When Wichita State pitcher Sam Tewes finished his bullpen throws before a start, he knew what came next. He would jog toward the field and along the way make eye contact with Lloyd Phelps.
“Every time I would make a start, he would be right there at the corner, and he’d say ‘Good luck today, you got’em Sammy,’ ” Tewes said. “He was so locked in to making the players feel like he cared about them. He would give you a tip of the cap, or a head nod, just something subtle. He wanted you to know he had your back.”
No Shocker baseball fan created more good feelings among the players than Phelps, who died Tuesday of a heart attack at 66. Coaches and players called him “Loyal Lloyd.”
“The name was fitting,” said former player and assistant coach Jim Thomas. “There wasn’t anyone when I was there that was more loyal. He went to road games, and it may have been difficult financially at times, but he did it.”
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Phelps followed the Shockers from the rebirth of the program in the early 1980s and became a fixture home and away.
“He was a Shocker baseballer through and through,” former coach Gene Stephenson said. “I loved that guy. You could always count on him. This breaks my heart.”
While baseball grabbed most of his attention, he rooted for other Shockers sports, wished for the return of WSU football and loved to poke fun at the Cowboys, Jayhawks and Bluejays. He wasn’t happy with the way WSU handled the firing of Stephenson in 2013, but that didn’t change his affection for the players and the program.
When the Shockers played in Peoria, Terre Haute, Carbondale and elsewhere, he usually drove along, sometimes following the team bus, and usually with buddy Tom Sawyer. He came to practices in the fall and in the spring and on the road.
“I don’t know who would come in and say, ‘No, I’m more loyal than Lloyd,’ ” WSU pitching coach Brent Kemnitz said. “He’s ‘Loyal Lloyd’ and every player from 1978 on knows Lloyd Phelps.”
On Wednesday, WSU coaches put a black Shockers blanket over Phelps’ seat in Eck Stadium, next to the tunnel where the Shockers came up from the locker room. On the fence next to his seat, he hung “Ks” for strikeouts and pictures of a bomb for home runs.
“I met him basically when I stepped on campus,” WSU coach Todd Butler said. “When you’re a new coach coming in, you’re not sure what ‘loyal’ is and how strong that word is. He was the strongest of all.”
Phelps wasn’t concerned with performance, which endeared him to players. He also wasn’t shy about harsh words for newspaper beat writers and columnists when he didn’t like what they wrote about the Shockers.
“Unconditional support,” Tewes said. “He wanted us to feel like part of the family and he treated everybody like that.”
On Tuesday, WSU released its baseball schedule. Sawyer, who started attending games in 1978 and called his friend a short-timer, said Phelps planned to retire before the season so he could attend more games.
The first home game is Feb. 19 against Northern Colorado. Phelps would have been in row 1, seat 1, ready for another season and ready to get to know another new group of Shockers.