The Face of Sdsu Baseball

by Staff

By David CorderoSports Editor

To know Jim Dietz is to know he’s a stand-up man, one who believesin personal responsibility, who feels academics and citizenshipshould come ahead of winning baseball games.

For 30 seasons, the San Diego State head coach has preached aboutthe dangers of alcohol, the nobility of a strong work ethic and theimportance of honesty.

A throwback, really.

“My whole life has been about developing young people,” Dietzsaid. “That’s our job as coaches.”

Ask him about his team and he’ll discuss his players’accomplishments in class, how well-behaved they are on road trips andhow much dedication they show in all aspects of their lives.

He’ll tell you how proud he is of his former pupils who have goneinto law enforcement, counseling and teaching.

Unless you asked specifically, there would be no mention of formerathletes such as Tony Gwynn, Mark Grace, Mark McGwire, Dave Winfield– or the countless other major leaguers he’s had an opportunity tomold over the last 29 years.

“He’s that kind of coach,” said SDSU senior John Skinner. “He’drather you be successful in life than on the field.”

Toknow Jim Dietz is to know he could have very easily ended up in Idahoinstead of San Diego.

After a few successful years coaching the freshman baseball andbasketball teams at the University of Oregon, Dietz accepted a job atLewis and Clark College (Lewiston, Idaho) to head up the hoops squadfor the 1972-73 season.

However, Ken Carr, then athletics director at SDSU, phoned him andarranged an interview.

Dietz arrived in San Diego and saw a city with rolling hills,clean air and friendly people.

He was also greeted by a program with a ridiculously small budget(it wore blue uniforms his first season) and an embarrassment of aplaying field, which Dietz said could seat 50 on a good day.

Yet he also felt a great sense of tradition, built by predecessorsLyle Olsen and Charlie Smith, one that could grow into somethingspecial, with just the right touch.

“Baseball was always my first love,” Dietz said. “It’s a greatgame, with a lot of thinking. You can stay someplace for a longperiod of time, which is the way coaching really should be becauseyou get a chance to develop relationships, and to concentrate onbehavior and academics.”

Dietz decided to accept the position, its patchwork ballpark andthe 400-dollar-a-month salary.

So began the challenge.

Said Dietz: “The minute I took this job I had to be contractor, anengineer and a builder of things.”

Turns out he was constructing more than just a ballpark.

He was forming young men.

Toknow Jim Dietz is to know whether his current players like him or notis of no consequence.

His program is about discipline and accountability. There are fourguidelines: Be on time, be courteous, help one another and be honest.

“There is a lot of structure and none of it is unrealistic,” Dietzsaid. “I really have no choice but to make it stringent. My job is tomake them understand, as young people, that there is always someoneready to take your job.

“It’s not supposed to be a comfort thing.”

Relaxed effort in the classroom results in diminished playingtime. It’s not unusual for a player to get benched for a weekendseries or even removed from the team for a couple of weeks because heis having problems academically.

“I don’t try to make it unpleasant,” Dietz said. “I want it to befun for them. If we’re very lax in our approach and make it fun, theyprobably won’t go to class and wouldn’t be disciplined.

“Sometimes we’ll lose a game on the road because I don’t take ourbest people because they have an exam. I’ve done that with lots ofathletes. And that can only help them.”

Case in point: In 1981, the Aztecs were to play in the WesternAthletic Conference Championships in Hawaii. Tony Gwynn was a senioron that team, wrapping up a year in which he hit .416 and was namedfirst-team All-WAC, and an integral part of the club. However, he hada final scheduled that week.

When Gwynn told Dietz of the situation, Dietz gave him twochoices: take the test on the assigned day, or arrange to take itbefore the trip.

Either way, academics weren’t going to be compromised.

“Hewon’t let guys miss a test because of a baseball conflict,” saidGwynn, who took the test early. “He’ll put somebody else out thereand let you do what you have to do because education is the mostimportant thing.

“At the time you don’t really agree with it. But as time goes by,you learn to appreciate the things he did.”

A sentiment shared by his former players.

“He was great for me,” said Padres pitching coach Dave Smith(1974-76). “He made me grow up.”

Said Bobby Meacham (1979-81), who played eight years in the MajorLeagues: “It was crazy, frustrating, great — all kinds of things, awhole gambit of emotions. But the bottom line is I grew up and becamea man. I (credit that) to Jim Dietz.”

Said pitcher Billy Blount (1982-85): “I basically thought I washere to play baseball. But he told me there is more to life thanbaseball, that I needed to start concentrating on my studies.”

To know Jim Dietz is to know how to put up drywall.

Through the years players have left SDSU not only with a degreeand enhanced playing ability, but also construction skills.

Before Tony Gwynn Stadium was built, Dietz was constantly havingto perform maintenance on Smith Field, be it changing lights, settingup electrical outlets or watering the grass.

With such a burdensome chore, he often got his players involved,having them chalk the foul lines, paint walls or even lay concrete.

However, those tasks were for more than just getting work done. Itwas a test to determine who was reliable. To see who is willing to dowhat it takes to succeed.

To find out who his clutch players would be.

“It gives me an insight in to the person I’m working with,” Dietzsaid. “It lets me know if the kid is self-motivated. It helps tell mewho can come through in critical situations.”

To him it’s about developing the whole person, someone who willfunction well in society once his playing days are finished.

“If we get into this win-baby-win thing, we’re hurting ourathletes,” Dietz said. “We should develop graduates, people with goodhabits, good citizens.

Said Smith: “Winning and having a good program is secondary.People get so much into winning at the college level instead ofgetting a degree and becoming a good person. That’s what it’s allabout.

“But he comes as close as anybody to putting all those together.”

To know Jim Dietz is to know he has won more than his share ofgames.

His 1,155 wins rank him 14th all-time and seventh among activecoaches. Among current skippers, only Bob Bennett of Fresno State(1,232) and Wichita State’s Gene Stephenson (1,268) have won morewith one team.

He has also taken SDSU to the NCAA Regionals eight times, had justfour losing seasons and sent 20 Aztecs into the Major Leagues.

Yet the knock on Dietz is that he is not a great game-day coach,that he hasn’t done more with the talent he’s had.

In the last eight seasons the team has won only 52.9 percent ofits games (243-216). In the eight seasons before, it won more than 64percent. The eight before that, the percentage was a little less than71.

Yet what people don’t realize is how accomplished Dietz is awayfrom SDSU baseball.

In the 1970s through the early ’90s, Dietz coached powerhousesummer league teams in Alaska and Boulder, claiming four NationalSummer Championships.

The difference: no school to worry about, which meant moreopportunities to teach baseball.

“I was a hired gun,” Dietz said. “We won a lot of nationalchampionships. One year (1980) we had 23 players go on to play in theMajor Leagues.”

To know Jim Dietz is to know he doesn’t plan on retiring anytimesoon.

There is nothi
ng he would rather do.

Every day, new challenges arise.

Among the thousands of things going through his mind are gettinghome games broadcast on radio, figuring out how to payback theathletic department what will amount to a $60,000 debt and persuadingthe administration to allow Tony Gwynn Stadium to be a potential hostof the NCAA Regionals.

“I think the best years are in front of us,” Dietz said. “I’m inno hurry to retire or step down.”

He knows his contract situation. He’s well aware if his team failsto win 40 games against Division I opponents and the regular seasonMWC title, along with advancing to the NCAAs and finishing in the Top25 in either the Collegiate Baseball or Baseball America polls, hemay be out the door.

Yet until that day comes, Dietz will arrive at Tony Gwynn Stadiumbefore sunrise and leave well after sunset, assured he has doneeverything he can for the team.

The man has been the shepherd of SDSU baseball, one who has takenthe team from anonymity to national prominence, one who, for nearlyhalf his life, has instilled structure, integrity and honor into hisplayers.

Truly, a labor of love.

“Thirty years I’ve done this,” Dietz said. “I can’t wait to get upin the morning and get here. Even now at 62 years of age, I getenergized and I look at this as a challenge.”

Then, his voice trails to a whisper.

“I truly like doing this. It’s keeping me young.”

To know Jim Dietz is to know SDSU baseball.