athlete not actively recruited by the University of Michigan.

Mike’s freshman year, he barely played on the field, and was barely eligible off it. But then Dufek caught fire. Last year, he led the team with 17 home runs – and he’s carried a B-minus average in sociology. This season, his teammates and coaches named him co-captain. He got it.

But Dufek’s home run total dropped from 17 to just five going into Sunday’s game – the game in which they fell behind by a staggering 14-0. If that was absurd, what happened next was positively crazy. The Wolverines scored 14 straight runs to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth, and force extra innings.

So the score was 14-14 when Dufek came to the plate in the bottom of the tenth. A teammate’s father told him “We need you to end it with a homer” – then his coach said the same thing.

The pitcher threw a change-up. Dufek swung – and missed. He moved up a foot in the batter’s box, in the hopes that the pitcher would throw him another change-up – and he did. “As soon as I saw that pitch, I knew I could hit it,” he told me. “And after I hit it, I knew it was gone.”

Boy, was it. It sailed more than 400 feet, far over the fence in centerfield, deep into the pine trees. The Northwestern outfielder punched the fence, incredulous that they had blown a 14-run lead. It finished the biggest comeback in Michigan baseball history, it was bigger than the biggest comeback in Major League history, and it might just be the biggest comeback in the history of college or professional baseball. Anywhere.

Dufek didn’t know all that as he rounded the bases, and he probably wouldn’t have cared. Coming around third base, he threw his helmet away, then jumped into the mob surrounding the plate. He got so many hugs, he was out of breath.

Mike Dufek might not ever play a single game of pro baseball. But he’s got his degree – and at least one memory none of the famous Dufek men can match.

Could be worse.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.

One Comment

  1. By juddy
    May 21, 2010 at 10:44 am | permalink

    Cool story, JU!