Gregg Ritchie knows he raised some eyebrows when he decided to leave his job as a major league hitting coach with the Pirates in order to take over as head coach at his alma mater, George Washington. That career path is just about unheard-of.
"A lot of people say, 'That's the major leagues,' " said Ritchie, who was introduced as GW's new coach last week. "Yeah, you're right, that's the major leagues. It's a great, fantastic thing—it's unbelievable. It's the pinnacle of the baseball world, really. But at the same time, spending all that time away from your family, wanting to become a better father . . . This is a great opportunity to do something you really love, and do it somewhere you really love, and be home with your family at the same time. That's the trifecta. It made it a lot easier decision.
"I know some people don't understand it, but when it's family, it made it easier."
Ritchie said he hasn't spent a summer at home—which remains about 45 miles south of GW, where he lived in high school—since he was 15. Travel baseball, college baseball, pro baseball, followed by a successful coaching career in the pro ranks has kept Ritchie on the road since the early 1980s.
So after George Washington parted ways with eighth-year coach Steve Mrowka at the end of the regular season, Ritchie said there was "mutual interest" in the possibility of him taking over as head coach—but not until his commitment to the Pirates was fulfilled. It was rewarding for Ritchie to see the group of hitters he helped develop in his previous role as Pittsburgh's minor league hitting coordinator—players like Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer—blossom in the big leagues.
"I just feel good that I was able to spend that much time with all those guys and see them get to the big leagues," Ritchie said. "Those were the guys I was in charge of developing in my five years as the hitting coordinator. Seeing them have success—we haven't bridged that gap of getting to the playoffs, but we made great strides. It was a great, great thing."
San Francisco Giants East Coast scouting supervisor John Castleberry coached Ritchie at GW in the mid-80s. Castleberry praised GW athletics director Patrick Nero for having the patience to wait until October to hire Ritchie. He also applauded Ritchie for valuing family and the opportunity to reinvigorate his alma mater to the extent that he was willing to walk away from the Pirates after working so hard "to get to the top of the mountain."
"I am excited, as one of the ex-coaches and Hall of Famer at GW, for this hire," Castleberry wrote in an e-mail. "He is a great teacher—not a good teacher, a great teacher. He is honest and true to his core beliefs, which is hard to find now at the college level. I believe his loyalty was shown by how he handled this situation.
"It may take some time because of the timing of his hire, but in the long run the program has just made a statement that it wants to be one of the best in the Northeast."
And Ritchie isn't shy about his goals, which are far loftier than just competing in the Northeast.
"My goal is not just to win the (Atlantic 10), it's to get to Omaha," Ritchie said. "If you can't speak it you can't do it, plain and simple.
"People say, 'How can you be so bold? You guys won eight games in conference last year.' I say, 'How can I not be so bold? You want me to try to finish second?' Our goal's not to finish second, our goal's to finish first. I know we've got an uphill thing to achieve, but so what?"
Coaches who use that sort of language to set forth a bold vision for their programs—from Ray Birmingham at New Mexico to Terry Rooney at Central Florida—have had success turning their programs into consistent NCAA tournament contenders in recent years. There seems to be great value in getting players to believe they can achieve at a higher level.
And there is reason to believe Ritchie and his staff are capable of getting the most out of their players. Ritchie points out that the coaching staff has World Series rings at the big league level (Ritchie worked for the White Sox when they won the 2005 Series), the Division I level (associate head coach Tom Sheridan was a member of the coaching staff for James Madison's 1983 CWS team, and new assistant Dave Lorber served on Stony Brook's staff last year) and the D-III level (Sheridan turned Mary Washington (Va.) into a perennial power during 25 years as head coach).
Sheridan, who led the program as associate head coach from Aug. 10 until Ritchie's hire in October, has known Ritchie for more than two decades. Ritchie even served as his assistant at Mary Washington for two falls while he was playing pro ball in the Giants system, an arrangement that also gave him a place to work out in the offseason.
"I've known him for some time. He's the driving force, he's the glue—he's just a great person," Ritchie said of Sheridan. "We're a tough staff in that we expect a lot. You can please me in a lot of situations, but it's tough to satisfy me."
The Colonials also have the infrastructure in place to be successful. Their home field—Barcroft Park in nearby Arlington, Va.—received a $3 million facelift last fall, including a new press box and concessions area, new seating, dugouts and bullpens and a synthetic turf field. It's a far cry from Ritchie's playing days, when the Colonials played and practiced at a municipal softball field on the Ellipse—a park in between the White House and the Washington Monument.
"It had a basic short backstop with no top, two wooden benches on either side, no dugouts, no power, no running water, no fence, no lines on the infield," Ritchie recalled. "It had basically tourists walking back and forth from the White House to the Washington Monument. Our head coach, one of the most impactful people in my life, was a part-time coach who worked for the National Geological Survey full-time.
"I would say this program has come and come and continued to come. We now have one of the premier ballparks in the A-10 for sure, and one of the most beautiful ballparks in this region . . . I let these guys know there are are no excuses for not playing great baseball, because you know what? We played at the Ellipse, and we played great baseball. We were beating Maryland and these ACC teams.
"We have a beautiful complex at Barcroft Field. But a field isn't everything. We control our own destiny. We control how prepared we are to play this game, the attitude we take out there, the character we take out there. When you do that, good things are gonna happen."
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