The All-American baseball teams came out in early June 1989 and none included Wichita State closer Jim Newlin.
Outrage hit the Shockers while they prepared for the College World Series in Omaha. So did concern.
WSU needed the best out of Newlin and nobody knew how the postseason snubs might affect a right-hander described as “the most high-maintenance dude we ever had” by his pitching coach. After Newlin’s career ended in Triple-A, Brent Kemnitz would joke that Newlin should have hired him as a personal mentor to get him to the big leagues. Newlin would agree.
“I was so mental,” Newlin said. “I was always worried about how I looked or my radar gun reading.”
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Nobody worked with Newlin better than catcher Eric Wedge, a leader who loved giving pitchers the right amount of pushing and encouraging. Backups often caught Newlin’s bullpen sessions. Leading up to Omaha, however, Wedge wanted every moment to get in Newlin’s ear and shape his anger over the absence from the All-American teams in WSU’s favor.
In 1989, publications such as Baseball America chose the All-American teams before regional play. Newlin, a second-team All-Missouri Valley Conference pick, needed two more weeks to make his case.
“They don’t even know who you are,” Wedge would say. “What are you going to do about that?”
Those leadership skills later made Wedge a manager in the major leagues. In June 1989, they kept WSU’s slider artist in shutdown mode.
“Newlin was a high-maintenance guy, but that was right in Wedge’s wheelhouse,” Kemnitz said. “He wanted to work Newlin’s brain. He wanted to motivate him. He said, ‘All right, I got it.’ He wanted to catch bullpens. He wanted to say, ‘Show the country what you’re all about.’ ”
Here’s what Newlin did — he pitched five times in the College World Series, 9 1/3 innings, and recorded three saves. He did what he did all season, which was signal the end of the game when he jogged in to protect a lead. In eight regional and CWS appearances, he pitched 14 1/3 innings and allowed three earned runs, striking out 17 and walking two.
For the season, Newlin went 5-0 with an NCAA-leading 18 saves and a 1.08 ERA in 38 appearances, statistics Kemnitz swears are the only ones he can recite from memory from his 36 seasons as pitching coach.
“He was the best closer in baseball on the best team in baseball,” Wedge said. “He proved it in the College World Series.”
Twenty-five years after WSU’s NCAA championship, Kemnitz figures it is time Newlin takes his place in Shocker lore as one of the team’s major figures. Newlin didn’t pitch in the 5-3 win over Texas in the title game and his pro career ended in 1995 with the Florida Marlins’ Triple-A team. In fact, if you weren’t paying attention to WSU’s elimination game against Fresno State in the West II Regional in Fresno, Calif., you likely missed Newlin’s greatest moment.
Time and place conspired to limit attention to that May 28 game, which started at 9:30 p.m. Central time and ended after newspaper deadlines. If you didn’t listen to Mike Kennedy on the radio, Newlin’s 3 1/3 innings of scoreless, hitless baseball might not register on the list of landmark moments as it should. He struck out six, entering with a 5-4 lead in the sixth and preserving a 6-4 lead over the final two innings.
Coach Gene Stephenson felt forced to bring him in earlier than normal with the season at stake, facing a home team with soon-to-be first-round draft picks Steve Hosey, Eddie Zosky and Tom Goodwin in the lineup. The Bulldogs, who advanced to the College World Series in 1988, looked like the regional favorite almost as much as WSU.
Newlin ended those hopes in one of the season’s pivotal stretches.
“It was everything,” Stephenson said. “He mowed them down.”
The game started an hour after Michigan stunned the top-seeded Shockers and forced them to play an elimination game against the home team in front of a crowd of 4,995. Freshman Tyler Green started. When he wobbled with two outs in the sixth, Newlin entered to retire 10 of the 12 batters faced.
“He took Fresno’s heart, the way he pitched just kind of devastated them,” Kennedy said. “The comments in the paper the next day, they were just kind of in awe. They felt like they had no chance to hit him.”
Fresno State third baseman Mike Burton remembers making the final out. He said he missed a hanging slider and Newlin jammed him to produce a groundball out.
“Nasty slider,” Burton said. “He pretty much shut us down.”
That is the Newlin that Wedge and Kemnitz helped create after a rocky start to his career. Newlin, from Shawnee Mission South, redshirted as a freshman.
“I couldn’t throw strikes,” Newlin said. “(Kemnitz) took a beating for recruiting me because my mechanics were so bad.”
Newlin lowered his arm angle to a three-quarter delivery, unconventional, but perfect for him, and deceptive. After his redshirt year, Stephenson called him into his office and told him to prepare to be WSU’s closer for the rest of his career. He ran and lifted more to strengthen his lower body. A summer in the Cape Cod League facing the nation’s top hitters strengthened his confidence. In 1988, he recorded seven saves and compiled a 3.19 ERA to set the stage for his wipe-out junior season in 1989.
“Confidence was everything,” Stephenson said. “Here’s a guy from the Kansas City-area, and there were no traveling teams back then where you faced great players from around the country. He didn’t have any offers, basically, out of high school.”
Newlin learned how to take advantage of Wedge’s mentoring. He realized he needed to be pumped up and Wedge knew just how to do it, sometimes by questioning his focus and wondering if Newlin was failing to live up to his reputation. Second baseman P.J. Forbes, close friends with Wedge, roomed with Newlin on the road, a rare pairing of position player and pitcher. Forbes suspects Stephenson matched him with Newlin in order to give Wedge more opportunities to influence the pitcher.
When Newlin asked Kemnitz about his velocity or how his delivery looked or what scouts said, Kenmitz would tell him whatever he wanted to hear to boost his confidence.
“I would go out to the mound, and I would say things to him with some expletives in it and he would say things back to me and it wouldn’t be in a nice way,” Wedge said. “Sometimes, he had too much fun. You had to get him a little bit fired up. When he had that type of persona, he was that much more focused.”
WSU rarely had to worry about Newlin’s focus in 1989. His 18 saves and 38 appearances remain WSU season records. His 1.08 ERA ranks second.
Until Newlin, Stephenson and Kemnitz used their best arms as starting pitchers and expected them to go nine innings. As WSU’s schedule improved with fewer lower-level opponents and pitching became more specialized, they went to Newlin as the program’s first true closer. His success paved the way for relievers such as Darren Dreifort and Braden Looper to grow into Shocker stars and first-round draft picks.
“His breaking ball was unhittable; I think they described it as trying to hit a Frisbee,” Kemnitz said. “Sometimes the story that goes under the radar is how much Jim Newlin meant to that team. That whole team knew the minute we handed him the ball, the game was over. What was more beautiful, is that the other team knew that.”
By the end of the College World Series, so did the people who picked the All-American teams.
RELATED LINK: 1989 postseason box scores (PDF)