Fun-loving shortstop makes life fun for Missouri baseball team

Friday, April 16, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Missouri senior infielder Michael Liberto practices at Taylor Stadium on Thursday, April 15, 2010. This is Liberto's second year playing for the University of Missouri.

COLUMBIA — At age 12, Michael Liberto was eager to make friends when his family moved to a new neighborhood.

He didn’t wait until the school year started. Before his family had completely moved in, Liberto went into his neighbors’ house without a knock and found three boys about his age. With his patented toothy smile, Liberto introduced himself and was ready to play. Their response?

“Who is this kid?” Liberto said, laughing as he reminisced about his childhood.

Liberto and those three boys went to high school together and are still best friends today.

When Liberto, the Missouri baseball team’s senior shortstop, transferred to the school last season, he showed that he hasn’t changed much from his days as an extroverted preteen.

Last year, when MU held its meeting for first-year athletes, Liberto found himself sitting behind the softball team’s student manager, Lauren Okruch. Liberto thought Okruch was attractive and started talking to her. Long story short, they’ve been dating for more than a year.

Liberto said there isn’t an ounce of shyness that runs through his 5-foot-9, 165-pound body.

“I’m probably the most outgoing person,” Liberto said. “I love to be out there. I like to talk. If I see a group of people, I won’t be afraid to hop in there and say, ‘hey, what’s up guys?’ I’m just not scared.”

Liberto’s lack of reserve makes him the perfect player to hit leadoff for the Tigers.

The only thing that stopped him last season was a low batting average. This season, Liberto has been one of Missouri’s most consistent hitters. His play has forced coach Tim Jamieson to move him from the No. 9 spot to leadoff.

“I try to be a little spark plug,” Liberto said. “Try to get us going. I’m not that much of a rah-rah kind of guy. I do like to be the guy on Friday night to get the first hit. Especially on the road to stick it to the other crowd.”

Jamieson said that Liberto’s patience with the bat has also helped him gain the role.

“He doesn’t chase a lot of bad pitches,” Jamieson said. “That’s what you want at the top of the lineup, is a guy who’s going to see a lot of pitches, has a high on-base percentage and then can run.”

Jamieson said he loves having Liberto as a player and likes the high-energy that is always gushing out of his body.

“I think Mike enjoys life,” Jamieson said. “I don’t think it necessarily relates to winning and losing. Winning’s more fun, but he just loves life.”

Liberto is one of two seniors on the team. To go along with being the leadoff hitter, Jamieson sees Liberto as a role model for the younger players.

One of those players is Liberto’s good friend, Jesse Santo. Santo's situation is similar to Liberto's last season. Like Liberto, Santo transferred to MU from a junior college and is not hitting as well as he would like.But Santo said having Liberto as a leader on the team has helped him.

“He’s (Liberto) been there before, so he knows how it is coming from junior college and playing Big 12 baseball,” Santo said. “He’s just helped me through it a little bit.”

Liberto and Santos’ friendship does not end on the field. About five minutes after they met, Liberto was up to his old tricks.

Liberto will often come over to Santo’s house without knocking and watch HBO while nobody is home. Santo or one of his roommates will come home and see Liberto lounging around with a huge smile on his face, ready to hang out.

Santo loves the company and compared Liberto the crazy tall-haired neighbor from the TV sitcom Seinfeld.

“He’s definitely the Kramer of our house,” Santo said.

These kinds of antics might get Liberto laughs at times, but his teammates love him for it.

And if they don’t, Liberto said it doesn’t matter because he’s not going to change.

“I don’t know,” Liberto said. “... I’m good buddies with all these guys on the team. I don’t really have any enemies.”

 Missouri (18-14, 3-6 Big 12) starts a three-game series with Oklahoma State at 6 p.m, Friday at Taylor Stadium.

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