Diamond seals UNLV-Air Force bond

This is a story born of pride and honor, of mutual respect and admiration, of friendly rivals having become more than that.

It is a story about how six college baseball games played 816 miles apart over the weekend shuffled the Mountain West Conference standings, but how they could not alter the atypical and special bond that has developed between the baseball coaches and players at UNLV and Air Force.

By beating then first-place New Mexico 7-4 at Wilson Stadium on Friday, the Rebels put some distance between themselves and the Falcons in the battle for the final spot in the upcoming MWC tournament here, and also opened the door for Texas Christian to overtake the Lobos at the top - which TCU did, by sweeping Air Force at the Academy.

UNLV finished conference play Sunday with an 11-7 loss to New Mexico, and Air Force would have to win all three games at New Mexico this weekend to knock the Rebels out of the tournament on UNLV's home field. Which, frankly, would be a little embarrassing, and terrible for attendance.

If the Rebels eliminate Air Force, UNLV coach Tim Chambers isn't going to apologize. But if you asked, he'd probably wish it were San Diego State the Rebels were eliminating, though he has all the respect in the world for Aztecs coach Tony Gwynn, for what he accomplished as a ballplayer and as a coach, for having developed Stephen Strasburg and whatnot.

But Tony Gwynn has never pulled 9 gs in an F-16 Fighting Falcon while being strafed with anti-aircraft fire in Bosnia or Kosovo or Macedonia or Iraq or one of those battle-torn countries in the Middle East that end in "stan," as many of Air Force's players past and present have and will; as Maj. Mike Kazlausky, the Air Force coach, did during the 20 years he flew C-17 Globemaster transports.

And that, combined with the academic rigors of being an Air Force cadet, warrants an altogether different type of respect.

"Chances are somebody on that team or last year's team is going to be missing in the next year or two," Chambers said. "You hate to think about it, but they are going to be out there fighting for our country, and there's a chance they might die.

"Our guys are worried about getting a valet job parking cars, or if they're going to be able to get a job at the swimming pool.

"Respect is the whole darn thing."

It was respect that prompted Chambers to become the first rival coach to accept Kazlausky's standing offer to tour the Academy when the teams played in Colorado last year and again this year. And when Air Force came to Las Vegas, the Rebels joined the Falcons for a similar outing at Nellis Air Force Base.

It was friendship that grew from these junkets.

When the teams played here last month, the Rebels honored the Falcons by wearing camouflage jerseys and caps. Chambers asked Kazlausky to throw out the first pitch, and Kazlausky coached the entire game in his olive drab flight suit.

When the national anthem was played, the Rebels held their hats on their shoulder and their hands over their hearts, the way the Falcons do it. This brought a tear to the major's eye.

A few days later he wrote a letter to UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood, saying that Chambers always will be more than a friend, that he had made the brass at the Academy proud, that he possesses the intangibles to be a great leader and molder of men. And then it was Chambers' turn to get emotional.

"When he asked me to throw out the first pitch, it left me speechless," said Kazlausky, who grew up in the northern Chicago suburbs before becoming a baseball star at Air Force during its halcyon days from 1993 to 1995 under Paul Mainieri, now coach at Louisiana State. "The respect he has shown me and to our players for their service to their country is something I won't forget."

Chambers and Kazlausky chat at least once a week and exchange texts after every game and before a lot of them. Kazlausky said it would be an honor to coach baseball with his friend someday; Chambers said he wouldn't be surprised if that happened.

Kazlausky said he will never tire of asking Chambers about how to pitch to this guy in that situation, or how to get the most from his bullpen, or how to create interest in a program where once there was none.

Chambers said he will never tire of asking Kazlausky about flying 16-hour missions to one of those battle-torn countries in the Middle East, about running into lightning and turbulence, about the wide-eyed 20-year-old airman next to him and another in back, counting on him to do some of that pilot (stuff), as Goose said to Maverick in "Top Gun."

And about how he had to hook up with another plane in midair and take on 300,000 pounds of fuel, and there was no stopping or turning back or wishing he had played baseball at some place like UNLV, where, during the summer, he could get a job parking cars.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.


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