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Can Eric Wedge Restore Wichita State To Prominence?

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Eric Wedge (Photo by Marcus Wright)

On May 29, Wichita State athletic director Darron Boatright took a big swing, hiring Eric Wedge to be his next head baseball coach.

The hire stands out on a couple of fronts.

Wedge is a household name not often seen in college coaching. Not only is he remembered fondly as a key piece of Wichita State’s 1989 national championship team, but casual observers likely remember him as the manager of the Indians and Mariners. He even won American League Manager of the Year with Cleveland in 2007.

In fact, Wedge is the first college coach to have managed in the major leagues since former White Sox player/manager Don Kessinger returned to his alma mater, Mississippi, to become the program’s head coach in 1991.

It also was an extraordinarily decisive act on the part of Boatright. The official announcement of Wedge’s hiring came just three days after the program parted ways with Todd Butler—and just two days before regionals got underway.

That timetable wasn’t happenstance. That was the search going as planned. Boatright made up his mind on Wedge when he heard the former catcher speak at his 2017 Missouri Valley Conference Hall of Fame induction.

“At that point, I knew if I were in the position and ever needed a baseball coach—regardless of what his role was, where he was, who he was managing—he was going to have to look me in the eye and turn me down,” Boatright said at Wedge’s introductory press conference.

The feeling was mutual, at least as far as college coaching jobs go. Wedge didn’t have eyes for any other program.

“This is the only place I want to be,” Wedge said. “This is like a second home to me. I’m originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana. The city of Wichita and Wichita State University is just part of my DNA. It’s just a big part of who I am.”

The Shockers are almost inarguably at a point where they need a big swing like the one Boatright took. A program that missed regionals just three times between 1980 and 2009 under Gene Stephenson has made one such trip since then, in 2013, Stephenson’s last year on the job, and that trip was later vacated by the NCAA.

WSU came closest to getting back in 2018, when a team led by a pair of top-50 picks in third baseman Alec Bohm and outfielder Greyson Jenista got off to a 19-4 start, only to sputter down the stretch and miss out once again.

With Bohm, Jenista and seven other draft picks departing after that season, the Shockers fell to 28-31 and 9-15 in conference play in 2019, which extended a streak of five consecutive losing seasons in league competition.

Wichita State isn’t going to be a turnkey operation for Wedge, but he embraces the grind of building the program back up.

“We have a lot of work to do. It’s going to take some time, but rest assured, in time, good things will happen,” Wedge said. “Right now, we want to be the best we can be today, tomorrow, and this upcoming season. The work that we’re looking (at) here right now is in the short term, but ultimately we want to be a power for years to come.”

Whether or not Wichita State can fully get back to the program’s previous heights is an open question, the answer to which might have little to do with Wedge, or any other coach who would have taken this job.

The sands of college baseball have simply shifted a lot since the 1970s and ’80s, when Stephenson built Wichita State into a power out of literally nothing.

Stephenson left a plush job as an assistant at Oklahoma in 1977 to head up the relaunch of a WSU program that had been dormant for the previous seven seasons. In the face of a meager budget, no sparkling facility (even by 1970s standards), and the poor weather conditions of Kansas in late winter and early spring, Stephenson willed the Shockers into a place among the big boys in college baseball.

But some of the advantages WSU enjoyed during those early years no longer apply. More schools than ever are committed to baseball, bringing far more parity to the top of the sport. The path to the College World Series also now goes through the best teams in college baseball across regions rather than simply the best teams in a specific region, as was the case prior to 1999, when the current postseason format was adopted.

Wichita State’s place in the American Athletic Conference provides increased opportunities for quality RPI games in conference play, when compared to its previous home in the Missouri Valley Conference. However, it also opens the Shockers up to a higher level of competition and more losses in league play, and when it comes to weather and close access to hordes of blue-chip players, the program is at a marked disadvantage when compared with most of their league rivals.

Perhaps those are the exact conditions under which you turn to a coach with a unique perspective and background. Wedge is a conventional choice for this job insofar as he is an alum of the program. But with his history, he has experience that no other coach in college baseball can boast.

Wedge has managed at the major league and minor league levels, played in college, the minor leagues and the big leagues. He spent the last few years immersed in all levels of the minors as a player development adviser with the Blue Jays. No matter what his players experience from a baseball standpoint from now until they are done with the game, he will have walked in their shoes.

“I think it’s a little bit of everything,” Wedge said of what has best prepared him for this role.

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Wedge Relishes Another Shot With Jays

Job No. 1 for Wedge was to put together the right coaching staff to lead Wichita State into its next era, and the group he brought in has a distinct WSU flavor.

Associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Sirianni was the volunteer assistant for the program in 2015 and 2016. Pitching coach Mike Pelfrey, who spent more than a decade in the big leagues, was a first-round pick out of Wichita State in 2005 and served as the Shockers’ pitching coach last season.

Loren Hibbs, who spent the last 27 seasons as the head coach at Charlotte, is on board in an operations role. He was a player for Stephenson back in the early ’80s and then served as an assistant coach from 1985 to 1992. Only volunteer assistant Jamell Cervantez, an experienced junior college coach, comes to the staff without Wichita State appearing on his résumé.

The goal for Wedge in putting this staff together, as for rebuilding the program in general, is to honor the rich history of the program and take with him what has been known to work, all while blazing a new trail.

“We want to embrace the history of Wichita State baseball, but also, we want to take all the good and leave the rest, and then add to it today, tomorrow, and moving forward,” Wedge said. “These young people are going to create their own identity and create their own niche in the history of Wichita State baseball, and all that is ahead of us. That’s exciting.”

The hard work is yet to come, but already, the hiring has made an impact. The presence of Wedge, a hero closely associated with the highest point in program history, has delivered goodwill back to a local fan base very much invested in Shockers baseball.

“The community has been energized. We’ve sold out our skyboxes already, season ticket sales are on the rise, there has been a buzz in the community just being out and about. We’re off to a good start,” Wedge said.

Beginning with the 2020 season, Wedge will look to live up to the early excitement surrounding his hiring by delivering the type of hardware that has been absent lately around Eck Stadium.

“I think (with) anything less than making an appearance in the College World Series and battling for a national championship, you are always going to be yearning for more,” Wedge said. “That’s true for us now and will always be true."

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