By Jerry Duggan
When Miguel Menendez was hired as head baseball coach at Jesuit High School in Tampa in 2014, the school already had four state championships, including one the previous season. Menendez was expected to build on that rich tradition.
However, for Menendez, a “job well done” went far beyond simply adding to the school’s trophy case. Menendez has combined lessons he learned from his time as a player with the school’s emphasis on faith to develop young men of character.
Growing up in Key West, Fla., Menendez gravitated toward the game of baseball from a young age, hitting off a pitching machine behind his grandfather’s store by age 3. As a player, he led Key West High School to a state title in 1995, then went on to the University of Tampa and won an NCAA Division II national title in 1998.
He knew that baseball would continue to be his life’s passion, even after his days as a player were over.
In 2000, he was hired to teach and coach at his alma mater. After five years as an assistant, in 2005, Menendez took over as head coach, leading Key West through many successful seasons. Then, Jesuit Tampa came calling. It was a perfect fit.
“I love coaching, but I’m also a man of strong faith,” Menendez said. “To be able to incorporate my faith into my teaching and coaching is a real blessing, and something I didn’t have the opportunity to do before.”
Upon his arrival, Menendez sought to develop a program anchored in accountability and character.
“I love working with the incoming freshmen every year and getting them to buy into the program,” he said. “We want to win games, but more importantly, we want to lead balanced lives, centered on faith and academics.”
Menendez admits life can be a lot for teenagers but reminds his players the key to success is to stay grateful.
“Our guys understand that they’re blessed to play this game, and blessed to attend a school like Jesuit,” he said. “So many out there don’t have the opportunities that they do.”
With a solid culture in place, his teams have achieved consistent success, winning district titles in each of his first five seasons at the helm, including a state runner-up finish in 2017 and the school’s fifth state crown in 2019.
Last year was supposed to be another banner year for the program. The defending state champions returned a core group of 14 seniors, 13 of whom were planning to play collegiate baseball. Then, the pandemic hit.
“We were 9-0 and then had to shut everything down,” Menendez said.
What was a disappointing moment for his young men ended up being a lesson in perspective.
“It was a difficult situation, for sure, but it wouldn’t have been right for us to sulk when our season got cancelled,” he said. “In the midst of a global pandemic, we were fortunate to be in a better situation than so many. We lost the opportunity to play a game. So many lost so much more.”
Menendez made it a teachable moment.
“I always tell my players to savor every moment of your journey, because you never know when it will end,” he said. “When I gather with my old teammates, we don’t talk about the score of our games as much as we talk about the trips we went on and the memories we made. That’s what lasts a lifetime.”
Perhaps most rewarding for Menendez is watching young men develop over the course of their four years at Jesuit.
“When these guys come in as 14-year-olds and then graduate as men, you can see their growth – as players, yes, but as people of faith and character, too, ” he said.
Several Tampa Jesuit baseball players have converted to the faith in the last few years. Camden Minacci and Bennett Lee, both 2020 graduates, went through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and received the sacraments of initiation at the school: Minacci after his sophomore year and Lee after his senior year. Moments like these provide Menendez even more satisfaction than winning games.
“Whatever small part I may have played in helping these guys decide to pursue the faith, it brought me great joy,” he said. “I love coaching anywhere, but experiences like that are what make coaching here at Jesuit so special.”