A Baseball Sanctuary
May 18, 2011
RALEIGH, N.C. - It was the longest six days of young Matt Bergquist's life. Eighteen months ago, he was a raw freshman trying to earn a starting job at shortstop for NC State's baseball team. He had just arrived from his home in Orange Park, Fla., and was just starting to feel comfortable with his new friends and teammates.
Not long after fall baseball practice began, Bergquist received a call from home, telling him that his father's plane was missing in a mountainous region of Afghanistan. For the next six days, the 18-year-old student dragged with him the weight of the world, across NC State's campus as he went to class, around the base paths of Doak Field at Dail Park as he fought for a starting job and into the private world he was just getting to know in this new home.
The fear that had always been a part of knowing his dad, a former United States Marine and former U.S. Customs Border Protection pilot, did something extremely dangerous went from the back of his mind to consuming his every thought.
The worst fears were finally confirmed when the wreckage of his father's Army C-12 Huron twin-engine turboprop plane was found a week after it went missing. Randy Bergquist, 54, died along with two other civilian contractors in a secluded and nearly impenetrable region in the southeast part of the country.
The elder Bergquist had been through at least six two-month tours in the Middle East while in the Marines, in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He retired from the military in 2007, but took a job with Avenge Inc., a Virginia-based subcontractor of Lockheed Martin. The official explanation of his job was to conduct "counter-narcoterrorism operations" in support of the NATO forces on the ground.
Matt really had no idea what that meant. He just knew that his father, who had vowed that this was his last tour of duty overseas, would not get to enjoy the land he had bought for retirement east of Asheville, N.C. And he'd never see his son play college baseball.
"Even though I knew what he did, I didn't spend too much time thinking about the danger of it," Bergquist said. "He'd done it for so long, and this was his last tour. So it was kind of a shock when it happened.
"Living life after that was pretty difficult. I guess it took me about a full year to really learn how to deal with it. Things just changed when he passed away."
There was a memorial service on Oct. 28, 2009, at the officer's club of the Jacksonville (Fla.) Naval Air Station, attended by hundreds of Bergquist's family and friends. Three days later, Matt was back with his teammates going through fall practice drills, a tough assignment for a freshman just finding his way around campus.
Randy Bergquist grew up in Bemidji, Minn., and joined the U.S. Marine Corps just out of high school. He served as an embassy guard in Switzerland, ended up in flight school and eventually found his way to the Customs Border Protection Academy. He and his wife Pam, who also worked for CBP, settled in Florida, where there were always interesting and usually harrowing stories to tell about their dangerous jobs, Matt says.
Randy handed his only child a baseball at the age of 5, and played catch with him whenever he was home. But Matt spent much of his childhood with his mom, playing around the state of Florida with various travel teams. He got to know the state so well, he knew he wanted to head north to play college baseball.
"It's just too hot down there," said the shortstop of Nordic descent. He was discovered by Wolfpack assistant coach Chris Hart and came with his parents to Raleigh on a recruiting visit.
"I'll never forget, we were standing in the Weisiger-Brown Building, down by the wrestling office and the candy machine," NC State baseball coach Elliott Avent said. "I just stood there and talked to his dad for a long time. I told Coach Hart, `I like him, but I really love his parents. Sign the kid, but make sure we keep the parents close too.'
"They are the toughest, most disciplined parents that I've seen around here in a long time."
Avent says helping Bergquis through losing his father was the toughest thing he has had to do in 31 years of coaching. He mainly regrets that he never got to know Randy Bergquist better. But he also feels a strong bond to make sure Matt has a good experience under his care at NC State. He knew that by the end of last season, Bergquist was struggling, both emotionally and academically.
That's part of why Bergquist has kept quiet about his personal ordeal for the last 18 months. He spent most of his freshman season as the Wolfpack's starting shortstop, after winning a hotly contested competition with fellow freshman Chris Diaz. Considering what he was carrying with him, he had an outstanding campaign, playing in 56 games, hitting .294 and driving in 28 runs.
But he needed time to absorb everything that happened. He only played a few weeks of summer baseball, then returned to Florida for the rest of his break. Last fall, Bergquist returned to Raleigh and began to see a counselor to get him through the final stages of the grieving process and into the next phase of his life. It helped tremendously.
"Last year, I was kind of sentimental about it last year," Bergquist said. "But this year I'm growing."
It helped that his mother, Pam, moved to Raleigh last spring, taking a four-month lease at a local apartment complex to be near her son. She's hardly missed a game in two seasons, watching with pride as her son continues to grow as an infielder. Also retired from the customs agency, she renewed her lease for this season, and continues to be near her son.
"I'm not a momma's boy or anything like that," Bergquist said. "But it's been good having her close by."
Bergquist has gotten plenty of help from the Wolfpack coaching staff and his teammates, Diaz in particular. Last season, they were inseparable, even though they were competing for the same position. Bergquist made the most starts at short last year, but they knew there would be a time for them to play together in the middle of the infield later in their careers.
"We were always together, because we were duking it out for shortstop," Bergquist said. "My mom called us `best frenemies.' We got along great, but we were fighting for the same spot. We just developed a great friendship."
Truth be told, the competition last year and the constant fight to keep his job helped Bergquist take his mind off the other things he was dealing with emotionally.
"He needed something to distract him from all that he was going through," Diaz said. "He's always been a competitor, so when it came to playing baseball, he was able to separate it from all the other things that were going on. You could tell he was hurting inside, so we all tried to be there for him and be good teammates."
Last fall, Bergquist played shortstop and Diaz was at second, but in the winter, just before the start of the season, Avent switched the two, putting Diaz at the same spot where his older brother Jonathan played for the Wolfpack and moving Bergquist to second base, a position he had never played before.
Bergquist has not only learned the new position, he has excelled at it. Avent says he's one of the fastest players he's ever had at turning the double play. Bergquist says the transition has been pretty smooth, even though it took him a while to get used to waiting back a little bit on ground balls and making the shorter throw to first base.
Where things have really improved for Bergquist are in his productivity. Heading into the Wolfpack's final series of the regular season, which begins Thursday at Boston College, his batting average is still around .290, but he leads the Wolfpack with 37 runs batted in. He loves hitting with runners on base, a point he proved well on April 20 ago against UNC Wilmington when he collected three hits and a career-high seven RBIs.
On April 3, the day after the Wolfpack baseball team celebrated Military Appreciation Day at Doak Field at Dail Park, Bergquist had a pair of doubles and a single to drive in six runs in the Wolfpack's 17-5 victory over Wake Forest. For the year, he has three home runs and 13 doubles.
"I think Matt's real growth has been from March to May," Avent said. "I've seen so much change in him, in his maturity level, in his ability to have fun, the way he goes about his business. It all starts with his work ethic and determination. "I thought he would do a good job with the transition to second base. He did it quickly and easily."
Bergquist learned plenty in the time he spent with his father, not the least of which was strong discipline and a great work ethic, two things that have allowed him to move forward with his life and his baseball career.
"My dad was someone who liked to get dirty and hustle around," Bergquist said. "We had a great relationship, but, unfortunately, I didn't get to spend as much time as most kids get to spend with their fathers.
"But he taught be about baseball, and that has been my sanctuary for the last year and a half."
By Tim Peeler, email@example.com.