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Sunday July 1, 2012Touching Home: Former Gator Wilkerson Reunites With Lopez On Special Night For Both

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

LUBBOCK, Texas -- Former Gators baseball coach Andy Lopez called the best player he ever coached on Thursday to catch up.

Lopez spent much of the week doing radio interviews, TV spots and all sorts of other stuff that happens only when you win a national championship like he did on Monday night when Arizona defeated South Carolina in the College World Series.

Lopez had barely slept since the Wildcats beat the two-time defending champs, but that didn't stop him from waking at 4:30 Saturday morning to catch a 7 a.m. flight from Tucson to Las Vegas. He spent two hours at the Vegas airport before boarding a flight to Lubbock.

"I came out for Brad,'' Lopez said.

The Brad that Lopez is talking about is Brad Wilkerson, the first three-time All-American in UF baseball history who later spent eight seasons in the majors.

Wilkerson's .381 average over three seasons and 26-11 record on the mound led Florida to the CWS in 1996 and '98 and made him a star. He was the ultimate game-changer Lopez called on constantly.

"In terms of showing up and literally controlling a baseball game, there wasn't anything he couldn't do,'' Lopez said Saturday. "There were times when I thought I probably could have put him at shortstop. Not to offend Mark Ellis, but he could just do everything."

Lopez recalled a game at Alabama during Wilkerson's freshman season. The Gators built a late lead with Wilkerson playing the outfield.

Lopez then decided to bring him in to pitch a couple of innings to preserve the lead. Wilkerson did his job as Lopez sent him back to the outfield and brought in closer and future big-league pitcher Paul Rigdon.

However, Rigdon had trouble putting the Crimson Tide away and Lopez waved toward the outfield for Wilkerson to come back to the mound and finish the game.

"It was a high school move but that's how good Brad Wilkerson was,'' Lopez said.

The two reminisced about that game and others on Saturday, a day to celebrate their past together and their recent accomplishments.

Wilkerson said prior to Saturday here at the College Baseball Night of Champions that he had not seen his college coach "since no telling how long."

Still, in March when Wilkerson first learned that he was going to be the first Florida player to be inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame, one of his first calls was to Lopez.

They talked about old times and made plans to reunite this summer. So back to that call Lopez made to Wilkerson on Thursday.

Finally back home in Arizona after nearly two weeks in Omaha, Lopez wanted to square up plans for his trip to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

He dialed Wilkerson's number. Wilkerson answered. They exchanged pleasantries and Lopez then asked where Wilkerson was.

"We're in Oklahoma,'' Wilkerson said.

"What? You're in Oklahoma? What's going on there?" Lopez asked.

"We're driving cross country,'' Wilkerson responded.

Lopez chuckled but wasn't surprised. Wilkerson always was unique if nothing else.

A native of Owensboro, Ky., Wilkerson opted to leave home to attend college in Florida. He now lives in West Palm Beach with his wife, Dana, and their three kids.

Since officially retiring from the big leagues three years ago -- Wilkerson was second in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2002 and hit 32 homers for the Expos in 2004 -- Wilkerson bought a luxury RV and has taken Dana and the kids on an extended vacation each summer.

All in the RV and stops at camp grounds.

"We had a little incident last year where she picked up a couple of ticks. She was like, 'I want my hotel life back.'  It happens,'' Wilkerson said. "She is enjoying it. I'm kind of turning her into a little redneck girl."

This year's trip included a special detour, a chance for the kids -- Ella, Ava and Max, ages 3 to 8 -- to learn more about their dad's past.

Wilkerson's parents also came along for the special occasion.

"We're happy just to be able to come out here and enjoy a family vacation,'' Wilkerson said.

As he made the 18-hour drive from Kentucky to Lubbock for Saturday's festivities, Wilkerson thought back to his days at Florida and his teammates and the special times they shared together.

He'll reflect more on the drive back to Florida, which Wilkerson said would take about 27 hours of drive time. They don't have to be anywhere until Thursday night in Orlando so they plan to cruise at a steady pace and enjoy the ride.

On the way home Wilkerson will drive past road signs for UF on Interstate-75. More memories will flash through his mind and how he became the first UF player to make the Hall of Fame.

"I got a lot of individual accolades, but to be on great teams and get a chance to play in two College World Series, that's what college baseball is all about,'' Wilkerson said. "That's why I went to the University of Florida.

"It's very surprising that I am the first one and I'm very honored. I'm sure I'm not going to be the last."

His baseball career may be over, but Wilkerson is working toward future goals. He is finishing his UF degree online and is scheduled to graduate in December.

He has been working with kids in West Palm recently and is considering a coaching career to remain involved in the game that helped him earn more than $10 million in the majors.

Of course, Lopez played an important role in Wilkerson's journey. On Saturday night, they finally had a chance to catch up in person.

"It was unbelievable to see him win a national championship this year,'' Wilkerson said. "I'm so proud of him. To have him come here and support this event and to support me, it shows what kind of coach he is and what kind of person he is."

Lopez wouldn't have missed it. Not even a lack of sleep could keep him away.

"He is well-deserving of it,'' Lopez said. "He is the best player I ever coached."


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