Touching base with Eric Wedge

WSU head baseball coach

Written by Joe Stumpe

The hype you heard about Eric Wedge is true: Wichita State University’s new baseball coach exudes enough drive and enthusiasm to convince anyone that a return to the program’s glory days is just a matter of time.

“We’ve got a lot of energy with the program right now,” Wedge said last month in his office at Eck Stadium. “The skyboxes are sold out, season tickets are ramping up. When I’m out and about, (people) want to be a part of it. I think they sense what’s coming.”

“I don’t have a timetable on it, because I’m not that smart,” he added. “But it’ll happen.”

Wedge, who was hired in late May, represents a link to the program’s pinnacle as the starting catcher on its 1989 national championship team. He went on to play three years in the major leagues, with the Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies, then managed for a total of 10 years with the Cleveland Indians and the Seattle Mariners, being named American League Manager of the Year in 2007.

After working for ESPN, Wedge returned to baseball as a player development advisor for the Toronto Blue Jays. He wanted to coach again, but had his eyes set on another big league team before WSU came calling.

“Quite frankly, this is the only place I would have come back to coach college baseball. This is where my heart is. The baseball program is a big part of my DNA.”

Wedge said there were good things happening before his arrival, despite the program’s mediocre record and failure to reach the NCAA postseason since the school replaced coaching legend Gene Stephenson with Todd Butler six years ago. Walking a visitor to his office window, Wedge points across the ballfield to where a new indoor baseball training complex is under construction behind the third base line.

“When that’s all said and done, we’ll be one of the top five baseball complexes in the country,” he said.

Interestingly, the 1989 team enjoyed none of those trappings when it brought home the championship. What that team and others coached by Stephenson had — and what Wedge intends to bring back — can be summed up in one word: toughness.

“I can’t speak for what has happened here in the last five, six years, but I can speak for what’s going to happen. It starts with a culture and mindset of learning the toughness, one of competitive nature, and what it means to respect the game and be a good teammate.”

Thinking back to that 1989 team, Wedge said it succeeded because players “cared about the guy to their left, cared about the guy to their right, and cared about the game of baseball.”

Wedge acknowledged that the college game has changed tremendously over the past 30 years, with the power base shifting even more to the south, but says he “won’t use that as an excuse.” He’s also happy that the Shockers now play in the tougher American Athletic Conference. “We want to play the best teams. That’s how you know where you are.”

Wedge has seen few of the players he’s inherited in action and won’t do so until the next semester begins. So far, his time has been spent building a staff, recruiting and rebuilding a fan base.

“We all want the same thing for Wichita State,” he said. “And we all want the same thing for the city of Wichita. I strongly believe the city of Wichita benefits greatly by Wichita State athletics.”

Wedge builds new staff

Eric Wedge replaced most of his predecessor’s staff with a group boasting deep ties to the Shocker baseball program.

The lone holdover is Mike Pelfrey, who came aboard as pitching coach in January. Pelfrey pitched for WSU from 2003–05, earning first-team All-American status during his last year. Drafted ninth overall by the New York Mets, Pelfrey went on to pitch 12 years in the majors with New York, the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox.

“I didn’t really know Mike before but we hit it off right away,” Wedge said. “We were in line with our thought process and what was important to us.”

Loren Hibbs, the new assistant athletic director for baseball operations and player development, was a standout outfielder for the Shockers from 1982–84, then served as an assistant coach during the years when Wedge played. Hibbs spent the past 27 years as head coach of the Charlotte 49ers at the University of North Carolina

“What he had is what I didn’t have, and that’s Division 1 college coaching experience,” Wedge said.

Mike Sirianni, the assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, played college baseball for Arkansas State University. He was head assistant coach at Newman University for three years and a volunteer assistant coach for the Shockers from 2015–16 before serving as head coach of Regis University, a Division II school in Denver, for three years.

“I had over a hundred people hit me up for that job, more so than when I managed in the big leagues, which says a lot about Wichita State and the baseball program,” Wedge said. He said Sirianni has the recruiting experience and “backbone to say what needs to be said I’m a strong personality. I realize that. I’m not looking for yes people.”

Former Shocker head coach Gene Stephenson won’t have an official role with the program, Wedge said, but “unofficially, he’s still a great ally of the program.”

“He’s always a phone call away when I need advice.”

 
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