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Sprague follows twin trends to Pacific
by John Manuel
Few athletes have the track record that Ed Sprague assembled during his playing career. And we’re not talking about the .247 career average or 152 home runs in his 11-year big league career.
Sprague helped Stanford win back-to-back College World Series championships in 1987-88 as a third baseman. In 1988, he was a member of the U.S. Olympic team, which won the gold medal in Seoul, South Korea, when baseball was still a demonstration sport.
Then, in 1992-93, Sprague was the starting third baseman as the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series championships. So he knows a little something about winning.
“I always tell people that the first title we won at Stanford is still the most exciting memory of my career,” Sprague said. “You’re with those guys every day, you live with them, you play with them, and to get to the pinnacle of your sport like that, it was amazing.
“Coach (Mark) Marquess taught us all that with hard work and organization, a lot of good things can happen, and that’s the lesson I hope I took from him.”
Sprague will get to apply the lessons learned from a long pro career and from Marquess as the new head coach at Pacific. He took over the program last summer after the resignation of Quincey Noble, and the Tigers won the first game of the Sprague Era, beating Brigham Young 5-4 in front of a school-record crowd of 754. The rest of the weekend didn’t go as well, with a 12-1 loss to Saint Mary’s and a 9-3 defeat against Nevada.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Sprague said. “We probably shouldn’t have won the first game, considering we made five errors. We have a lot of work to do, but we have the time and the support to get it done.”
Not Quite Working From Home
Sprague is part of two trends in college baseball. First is the recent spate of ex-big leaguers returning to college campuses, a trend that includes BYU coach Vance Law, Princeton’s Scott Bradley and the most obvious example, San Diego State’s Tony Gwynn.
“Any one of us probably could have continued in the pro ranks if we’d wanted to,” Sprague said. “I know for my sake, the travel aspect and dragging your family around the country was something I was ready to be done with. There’s some travel involved here, but I think most guys when they retire enjoy being done with the kind of travel you have in pro ball.
“I always loved college baseball, the excitement of this level. Plus, my house is five minutes away.”
The Stockton, Calif., native is also part of another trend, which has presumably less growth potential. Sprague is the third member of Stanford’s championship teams to become a Division I head coach, following California’s David Esquer (who played beside Sprague in ’87 as the shortstop) and Gonzaga’s first-year coach, Mark Machtolf.
He said Marquess and Esquer were among the first people he called when he began to look into the Pacific job.
“I asked coach Marquess what I would be getting into here,” he said. “Can I be successful at Pacific? He said I could if I put in the time and the effort necessary, and if we get the university support. We’re getting that now. We have a university president and athletic director who want to make baseball a priority, and that makes all the difference.
“I’ve stayed in contact with David and Mark (Machtolf), and they seem to enjoy coaching. It will help to have friends who have done this and experienced some of the challenges I’m going to face.”
Another experienced hand helping Sprague is his top assistant, Steve Pearce, who was an assistant coach at Fresno State under Bob Bennett for 10 seasons. Pearce is one of the West Coast’s most respected assistant coaches and came highly recommended to Sprague.
“When I took the job, I called around for names of assistants who would be good to hire, and his name kept coming up. He’s been invaluable, a huge asset for me.”
No Easy Task
Sprague takes over a program mired in the second division of the Big West Conference, one of the nation’s best. Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State are perennial College World Series contenders, while UC Irvine and UC Riverside have entered Division I with gusto in the last three years. Cal State Northridge and UC Santa Barbara also have earned regional berths this decade, while Cal Poly has one of the league’s best facilities. Pacific, though, has never earned a regional berth and has finished last or next-to-last in the Big West every year since 1999.
Sprague is one part of the school’s attempted improvement in baseball. Agent Scott Boras, who represented Sprague late in his playing career, is another driving force. Boras is a former Pacific player, an alumnus (he has three degrees from the school) and a significant donor. He was also a member of the search committee that picked Sprague.
“He grilled me about it, really,” Sprague said with a laugh. “He has a lot of emotional ties to the school and really cares about the university and the program.”
Sprague will take the help. He knows his big league name won’t mean much to potential recruits for long, and he knows the competition in California will be intense.
But he didn’t get into coaching to fail, and his track record says better days are ahead for Pacific.
You can reach John Manuel by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.