Big Red Machine: Eastern Washington baseball goes into battle

Big Red Machine: Eastern Washington baseball goes into battle

It was 1990, and Jim Wasem was ready to confirm his seven baseball scholarships for next season with athletic director Darlene Bailey.

He was not going to pick them up.

The Eastern Washington baseball program, as well as the wrestling team, was eliminated.

“When they dropped our baseball program, the area was just furious,” said Wasem, now 85. “We were good.”

It was an economic decision, said interim Eastern President B. Dell Felder at the time.

“This decision comes after a thorough and thorough analysis of our financial situation in athletics,” he said at the time, according to a spokesman review story from June 19, 1990. “We are disappointed that the university’s resources are not sufficient to continue the sport. ”

Wasem, who lived in the Spokane area until February 2020, when he moved to Missouri, never coached another college baseball game.

But the years he had in Cheney were memorable, even though the program’s time in Division I Pac-10 – “the best conference in America,” Wasem said – was relatively short.

The Eagles joined the Northern Pacific Conference in 1980, and two years later merged with the Northern Division of the Pac-10, where it played until the end.

The Eagles had their best record in the regular season in 1982, when they finished 15-9 in the conference, third in the Nordics behind Oregon State (16-8) and Washington State (16-8), which dominated the division in the 1980s. .

Eastern never finished higher than third place in the seven-team North, but in 1988 there was an unlikely race in the divisional tournament: After finishing 6-18 in the conference and 25-34 overall, the Eagles finished second in the North Division Tournament, losing the championship game to Washington State after beating Oregon State, Gonzaga and Portland.

“We were really down at the end of the regular season,” said John Raekes, a senior player on the 1988 team. “To turn around and play in the tournament, I don’t think anyone expected us to be there at the end. Someone outside of coach Wasem. ”

‘We put it all together’

Randy Absalonson, a Mead High School graduate, was a left-handed starter for the Eagles, and in 1988 he was, sophomore, one of 13 underclassmen who played for them that year. He appeared in 13 games, started three of them, and finished with a 2-3 record and a 6.69 ERA, almost a race over the ERA team of 5.81.

There were plenty of both the Eagles (4.77 runs per game) and their opponents (6.01) that year, and for the players it seemed as if they could not do everything well at the same time during the regular season.

“Wasem always portrayed a picture like hey, there’s a new, fresh 9 innings every game and we always have a chance to win,” said Absalonson. “It did not go well, but I had no intention of entering a game that we expected to lose. We still expected to win as a team. ”

They endured losing streaks in six games and five games in April, then won seven out of nine to fight back at the end of the month and out in early May. But ahead of the divisional tournament, the Eagles lost eight games in a row, cut short by a pair of 13-0 losses to the Cougars under a double header in Pullman.

“It just did not seem like we could put together an entire game,” said Gary Hagy, who played shortstop on the team as a freshman. “We had a game where pitching was good but had too many errors, or a game where we hit the ball well but failed to tone down.”

“But we came to the conference tournament,” Hagy said, “and we left it all.”

The seventh-seeded Eagles opened with a 6-3 victory over sixth-seeded Washington before losing 10-3 to top-seeded WSU the next day. But they worked their way back into the doubles elimination tournament, beating No. 5 seed Portland 2-0, No. 4 Gonzaga 10-0 and then second seed Oregon State 8-7.

It came in front of many friendly fans as well, when Spokane hosted the tournament that year.

“There were games we were not going to win,” said Greg Adelsbach, then a senior outfielder with a 0.292 average ranked fifth on the team. “You wanted to look up at the end of the ninth round and we had won the match. Things really came into place for us. ”

The Eagles had defeated the Cougars once earlier in the season, 3-2 at Cheney, but it was the lone victory in an otherwise skewed series that year: They played five times in the regular season, and the Cougars surpassed the Eagles overall 38 -4.

Then, in the division title game, WSU won 9-2. Washington State, 18-4 in the conference and 52-14 overall, went 2-2 in the West I Regional in the NCAA Tournament and was eliminated by Fresno State.

“We went up against, in my opinion, one of the best teams in the nation at the time, which was Wazzu with Johnny Olerud,” said Rick Harris, the team’s senior second baseman. “They had everything. Lots of pitching. Meeting. Big D. It was a tough matchup, but we, a ragtag group of eastern boys, did only our best to compete, and unfortunately one game card came.

“But for a team of JUCO transfers and boys who were undersized, we competed and gave our best, and it was fun. It was a fun race. ”

A program goes over

Individual awards did not come to the Eagles that year. Of the 15 places on the Nords All-Conference team in 1988, six went to WSU players and two to Gonzaga. No one went to Eastern Washington players.

Next season, the Eagles went 24-29-1 overall and 6-18 again in conference play. During the North Division tournament that followed, Eastern Washington beat 10-5 and defeated WSU 9-8.

“I hit Olerud twice in a row,” Absalonson said of that game, “but he still hit a ball (of me) that is still going (right now).”

However, Eastern lost their next two games to end the season.

Then, in 1990, they went 14-36 and 4-20, their fewest conference victories in the nine Pac-10 seasons. Shortly afterwards, the program was eliminated, and players with the remaining qualifications tried to find a place to play.

Hagy, who now lives back in his hometown of Ephrata, said he remembered hearing rumors that the program was eliminated, but he blew them off.

“So it was kind of sudden,” Hagy said. “I remember coach Wasem just had players come in (his office). He said, ‘I want to call anywhere you’re interested in going.’ “

Hagy ended up at UCLA during his senior year, playing for Gary Adams, who was then 17 of his 30 coaches for the Bruins. They needed a card stop, Hagy said, and it turned out to be a good fit.

The California Angels drafted Hagy in the 10th round of the 1991 Major League Baseball draft, and he played in 429 minor league games before retiring after the 1998 season.

His time at Eastern left an impression on him, especially Wasem.

“He taught me to respect people and that you should respect people,” Hagy said. “To this day, when I meet someone new, I want to get up and shake hands with them, and that came from coach Wasem. And I know I’m not the only one (he learned). ”

Hagy was one of 22 Washington-born players on the 1988 team, and overall, the program was largely filled with in-state talent. Two others – Adelsbach, from Moscow; and third baseman Bob King, from Post Falls – came just across the Idaho border.

“I will always recruit the whole (Greater Spokane League),” Wasem said. “There were eight teams, and there were eight good teams, and I always got three or four of the best players.”

In part, that recruitment was the content of a program that operated on a limited budget. Wasem, for example, did not always have an assistant coach. He also taught at the university and earned part of his salary as an associate professor.

Cutting the program saved $ 80,000 in the East, according to an article in The Spokane Chronicle on May 31, 1990, after the athletics department dropped $ 175,000 below expected expenses for the 1990-91 school year.

After the program was folded, Wasem said he received a phone call from Chuck “Bobo” Brayton, Washington State’s longtime coach, whose team had just won the Pac-10 North Division Tournament.

“He said, ‘Wassy, ​​how do you want to be a cougar?’ “” Remember Wasem. “I said” The only good cougar is a dead cougar. “”

Brayton offered him a job as an assistant coach by earning $ 70,000 in WSU, which Wasem said was about double what he earned at Eastern. But Wasem told Brayton he was not interested, and instead stayed at Eastern and continued teaching.

“It would have been a heck of a combination,” Harris said of a potential Brayton-Wasem pair. “I’m not sure how they would have come together, but there’s a lot of knowledge up there.”

Wasems arv

Wasem’s coaching career began in 1968 at Monmouth College in Illinois, continued in Northwest Missouri State in 1973 and ended at Eastern in 1990. In all, he trained in 933 games and his teams went 520-411-2.

In Eastern Norway, he coached his son Jim Wasem Jr., who later played baseball in the minor leagues and became head of baseball at Rogers High School, where he also coached his son, Jim Wasem III.

Wasem Sr. also wrote articles and books about the sport and taught a class in the east about baseball that many of his players took.

“It was an explosion,” Hagy said. “Things he wanted to cover.”

Wasem had an “incredible” understanding of the game, said Jim Straw, an all-conference player in Eastern in 1989 and 1990.

“We spent time talking about situations, and we were prepared,” said Straw, a longtime coach himself who is now principal at Freeman Middle School. “We practiced situations that were to happen once, maybe twice during a season.

“He knew ways to put pressure on the other team. We were going to hit, we were going to play the game fast, and we were going to put pressure on the other team and get the team running. ”

Halm and other outfielders such as Adelsbach and Raekes remembered times when they were drawn in as a fifth outfielder, as well as other times when Wasem would demand suicide pressure – from second base. Raekes said he even did the trick on video, where the batter bundles to the third, and while the fieldman throws to the first, base runs only continue.

Absalonson also remembers games.

“The guy from second never touches third base,” he said. “He cuts across the grass because all the referees are focused on the activity of the clamp. … It was crazy to see it happen. ”

Not all of this worked all the time, Absalonson said. But it was clear to him that Wasem knew the game better than anyone else.

“I came in from high school since I was eight years old, and I thought I knew everything about baseball,” said Absalonson, “but I learned so much from him about the inner workings of the game.”

Raekes, who is now a lawyer in Tri-Cities, trained youth baseball for 15 years.

“A lot of what I heard from Coach Wasem went over,” Raekes said, “and my kids did very well.”

Opportunities to play

Harris, who remained in Spokane after his playing career, has now worked at the West Central Community Center for 30 years. He was not the greatest student at the school, Harris said, and he was grateful that coach Steve Farrington – an Eastern graduate who replaced Brayton at WSU in June 1994 – gave him a chance to play his first two years at Lower Columbia Community College. in Longview.

Without it, he said, he might not have gone to college in the first place. That’s one of the reasons he’s sorry about the Eastern program going away.

“It’s unfortunate that they removed the program, because I know a lot of young people trust it,” Harris said. “I was not the greatest student, but I loved to compete.”

That playoff game was the end of the road for Harris, just as it was for Raekes and eight other seniors.

Raekes said he has returned to Cheney a couple of times and still thinks it’s a great place and a great school, although it’s disappointing that it’s no longer a baseball program. But he could see signs that it was not an economically sustainable Pac-10 program.

“We did not even have uniforms that matched at home and away. I had a different number away than I had at home, “said Raekes. “I think it’s a bit binding when you’re all in that situation together, so it was fun to get to the end (of the tournament).”

“It was a great way to finish,” he said. “A great way to go out.”

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