J.D. Arteaga’s world crumbled twice. He’ll take Miami’s Mark Light Field with joy Friday

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Last week, new University of Miami baseball head coach J.D. Arteaga was featured in a social media post by UM baseball’s iconic @MarkLightShake — the business at Mark Light Field that for decades has blended yummy, Canes-centric milkshakes for excruciatingly long lines of Hurricanes fans.

“When @JDArteaga33 was named head coach for @CanesBaseball,’’ the tweet began, accompanied by a shot of Arteaga making a milkshake, “he reached a childhood dream.... Getting his own shake! Be the Light Shake. Vanilla with Nutella and Oreo.’’

Here’s another Arteaga childhood dream: leading his Miami Hurricanes to their first national title since 2001.

At 7 p.m. Friday against New Jersey Institute of Technology, Arteaga — UM’s all-time wins leader (43) who frustrated opponents with a lethal, lazy, left-handed arsenal that hovered around 80 mph — will take the field as head coach after 21 years as a UM assistant, four years as a Hurricanes pitcher and a lifetime of Canes games.

“I’ve been through a lot and this community has backed me and my family to no end,’’ said Arteaga, 49, a native Miamian whose formal name is Juan Diego after his late father, who, along with J.D.’s mother, Caridad, came to Florida from Cuba. “Just growing up here, this place, this city, this university has made me who I am. There are not many places that celebrate championships like Miami does. I’d love to get a championship back.”

Added Arteaga: “I’m not doing this in hopes it happens. I’m here to make it happen.”

Arteaga’s No. 33 UM jersey was retired in 2003, his first year as Miami pitching coach after six seasons in minor-league baseball with the New York Mets and Houston Astros organizations. He replaced fellow former Canes player and longtime assistant Gino DiMare, who unexpectedly resigned as head coach in June after five seasons — four days after the Canes were eliminated at home in a first-round regional of the NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament. The Hurricanes won national titles in 1982, ‘85, ‘99 and ‘01 and advanced to the College World Series 25 times. They finished 42-21 overall and were the No. 9 seed of 64 teams in last season’s NCAA tournament.

But bottom line: Miami has neither reached the College World Series nor advanced past the first round of the NCAA tournament since 2016.

‘Teddy bear’

Arteaga — warm, laid back and easy to approach — was a 6-3, 200-something-pound “big Teddy Bear off the field,’’ said legendary former Miami Westminster Christian School baseball coach Rich Hofman, now 79. “He’s quiet, soft spoken. But on the field: intense. The greatest clutch pitcher in my career.

“Otherwise, Mr. Nice Guy.’’

So nice, so mellow that during interviews for the job, UM administrators, Arteaga said, asked him repeatedly if he had concerns. Could he handle the pressure and expectations that come with the UM job and demanding fan base?

“Look, no one understands that better than I do,’’ Arteaga said. “...It’s always been Omaha or bust. I helped create that motto.”

Arteaga played in high school with future major-league star Alex Rodriguez and at UM with Alex Cora, who came to UM from Puerto Rico and is now the Boston Red Sox manager and a close friend.

“If it hadn’t been for J.D. and his family, Cora would have never made it in the United States,’’ said former UM coach Morris, who coached Arteaga during his 25-year tenure in which he led the Canes to their last two national titles. “Cora’s dad passed away when he was in high school — just like J.D.’s. I think he probably spent more time than I know at J.D.’s house. They took care of him.’’

And Cora has been there for Arteaga, who has endured far more heartache than a walk-off loss in a national championship. Arteaga knows sorrow — the type that could wreck a person’s soul but instead reinforced his faith.

Heartache twice

“He’s faced a lot of adversity in his life and he has another level of composure,’’ said fellow UM Sports Hall of Fame pitcher Alex Santos, who played two years with Arteaga and roomed with him one year. “He has a natural way of communicating with people and listening to them, which is really important. He does seem chill, but inside he’s quietly fierce.’’

The first time Arteaga’s “chill” existence was horribly shaken was in September 1990, when his father had a massive heart attack in the stands during Arteaga’s first game playing quarterback for Westminster.

J.D. Sr. was declared dead at Coral Reef Hospital. He was 48. J.D., a sophomore, was 16.

Young Arteaga didn’t see his father collapse. According to the Miami Herald story, which Arteaga has framed in his UM office, line coach Bill Baggett, who also served as reverend of the First Baptist Church Redlands, immediately took him to the side.

“We talked and then we prayed,’’ Baggett said. “Then I took him to the school’s chaplain and they went to the hospital.’’

Arteaga told the Herald afterward: “In the beginning it was like a dream. I was still waiting for him to walk through the door. Being at a Christian school helped a lot. I know he is in a better place.’’

The next time Arteaga was shaken to the core was in July 2018. His older of two children, son Ari, who was about to enter 11th grade at Miami Columbus High, died at age 16 in a single-car crash in Southwest Miami-Dade. Ari’s girlfriend was badly hurt, but survived and recovered.

“Today was a very tough day for us as a family,’’ Red Sox skipper Cora told reporters after the accident. “J.D. Arteaga, the pitching coach from U of M, he’s my best friend. They adopted me, basically, when I went to Miami. What happened to Ari, I can’t even explain it. It puts everything in perspective.

“You know, we get caught up in this madness that is the pennant race and the A.L. East and the Red Sox and the Yankees, but you know what? At the end, this is just baseball... He was 16, you know? My daughter is 15. I probably had the toughest call of my life this morning just to tell her what happened.’’

CWS drought

Though Arteaga has re-evaluated life’s priorities more than any man should, he knows his primary focus now is to get the Canes their fifth national title.

Anything less than Omaha, Nebraska, is considered a disappointment in Coral Gables. UM’s new head coach might be a dreamer, but he’s also a realist.

After spending half his life as an official Cane, Arteaga has zero national championships to show for it. He played in the College World Series in Omaha all four years from 1994 through 1997 and coached in another six Omaha trips. He knows all too well the difference between a national title and early departure from Omaha can be one pitch.

The closest Arteaga got to college baseball’s holy grail: 1996, when the Hurricanes were one out from winning the College World Series before LSU’s Warren Morris hit a ninth-inning, two-run, walk-off homer to shock the nation and send UM baseball fans into a emotional funk that lingers to this day. Arteaga, who started every opening night his four seasons at Miami, also started that deciding game. He left the mound in the seventh with UM leading 7-3, then watched from the top step of the dugout, ready to celebrate in a dogpile, when Morris hit his first home run of the season to give LSU the 9-8 victory.

“We were one out from winning the national championship and even I consider that a failure,’’ said Arteaga, who finished the season 12-1.

J.D. Arteaga takes a stare from the mound during practice at Mark Light as they prepare for the College World Series in Omaha. Photo by C.W. GRIFFIN-HERALD STAFF-5/28/97
J.D. Arteaga takes a stare from the mound during practice at Mark Light as they prepare for the College World Series in Omaha. Photo by C.W. GRIFFIN-HERALD STAFF-5/28/97

UM unranked

The 2024 Canes have not been ranked in the preseason by any major poll, which hasn’t happened in several decades. They also have no preseason All-Americans.

The Canes must replace All-American third baseman Yoyo Morales (top pick of second round to Nationals), All-American closer Andrew Walters (No. 62 to Cleveland), first baseman CJ Kayfus (No. 93 to Cleveland), pitcher Alejandro Rosario (No. 144 to Texas), right fielder Zach Levenson (No. 158 to St. Louis) and shortstop Dominic Pitelli (No. 198 to Cincinnati). Three additional relief pitchers signed as major-league free agents.

UM’s six drafted players matched the most Hurricanes selected in the first 10 rounds in program history.

Arteaga said the team’s biggest unknown now is the bullpen without Walters. The strength: returning Friday-night starter Gage Ziehl (8-4, 4.30 ERA in 2023), named to the Golden Spikes Award preseason watch list. Offensively, the Canes will be without four players (Morales, Kayfus, Levenson and Pitelli) who accounted for 60 of their 122 home runs last season — eighth most of 295 Division I teams.

Miami Hurricanes catcher Carlos Perez (61) and pitching coach J.D Arteaga speak with starting pitcher Gage Ziehl (31) in the second inning against Penn State at Mark Light Field at Alex Rodriguez Park in Coral Gables, Florida on Friday, February 17, 2023.
Miami Hurricanes catcher Carlos Perez (61) and pitching coach J.D Arteaga speak with starting pitcher Gage Ziehl (31) in the second inning against Penn State at Mark Light Field at Alex Rodriguez Park in Coral Gables, Florida on Friday, February 17, 2023.

“We lost a lot of great players offensively and pitching wise,’’ Arteaga said. “But to me the last ranking is the only one that matters. The beginning is what others expect of you. We have guys that I promise you in two or three years will be superstars. The most rewarding part of this is watching those players grow.’’

That includes batboys who didn’t play for UM. Former Canes batboy-turned-recruiting coordinator Jonathan Anderson, who most recently was UM director of player development, grew up in Miami and starred at Duke. But his UM ties go back to the early 1990s when he served as a bat boy during Arteaga’s playing days.

“Tremendous person,’’ Anderson said of Arteaga, who picked him up every morning to bring him to Jim Morris’ summer camps when Anderson was 9 and his mom had to be at work by 8 a.m. “Showing up to be there for a 9-year-old kid made a big impression. He was always my mom’s favorite player.”

Family first

Arteaga and his wife, Ysha, have a daughter, Ariana, who is a UM freshman. He is keenly aware that he needs to be present for her. Asked how he has changed since Ari’s death, Arteaga said he was “always a people person, but family has become more important and I’ve recognized things that I missed that I won’t get back. That’s why with my staff, if they’re out recruiting instead of being at their child’s birthday party or graduation, they might get fired. I made that very clear.

“We’ll have other opportunities to see somebody or to do something. But you only get that one shot at certain milestones.

“My personal faith is strong,’’ he said, “and has gotten me through a lot. People always ask how I could have faith when I’ve been through so much. I tell them, ‘that’s when you need it.’’’

These days, outside of baseball, Arteaga and Ysha are involved in the Ari Arteaga Foundation, whose mission is “help families with financial needs” get scholarships to attend parochial schools. Arteaga said Ari changed the quote on his Twitter bio shortly before his accident to “Be the light.’’

That Mark Light Field is nicknamed “the Light’’ is likely more than a coincidence to Arteaga. On Friday, that’s where he will take the field to begin his quest to return to Omaha.

“It might not happen overnight,’’ former UM pitcher and Arteaga teammate David Gil said. “But they couldn’t have picked a guy more Miami baseball.’’

Jim Morris said he told UM athletic director Dan Radakovich while Arteaga was in the interview process that “you’re not going to find anybody more loyal than J.D.

“Can he bring the program back? I can’t answer that. But no one is more prepared to take over this program. There are no guarantees in life. But this is the guy that deserves the opportunity.’’

“He understands the game,’’ agreed Radakovich. “He’s been here and seen the good and the bad. It was definitely J.D.’s time to take the reins.’’