Schmitz remembers Coaches Stadium

Aldo Soto, Sports Editor

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Editor╒s note: This is the eighth installment in a series looking back at Eastern baseball coach Jim Schmitz╒s 20 years coaching the Panthers.

It was a year of firsts for the Eastern baseball team in 2002, as the program began the season without its head coach and in March the Panthers debuted their new home, Coaches Stadium.

Jim Schmitz was entering his eighth year as Eastern╒s coach, but he did it staying at home while the Panthers traveled to play Southern Indiana. Schmitz was suspended three games by the Ohio Valley Conference after a disagreement he had in the 2001 conference tournament.

In 2001, the Panthers were the No. 1 seed in the OVC tournament, but were forced to play at noon as Murray State played at night, despite being the No. 6 seed. Schmitz said the only reason that happened was because the Racers were about 45 minutes away from Paducah, Ky., where the tournament was hosted.

╥I thought it was just a terrible decision by the OVC to put your No. 1 team at noon and have the No. 6 seed play under the lights with a good crowd,╙ Schmitz said. ╥I did go off and I was really upset about it with the way they treated that team.╙

The Panthers won their season opener at Southern Indiana 7-3, but it was a slow start to the season as Eastern went 6-14 before getting into a groove in April.

Included in the sluggish start to the 2002 season was a double-header loss that opened conference play at Eastern Kentucky. It was a drastic change to the year before when the Panthers began 17-0 against the OVC.

Yet, Eastern bounced back quickly and ended the year 12-8 in the OVC, following its 0-2 start and ended second in the conference.

On March 19, 2002, Eastern played its first home game of the season against Western Illinois. Coaches Stadium was finally unveiled.

Schmitz said the stadium was supposed to be ready for the 2001 season, but the running joke with the athletic director at the time Rich McDuffie was that it was built that year.

╥It was built in the fall of 2001, so it was built then just not for that season,╙ Schmitz said. ╥That was his joke with me the whole time.╙

It was a big deal for Schmitz and the players to have a new facility to play in. All the Panthers had before Coaches Stadium opened was a chain-linked fence surrounding the field.

╥I just remember when they started winning the team would complain about everything, which I understood,╙ Schmitz said. ╥The traveling wasn╒t good and the field was in poor condition, but I just told them to go out and play. I think Rich appreciated the kind of ball we were playing and building here at EIU.╙

When the stadium did open, Schmitz said it meant a lot not only to him but the coaches that had been at Eastern before he arrived.

╥It meant a lot for what the guys previous to me coming here, not just me, what they were able to do,╙ he said.

The name was inspired after an alumni game, where previous players asked about their former coaches. Schmitz recognized that and wanted to keep the tradition of the previous coaches alive.

╥They would ask about their coaches, so there was this bond with coaches,╙ he said. ╥There was some really outstanding coaches here and the players seemed to bond with those people and that╒s where the name kind of came from.╙

Eastern won 13-0 in Coaches Stadium╒s first game, but there was one player that shined all year for the Panthers no matter if they were home or away.

Pete Pirman, a Palatine native, was drafted out of high school and then again when he was at Triton College. He joined the Panthers in 2001, when he hit .335, two home runs, 29 RBIs, with an on-base percentage of .370, while stealing seven bases. In 2002, though, Pirman took his game to another level, but it did take some time.

╥He was such a fast bat-speed guy and he cheated to the ball and he really stepped out of the bucket,╙ Schmitz said. ╥If you hit the ball once to the six-hole, he would hit 15 every fall ball. It was just teaching Pete to go to the ball. That╒s all it was, taking that pitch middle-away or away and instead of rolling over to the shortstop getting a base hit.╙

During batting practice Schmitz put things down around the batter╒s box so that Pirman could not step out, he was forced to step in. Schmitz also had a conversation with a former Texas coach about how the first couple of rounds of batting practice players should be able to hit the ball hard the other away or toward second base.

╥We say, ╘hit it in the dirt at second,╒ if you can do that then you╒re pretty much hitting correctly,╙ Schmitz said.

Prior to a game against IUPUI, Schmitz was harping about hitting the ball the opposite way or toward the middle of the field but Pirman could not do it.

╥I think Pete almost quit before that game ╨ he was just so mad at me because he couldn╒t do that,╙ Schmitz said. ╥But he finally listened and it finally clicked a little bit with him.╙

In his senior season Pirman hit .407, 10 home runs, 44 RBIs and had an on-base percentage of .443, while slugging .627 for a combined 1.070 OPS. He was named OVC Player of the Year.

Pirman joined Eastern╒s .400 club and is still only one of two players that has hit .400 or better at Eastern with more than 200 at bats. His 85 hits in 2002 was a school record until Caleb Howell broke it last year, when he had 90 in the regular season.

╥All across the board Pirman went down as one of the better players here,╙ Schmitz said.

 

Aldo Soto can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]