While emphasizing that it will take time, new Wichita State baseball coach Eric Wedge pledged during his introductory speech to push the program back to its winning ways.
After leading the Shockers to the 1989 College World Series championship as a player, Wedge completed his return to the program 30 years later. Now his task is to return WSU, a program that hasn’t won a postseason game since 2008, to its former glory.
“Sometimes there are little blips,” Wedge said in a Tuesday evening news conference at the Marcus Center. “It happens. It happens in business, it happens in life, it happens in baseball. That’s all this has been. A blip. My job as a leader is to make sure I see everything through the way I feel like it needs to be seen through. It starts with toughness and it starts with learning and it starts with development. If we do that, then we’ll be a family and we’ll have something we can be proud of and respect.
“That takes time. I don’t put timetables on anything because nobody is that smart. I don’t know how long it will take. I don’t know if it will happen quick or it will take time. If I had to guess, it will take some time. But I know we’re going to keep pushing and keep plugging and keep knocking on the door and eventually it will open and you go to the next one and you keep going until you run out.”
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.
The possibility of returning to lead WSU was broached back in 2013 when WSU parted ways with legendary coach Gene Stephenson. Wedge was the Mariners manager at the time and told Brent Kemnitz, who was the pitching coach then, that he wasn’t interested in the job. But the conversation made Wedge think.
“It put a little bug in my head and I started thinking about it,” Wedge said Thursday. “For the first time, I allowed myself to think about it.”
WSU ultimately hired Todd Butler, an era that ended after six years last week with a 169-180-1 record and no postseason appearances. This time when WSU came calling, Wedge, who had been working for the Toronto Blue Jays as a player development adviser, didn’t already have a managerial job.
“When it comes to Wichita State, there’s nowhere else where I would come back to coach college baseball,” Wedge said. “This is where my heart is. It’s not just about Wichita State baseball, but it’s about the university and the city and the state of Kansas. It’s to the point where I’m feeling things where I haven’t felt in a long time.”
WSU athletic director Darron Boatright said after hearing Wedge speak at a Hall of Fame induction ceremony years ago at a Missouri Valley Conference basketball tournament, he knew Wedge was a special breed of coach.
“I knew if I were ever in a position to hire and ever needed a baseball coach, regardless of what his role was, where he was, who he was managing, (Wedge) was going to have to look me in the eyes and turn me down,” Boatright said.
“There’s nothing Eric Wedge has ever done but be successful. Winners win. You put themselves in a position to perform and they win.”
Wedge is a proven winner at the professional level, but has no college coaching experience. He believes his methods of developing players will lead to similar results.
“Leadership is hard and winning a baseball game is hard and developing young people is even harder,” Wedge said. “It’s going to take some time, but I can tell you what we’re going to be doing is foundation-based. It’s going to be something we can count on.
“We know these young men are going to stub their toe and they’re going to make mistakes, but ultimately we have to make sure they work through that and learn from that and be the best versions of themselves and grow from young men into strong leaders.”
Wedge admitted that he will have a learning curve when it comes to recruiting, something he’s never done before.
“But I will adjust and adapt to it,” Wedge said. “I’m not looking to do it like everybody else, I’ll tell you that. I’m not trying to prove a point, but we’re going to go after the right people, not necessarily the best people. We’ll go after people who want to be part of this and fit the program.”
Wedge met with Sammy Esposito and Mike Pelfrey and director of operations Scott Gurss, whose contracts run until the end of June, on Monday, but has yet to make any final decisions regarding his staff.
“There’s obviously a ton of people out there looking for opportunities that I have a lot of respect for, but the priority is the people that are already here,” Wedge said. “The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just haven’t had time to hit the pavement and do the work.”
While Wedge mentioned several times that a rebuilding job will take time, he did have confidence that the program can return to national prominence.
“I know there’s been a lot of excitement around here the last week, so I want you to remember what you’re feeling right now and hang onto that,” Wedge said. “Draw from that on those tough days. Believe in everything because you know what’s happened here and you know what’s going to happen here again.”