Eric Wedge has seen the Wichita State baseball program at its peak, as a senior catcher on the 1989 Shockers team that won the College World Series championship.
Now he’s accepted the challenge of returning WSU’s now-mediocre program to the glory of the last time he donned a Shockers’ hat.
After meeting with WSU athletic director Darron Boatright in Chicago on Tuesday evening, Wedge, 51, was hired as the new baseball coach at Wichita State and agreed to a five-year contract on Wednesday afternoon. Wedge will replace Todd Butler, who was fired on Sunday after completing his sixth season with a 169-180-1 record at the helm after following legendary coach Gene Stephenson.
An introductory news conference will happen sometime early next week.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for the program,” Boatright told The Eagle. “Eric puts a check in every box that we were looking for. When you meet with him and you hear him speak and hear him share his vision and what it will take to reach that vision, then it becomes very obvious very quickly that this is the direction we needed to go.”
The news of the hire was met by the approval of Stephenson.
“It’s awesome, it couldn’t be any better,” Stephenson told The Eagle. “I think that the future is exceedingly bright for Shocker baseball on a national level because of this hire. Now it’s up to him and his staff and his people to go out there and get’er done.”
Wedge is mostly known for his 10-year career as a manager in Major League Baseball with the Cleveland Indians (2003-09) and Seattle Mariners (2011-13). He guided the Indians to 96 wins and the American League Central Division title in 2007, which earned him the AL Manager of the Year award.
But to those invested in the WSU program, a former Shocker as the new coach was the only answer to how to rejuvenate a program that has seen its attendance severely dip and hasn’t played in an NCAA Regional since 2013, a Super Regional since 2008 and a College World Series since 1996.
Brent Kemnitz, the longtime pitching coach for WSU who currently works as an assistant athletic director for the university, said Wedge was always the perfect candidate for the job.
“This is phenomenal for not just Wichita State baseball and the university, but for the city of Wichita,” said Kemnitz, who also met with Wedge in Chicago. “This guy is going to be a true difference-maker. He has a passion and when he gets all fired up, you can just feed off of his energy. I don’t even know if you can accurately describe his passion and how great of a hire this is for Wichita State baseball. It’s a home-run hire.”
Wedge became the leading candidate almost immediately following Butler’s dismissal on Sunday. A source close to the situation told The Eagle that program alumni gave their unanimous support for Wedge to to be the next coach.
In an interview with GoShockers.com, Boatright hinted that alumni would have a say in who the next hire would be.
“This is their program,” Boatright said. “This is a program of former players, current players and fans. This will always be their program. We have to do everything we can to meet their expectations.”
WSU feels like it is a victory to convince Wedge to coach at the collegiate level. He currently resides in the Seattle area and works for the Toronto Blue Jays as a player development adviser. Wedge’s name is still bandied about for MLB jobs, most recently in 2017 when he interviewed for the New York Yankees’ managerial position.
He has an established reputation as a leader everywhere he’s been, as a player and a manager. He has a booming voice and an authoritative presence that has galvanized locker rooms. His MLB record (774-846 for .478 winning percentage) isn’t gaudy, but he gained a reputation as a coach that can meet the potential for a team.
“He’s so grounded and so real and that’s what people love about him,” Kemnitz said. “It’s not impossible not to feel that energy he brings. And then he’s so down-to-Earth, I can’t even tell you how excited I am. It’s a great day to be a Shocker.”
Before breaking through with the Indians in 2003, he was a successful manager in their minor-league system. He was chosen Baseball America’s Triple-A Manager of the Year in 2001, then The Sporting News’ Minor League Manager of the Year in 2002.
The only question facing Wedge is how he will adjust to college recruiting. But his name recognition as a MLB manager and his success as a player at WSU could be a boon. With his work for the Blue Jays, Wedge has also been evaluating college-aged talent for the last three years.
“You evaluate the talent and then you communicate, that is the recruiting process,” Boatright said. “Now he’ll have to transfer that to the college game and there will be a learning curve there. But the game is still the game. The evaluation of talent is still the same. Now he gets the chance to show these guys how to get from Point A to Point B.”
Wedge is considered one of the best players to play for the Shockers, as a catcher from 1987-89. He was a senior leader on the 1989 College World Series championship team, hitting .380 and leading the NCAA in walks and total bases and finishing second in runs, RBIs and home runs. He earned first-team All-American honors, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year award and was runner-up for the Rotary Smith Award, given to the best player in college baseball.
Wedge’s first decision will be rounding out his coaching staff.
In its release on Sunday announcing Butler’s dismissal, WSU said that assistant coaches Sammy Esposito and Mike Pelfrey and director of operations Scott Gurss will remain with the program until the end of their contracts on June 30.
The coaching change could also lead to roster changes, as WSU was set to return the majority of its production with only four seniors on a team that finished 28-31.