Thirty years after leading the Wichita State baseball team to the 1989 College World Series championship, Eric Wedge is returning to lead the Shockers as manager.
Wedge agreed to a five-year contract on Wednesday concluding a two-day meeting with WSU athletic director Darron Boatright in Chicago. Wedge will replace Todd Butler, who was fired on Sunday after posting a 169-180-1 record in the last six seasons.
The news was met by nearly unanimous praise by WSU fans and earned the stamp of approval from legendary coach Gene Stephenson, who set the standard that Wedge will now attempt to reach again.
“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 was WSU’s top option and Boatright was thrilled that he was up for the challenge, despite no collegiate coaching experience. Wedge had a 10-year career as a manager in Major League Baseball with the Cleveland Indians (2003-09) and Seattle Mariners (2011-13), earning the 2007 American League Manager of the Year award after leading the Indians to 96 wins and the AL Central title.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for the program,” Boatright said. “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.”
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.
He was part of the meeting in Chicago and also mentioned that Wedge’s passion for the job was undeniable.
“This guy is going to be a true difference-maker,” Kemnitz said. “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.”
The main question that was discussed with Wedge is how he would adjust to the college game.
While he has managerial experience at the highest level and has won everywhere he’s been, the college game is slightly different. He’s never recruited nor had to juggle scholarships on a roster.
But Wedge’s passion has Boatright and Kemnitz both confident he will be a quick learner.
“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.”
“He told us, ‘Guys, I’m going to have to learn on the run, but I’m up for this and I’m excited about this,’” Kemnitz said. “We know how excited he is about the program and the university and there will be a learning curve and nobody is more aware of that than him, but he’s totally embraced it and he’s excited for the challenge.”
Stephenson has known Wedge for more than three decades now and says that his character will make him stand out with recruits and their parents.
He used the example of Wedge walking away from a contract extension with the Seattle Mariners in 2013 because he felt like the front office wasn’t honoring their commitment to the rebuilding plan.
“He might be the only manager in MLB history who walked away with money on the table,” Stephenson said. “He has a code by which he lives by and it’s an honor code. I’m sure he will instill that in all of the people around him. I think this is a great choice and I’m really happy that Eric has decided that this is where he wants to be.”
An introductory news conference is expected to be held early next week. After that, Wedge will attempt to meet with as many players who are still on campus and the coaches who remain on staff.
According to Boatright, Wedge will have a “100 percent” say in how he fills out his coaching staff.
After a busy two days of traveling and extensive talks with Wedge, Boatright admitted he was exhausted on Wednesday afternoon. But it was well worth it to see a former Shocker hero return home after 30 years to lead the program moving forward
“The 30-year thing is a total coincidence,” Boatright said. “That was up to the baseball gods. I’m excited to support Eric and support our baseball program and get this thing back to where we all want it to be.”