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Embracing a New Role: J.D. Arteaga

Embracing a New Role: J.D. Arteaga

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2024 edition of Hurricanes Magazine.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – In the harried, busy summer months after he landed the job of his dreams, J.D. Arteaga found himself doing all the typical things a new head coach has to do.

He met with his players. Worked through the process of interviewing assistants and building his staff. He went through a series of media interviews, photo shoots and press conferences.

And once the school year began, he found himself back on the diamond with the Hurricanes as they went through their intrasquad, fall ball scrimmages. It was after those practices wrapped up, as he sat reflecting on the work his team had done, that Arteaga had a revelation.

“We have an exercise at the end of the fall where we hand out two questionnaires. One, you put your name on it and you just kind of have simple questions about the players to get to know their personal goals and some of their mentality,” Arteaga said. “And then there’s another one that’s anonymous where some of the questions are more about lineups and ranking hitters and pitchers, things like that.

“As I started looking at them, and thinking what our lineup is going to look like, it hit me, ‘Wow, soon, I’m going to have to do this hopefully 70-plus times during the season. I’m going to put a lineup together and it’s going to be challenging. It’s going to be challenging, but that’s a good thing, right? That means we have a lot of talent and there’s a lot of competition.”

For the better part of his 21 years as a part of Miami’s coaching staff, Arteaga’s primary focus was ensuring the Hurricanes’ pitchers were at their best on a day-to-day basis, on and off the field.

Now, as Miami’s new head coach, that focus has shifted.

It’s his responsibility to make sure every player in the Hurricanes clubhouse is at their best.

That’s going to be a change, of course, but it’s one the coach is happily embracing.

“Well, now the audience is a little bigger,” Arteaga quipped. “But ultimately, it’s the same concept. We’ve got to come together at the end of the day and be the best group possible. So really, on the field, it’s been the same way. Where normally, I used to just talk to pitchers and maybe a little to position players and hitters, now it’s talking to everybody and just giving my input about everything that’s going on the field.”

For Arteaga, baseball – particularly Hurricanes baseball – has long been a way of life.

He grew up playing the game under the guidance of his father, Juan Diego Arteaga, Sr. – a Cuban immigrant who loved the game and passed that love on to his son.

During Arteaga’s childhood, he and his father spent many a Saturday driving around South Florida, picking Arteaga’s teammates up at their respective homes and bringing them to the ballpark for practices and games.

When he wasn’t playing ball himself, a young Arteaga often made his way to Mark Light Field to watch the Hurricanes play. And once he became a multi-sport standout at Miami’s Westminster Christian, he began entertaining the idea of becoming a Hurricane himself, though he concedes that, like many teenagers, he briefly considered leaving his hometown for college.

Ultimately, though, he came to Miami as a walk-on first baseman – with an ACL he’d torn his senior year of high school.

Arteaga worried that with his injury he wouldn’t be able to stay on the roster. So, he told his coaches that in high school, he’d also pitched, and he was confident he could do it at the college level, too.

He knew that would allow him to get on the field, without having to run much.

“I never swung the bat again,” he said simply. “That was it.”

The first baseman-turned-pitcher went on to become one of the most successful hurlers in Miami history.

Arteaga played for the Hurricanes from 1994-1997, helped Miami make four straight College World Series appearances and his name still features prominently in the Hurricanes’ record book.

He remains the winningest pitcher in Miami history with 43 victories. His 72 starts are still a Miami record. And he ranks second in innings pitched (458.1) and fifth in strikeouts (343).

After college, Arteaga was drafted by the New York Mets. He went on to spend six seasons in the Mets’ and Houston Astros’ organizations and before joining the Texas Rangers in 2003.

But through all his time in professional baseball, Arteaga stayed connected to the Hurricanes.

He often trained and threw bullpen sessions at The Light and spent time with the current Hurricanes players and coaches who now called the park home.

One of the people he spoke with most? His former Miami coach, Jim Morris, who before Arteaga packed up to head to spring training with the Rangers that spring, asked the pitcher about his future.

“He’s been around a long time and he kind of starts to see the writing on the wall,” Arteaga said of that fateful conversation. “I was 26 years old, in the minor leagues and he asked me, ‘What do you want to do if baseball doesn’t work out?’ And I said, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work out as a player, I want to coach in college’ and he said to me that if I decided to do that, to let him know.

“So, I said, ‘Well, I will. But there’s one thing – I’m not leaving the city of Miami.’”

The two exchanged a few laughs about how that limited Arteaga’s options and the pitcher left South Florida for spring training in Arizona.

Two weeks later Arteaga caught a breaking news update on television.

Miami had fired its pitching coach and Arteaga had a feeling his life was about to change.

“I knew [Morris] was going to call me. They had played a series that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I’m in Arizona, we get done with our workout, and around noon, I got in my car, and sure enough, I had a missed call from Coach Morris,” Arteaga recalled. “But before I called him back, I called my wife and said, ‘You know, Coach just called. He’s going to offer me the job’ and she said whatever you want to do, know I support you.”

Arteaga was right. When he called Morris back, a job offer as Miami’s new pitching coach awaited.

He joined the Hurricanes seven games into their season and in his first game as a coach – on the road against a ranked Tennessee team – Arteaga realized just how much Morris trusted him.

“I can’t remember the exact situation, but it was in Friday’s opening game, and we were basically jammed up or something,” Morris said. “He looks over at me and goes, ‘What do you think?’ and right in the middle of the game, I said, ‘I think you’re the pitching coach’ and I turned away.”

Said Arteaga, “That’s when it kind of hit home, like ‘yeah, it’s my decision.’ … At the time, I thought, ‘He really trusts me.’ … That really built my confidence.”

That trust Morris had in his former pitcher would only grow over the course of the next two decades. And it is one of the reasons why Morris is confident Arteaga will now thrive in his new role as the leader of the Hurricanes’ program.

“He’s a great person and pretty easy going, but when the lights are on, he’s a special competitor,” Morris said. “We’re going to see a different J.D. when they turn the lights on. … He’s done everything it takes to win as a player and that’s a great thing when you can compete at the level he’s competed at. He figured out how to get [opponents] out and I think he can carry that over as a coach and be able to figure out how to beat people on the other side of the field and in that other dugout. And I’m sure he can’t wait.”

Morris still knows his former pitcher well. Arteaga has indeed been counting down the days until Miami’s opener against the New Jersey Institute of Technology on Friday.

Making the experience of preparing to coach his first season at his alma mater even more special is that fact that his daughter, Ariana, started her freshman year at Miami in January. And every expectation is that father and daughter will be able to share their new journey as Hurricanes together.

But the Arteaga family knows there will be bittersweet moments, too.

Arteaga Sr., the man who taught Arteaga to love the game, passed away when his son was in high school and never saw Arteaga pitch at Miami or become a coach.

And in 2018, Arteaga’s son, Ari – who grew up at The Light with his father – was killed in a single-car accident that left the coach, his family, and the Hurricanes devastated.

That neither Arteaga Sr. or Ari Arteaga will be at The Light this season hurts, but the Arteagas believe Ari’s spirit will be with his father on Opening Day and beyond.

And Arteaga Sr.’s coaching influence has stayed with his son since those early practices at Tamiami Park and the Boys and Girls Club.

“We know that Ari is behind everything that happens in our family,” said Ysha Arteaga, the coach’s wife. “We don’t have him with us, but we’re a family of faith. … Every time I pray, I’m like, ‘God, please let our son be this force of blessings for us and guide us through anything we do.’ … So, yes, it will be bittersweet, but we know that Ari was with us every step of the way, helping our family. … He’s with us.”

Said Arteaga, “My dad was an advocate of really just helping kids and families that needed it. It didn’t matter what sport it was, and it didn’t matter who they were or where they lived. If we had a 9 a.m. practice on Saturday, we’d leave our house around 6 because we had to drive all the way up to Hialeah and then over to [Miami] Beach to pick kids up and get those kids to practice. … I’d like to think I’m a giving person like that. If someone’s in need, I’m there. That’s what I’ve always thought, what I always try to teach my kids. Just be a good person. … That’s the greatest lesson I learned from my dad; be the best person you can be.”

That approach, that mentality, is one Arteaga intends to carry with him as he takes over as Miami’s head coach.

More than anyone, he understands the expectations that come with coaching in Coral Gables. He knows the goal is to get to Omaha and the College World Series every season.

And that’s what he wants to see the Hurricanes do.

He also wants to see his players become the best versions of themselves off the field, too.

“I want them to know there’s so many ups and downs in life, right? Getting them to understand that life’s a roller coaster, you have your ups and downs,” Arteaga said. “When you’re heading in a downward spiral, it’s about leveling off first and then getting back up. And when you’re riding high, understand you stay there as long as you can, but there’s going to be a dip in the road coming and you need to be ready to handle it all. … Those dips are what make the success that much sweeter.”

Said Ysha Arteaga, “There have been ups and downs in his career, some great seasons, and some challenging seasons. But he’s learned through all of that and helped his players respond. … When he played his four years at UM, they had great chemistry, great team bonding and team unity. And he wants his team now to experience that, to experience what he experienced as a player. … His goal has really always been Omaha. As a player, he went all four years. … That’s how you finish the season. You end up in Omaha and he wants to make that a reality again, that we go every year. … Keeping his team together, inspiring them, motivating them, and making them the best that he can possibly make them and bringing out their best, that’s his goal.”