Move-in finds common ground with Hickman baseball coach

Thursday, April 18, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Senior Hickman baseball player Aaron Tajnai throws pitches in the bullpen during practice Wednesday at Hickman High School.

COLUMBIA – On the Hickman baseball team’s first day of tryouts this year, Doug Mirts, the school’s athletics director, told coach Dan Devine Jr. that he had a new player. Aaron Tajnai, a 6-foot, 190-pound third baseman and pitcher, had just moved from Wisconsin to Columbia in the middle of his senior year.

“Then it all came back, you know,” Devine said.

It was a strikingly similar move to what Devine had experienced during his senior year in high school. Only this time, it was in reverse.

* * *

Feb. 25 was Tajnai’s (pronounced Tye-nye) first day at Hickman. He had just moved from Greendale, Wis., where he had lived his entire life, to join his father, who had started a job as an analyst at IBM.

He knew none of his classmates.Teachers introduced him in each of his classes, and during lunch, he sat by himself.

Because snow still covered much of Columbia, including Hickman’s baseball field, the tryouts were mostly held in the gym, where state championship banners, including one for the Kewpies’ 2005 title in baseball, hung over the players. The old hardwood floor surely took its fair share of impact from off-target throws.

Tajnai ran, stretched, threw and hit, the normal tryout routine but also stayed a bit later so the coaches could get a closer look at him.

After practice, Tajnai went back to a mostly unfurnished house without TV or Internet. His only company was his father and Goldie, his half-blind 18-year-old cat he calls “kind of my older brother.” His mother is still in Wisconsin trying to sell the family’s house, and his brother attends the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Most of Tajnai’s clothes were still with the moving company and would arrive the next day.

Devine immediately knew that he could relate to Tajnai's story.

* * *

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when his father was Missouri’s head football coach and athletics director – the team’s indoor training complex bears his name – Devine attended Hickman.

His father was a football mind, and he was a football player, a linebacker and guard.

“I look like one, don’t I?” he said, joking about his unimposing height and weight, more suited for his former profession of schoolteacher than a bruising tackler.

So when the Green Bay Packers hired Devine's father as head coach in January 1971 and the family moved to Wisconsin during the summer, Devine decided to stay in Columbia with his sister, Jennifer, who had graduated college and was living on her own.

He thought the Kewpies had a solid football team that year, and he wanted to finish his high school football career where he started it.

He knew that if he was going to join his family in Wisconsin, it would be best to leave Columbia soon. So after football concluded, around Thanksgiving week, Devine moved to a small town northwest of Green Bay.

* * *

When Tajnai's father took the job with IBM, Tajnai knew he was going to leave Wisconsin eventually. When his father, who had been living in a hotel, asked his son to join him, Tajnai hesitated at first.

But he ended up making the decision about a week before baseball tryouts to join his father in Columbia in their rented house, a little more than a mile from the high school.

* * *

For Devine, Pulaski High School — located in a town known for its “Pulaski Polka Days” celebration during the summer — was a stark change from Hickman. Its student body was less than half the size of Devine's last school.

Although plenty of people knew Devine’s name, they didn’t necessarily know him as a person. He eventually settled in with a group of friends where the relationship went beyond name recognition. And like Tajnai, he joined the baseball team.

* * *

When Devine and Tajnai met, the two talked during the tryout and then out in the hall afterwards. Tajnai started asking questions and found out more about Devine ’s coaching heritage. Devine asked about his experience of coming to Missouri and how he was adjusting to his new home. It became a back-and-forth between them.

“I hadn’t really thought about that (his experience moving in high school) very much, but then as soon as I heard Aaron’s story, I said ‘Aaron, that sounds really familiar,’” Devine said.

Tajnai said hearing Devines story “shocked” him.

“You know, I was even more excited to play then” Tajnai said. “You know, I have such a great coach that knows your situation, has gone through it. And knows what you’re going through basically with the guys cause he’s done it before, too.”

Tajnai's skills showed the Kewpies’ coaching staff all it needed to see, a steady-fielding third baseman and pitcher who could put a good swing on the ball.

During tryouts he ended one scrimmage, which was played on Hickman’s artificial turf football field, with a hit that Devine estimates would have been a home run on a normal field.

All that had to be done with Tajnai was to “fit him into the puzzle.”

Tajnai is Hickman's starting third baseman and occasional pitcher, hitting in the middle of the team’s batting order. He hit a single to score the winning run in the Kewpies’ 6-5 win over Fort Zumwalt West and hit a two-run home run against Francis Howell.

* * *

Tajnai took a chance with his baseball career when he decided to come to Columbia. It’s worked out so far, and he has hopes of playing competitively in college.

But he still has to deal with the issue of trying to fit in at a relatively gigantic high school that he’ll only attend for another couple of months.

He has befriended several people on the baseball team, such as fellow seniors Jared Hyler and Gage Kiesling, and has taken to going out to lunch with a group, a big change from his first day.

Just as the baseball team at Pulaski gave Devine. a group to build around, Tajnai has rallied around his teammates.

“I mean, if it weren’t for these guys, I wouldn’t know anyone,” he said.

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