Mike Pelfrey works out at Wichita State during the Major League Baseball offseason and feels such a bond with his hometown school that he has expressed interest in coaching there when his career ends.
Now Pelfrey, who pitches for the Minnesota Twins, is prepared to say no to any future job offer and to any further involvement with the program he grew up watching and the one for which he starred from 2003-05.
Pelfrey was one of several former Shockers who offered support for Gene Stephenson, who was fired Tuesday after 36 years as WSU’s coach. Pelfrey said hiring an outsider to replace Stephenson could cause a mutiny among former players, including him.
"I’m Wichita State through and through," Pelfrey said. "But depending on who they hire next, I might just turn my back. I’ll just have to find another place to work out and be a part of."
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Reaction from former players ran the spectrum of negative emotions. Koyie Hill and Chris Wimmer called the situation sad. Greg Brummett, who pitched WSU to the national championship in 1989, said he hated to see Stephenson leave, and Adam Peterson described Stephenson’s departure as surreal.
While some fans believe the time for the 67-year-old Stephenson to step away has come after five seasons without advancing beyond NCAA Tournament regionals, former players said they felt Stephenson earned the right to go out on his terms.
Stephenson had one year remaining on a contract that paid him $531,131 annually. Assistant coach Jim Thomas was also dismissed, while Brent Kemnitz remains on staff and will be pitching coach for a new coach, athletic director Eric Sexton said.
"I know all good things have to come to an end, but in my opinion I think he (Stephenson) deserves to work out the rest of his contract," Brummett said. "That’s what he signed him up for, and I think he has a right to do that."
Shafer, who pitched at WSU from 2006-08, joked that he didn’t like Stephenson because the only time the two interacted was when Stephenson was taking him out of a game. Shafer saw from afar, though, how Stephenson interacted with and related to players more than 40 years younger than him.
He also formed a relationship with Stephenson that went beyond the tense mound visits.
“He’s a business-like guy,” Shafer said. “He treats you like a man, which is how you want to be treated. He doesn’t need to be a best friend that a young coach may try to be. He’s a manager, he teaches you how to be a man. You could go to Gene with anything, and every player knew it. If you needed anything at all, you went to him, he’d do what he could. He wouldn’t break rules for you, but he would do what he could for you.”
The prevailing sentiment among ex-players was that Stephenson became a victim of his own success. By winning 1,837 games, reaching the College World Series seven times and winning the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship every year from 1987-2000, Stephenson created a standard and set of expectations that became more difficult to reach as college baseball’s landscape changed.
“As far as getting back to what it was, there’s a lot more parity now than what there was,” said Hill, who is in Triple-A with the Miami Marlins and has played in nine major-league seasons. “The recruiting is a lot different because of social media, because of technology. Everybody is seen. A kid from Lawton, Okla. (Hill’s hometown), isn’t going to go unnoticed anymore.”
The connection between former players and Wichita State is Stephenson. Because of funds Stephenson raised with sponsors and the athletic department, little looks the same at Eck Stadium from when many of the Shockers’ best played there.
Pelfrey may distance himself from the program if an outsider is hired, but many other former players are more conflicted about cutting ties with the school that helped them reach the highest levels of baseball.
“I think it depends on who ends up taking over for Gene and how he approaches it,” said Sorensen, who played at WSU from 1996-98 and later in 48 major-league games. “I think it would be a mistake if they didn’t want to continue the tradition, to continue the legacy.”
While many fans see the necessity in letting Stephenson go after five consecutive disappointing seasons, their feelings are disconnected from those of former players who can’t fathom how five subpar years can outweigh three decades of virtually unequaled success.
“Unless you played for him, you have no idea,” former closer Jaime Bluma said. “You can see Gene in the media, but unless you played for him, you have no idea. It’s a family-type deal. When you’ve been through the wars … there were players who played in a worse shape of a stadium than I did and were still putting up wins. From what we did over those 20 years, that’s why it is what it is now.”