OKLAHOMA CITY – Tim Walton decided to visit an old friend on their birthday.
It was Kenny Gajewski’s 40th and the then Director of Operations at Tennessee was content with his life. He was back in the softball managerial world after spending the decade prior as the head groundskeeper at Oklahoma and owning his own turf business.
Gajewski was quite happy with how things were until his old buddy Walton walked through the door with an offer for Gajewski to think about.
Long before that meeting in Knoxville, the two met at Cerritos College in Norwalk, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.
Walton was a 17-year-old freshman, with Gajewski having been at Cerritos a year longer as a redshirt freshman. Both pitchers, the two spent a lot of time together and became fast friends.
“The experience I gained at that school shaped me to not only being a better baseball player and baseball person, but the people we had on our group, on our staff, were really, really incredible,” Walton said in a pre-Women’s College World Series press conference Wednesday. “Just a lot of the guys in that program really took me under their wings, taught me not only to play the game, how to act, cheer, pick pitches, pick signs, learn how to bunt, hit-and-run, things I never knew existed in the game of baseball. It translated from all the things I learned from a work ethic standpoint. It means a lot to me.”
The duo later transferred from Cerritos to OU and played for coach Larry Cochell. There Walton developed more into a pro talent type of prospect whereas Gajewski said he was more of the “glue guy.”
In 1994, the Sooners won the national championship over Georgia Tech, the second and most recent title for the OU baseball team. Playing on that squad and for Cochell helped Gajewski learn a bit about how he wanted to coach.
“I can remember a couple words that Coach Cochell would talk to us about: relax, intensity,” Gajewski said. “Those are words that stick with me. I think that's how we try to run our place. We have a lot of fun, but we are in tune.
“I wasn't as good as Tim, Russ Ortiz, these guys that played some pro ball, were Major League All-Stars, stuff like that. I was kind of glue. I think I was. At least that was my role. I got to pitch some. My role was glue.”
Walton said for a bunch of guys from California – he being from Cerritos and Gajewski from Los Alamitos – it was cool having Cochell show them the blue collar type of work ethic and it really rubbed off on them.
After that magical year in 1994, Gajewski was a graduate assistant at OU and then a volunteer assistant for a few years at Kansas State before he went into field and turf management.
Walton became an assistant for the softball team under a young coach named Patty Gasso. The now revered Sooner skipper – also a native Californian as she hails from Torrance – became something of a mother figure to the group, with Gajewski even referring to her as “Mom.”
“I'll admit it, I have known these guys, all of these guys, for over 20 years,” Gasso said. “To see where they started and where they are now really doesn't have a lot to do with me. It's more of them. They have an absolute desire to want to learn. They've always been that way.”
When Gasso led OU to its first national championship in 2000, Walton was there on her coaching staff and in the dugout was the groundskeeper Gajewski, who was talkative even way back then.
“He did talk some trash. I went over to the dugout and slapped him a couple times, say, ‘You can't say that,’” Walton said.
Gasso – who has won four titles at OU now – laughed at the fact Gajewski called her mom, but agreed it is neat to see the careers Walton and Gajewski have had since they left Norman.
Walton was the first to leave, first heading to Wichita State for a successful three-year stint before going to Gainesville to take over the Gators.
Gajewski stayed in Oklahoma for a bit, working the ground at Marita Hynes Field and L. Dale Mitchell Park, winning some awards along the way.
A time came when Walton called Gajewski after he got out of groundskeeping and into his own business, but Gajewski was content.
(He said) ‘I can't be an assistant softball coach coming from Champions Turf Management Company,’” Walton said. “At the end of the day, Kenny knows more about stuff, it doesn't have to be softball, baseball, groundskeeping, turf, dirt. He knows more about stuff. He's fun to be around. If he doesn't know what he's talking about, he'll fake it till he makes it. He makes you better. It was pretty easy for me.”
At some point, Gajewski had an epiphany, though and thought maybe it wasn’t too late to come back and give coaching a shot.
“As I got older, I started thinking I was born to be a coach and I got away from that,” Gajewski said. “I just made a weird turn, not the wrong turn because it has helped me be who I am now, but I made a turn that most people who want to coach don’t make.”
That was when Gajewski took the job with the Volunteers and in 2013, Walton came knocking, telling him it was much easier to get him an assistant job now that he was an administrator.
“You go through it at times and think, ‘Man, I’m 40. I’m a man.’ You just don’t know because the longer that you get and the farther you get away from that, it gets harder,” Gajewski said.
The two eventually reunited though after Gajewski gave it some thought and they had some successful seasons with the Gators. With Gajewski on his coaching staff, Walton won back-to-back national titles in 2014 and 2015, the Gators’ lone softball championships.
With that success came suitors for Gajewski, though, one being a once proud program that was on a string of down years in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
“Mike (Holder) called me from Oklahoma State was interested in Kenny being a candidate,” Walton said. “We had a long conversation about Kenny. I told him he would be lucky to have Kenny to revamp the program, get the program back into the winning ways they're used to.”
Gajewski was recruiting at the Scenic City softball showcase in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when Holder gave him a call as a followup to Gajewski’s interview.
“(Holder) talked to me for 20 minutes before he said anything,” Gajewski said. “I didn't need to be buttered up. Then he said, ‘You are the best guy.' I just said, ‘I’m in.’”
It was tough for Gajewski to tell Walton he was going to be the Cowgirls’ coach. It’s why during the press conference before OSU headed to Oklahoma City, Gajewski still teared up when thanking Walton for taking a chance on him.
Gajewski took over an OSU softball program and rebuilt it back up from the interior decorating out to the pitching staff and in four short years, took the Cowgirls back among the nation’s elite at the WCWS, OSU's first visit since 2011 and eighth overall.
Before his first game – against Walton and the Gators no less – Gajewski called Gasso to talk about the old days and also some advice as Gasso takes in the nation’s No. 1 ranked team in the Sooners.
“Kenny and I just kind of talked about the World Series, things that might help him,” Gasso said. “To watch Tim and what he's done throughout his career has been amazing. To feel like I might have a little piece of something to do with that is an absolute honor.
I don't get to see them a lot or tell them a lot because we're always in that win mode. But I'm really proud of these guys. It's really been cool to see their journey together, but also, I mean, the fact that we're all sitting here, a lot of this has gone through Oklahoma, is just a testimony to, I don't know, learning and rooting from afar. Just to be part of it is an honor.”
Gajewski could have stayed in groundskeeping or even as a director of operations, but he decided to take an offer from a buddy who remembered the slightly older pitcher-turned groundskeeper who helped him way back in junior college.
“I'm lucky to be around people like this,” Gajewski said. “But it's more than anything still about relationships. We just happen to be softball coaches. I'm the young one, they're the old ones. I kind of sit up here, I'm just going to learn. This is like a laboratory for us, keep learning and growing.”
“But I'm just super thankful for Tim and his family and Florida for taking a chance on a groundskeeper, went to be a director of ops, now sitting here at OSU as the head coach. I just have so much to be thankful for.”
The result – three coaches of three proud programs converging at the biggest stage of softball.
“Am I surprised that we are all sitting up here right now? No, I'm not,” Gasso said.