The man in the dugout

Published by Tyler Howe and Aidan Treu, Date: March 6, 2023
0
3194

Things change every day. Sometimes they change slowly, but they are always evolving. It is the only thing that happens. Either you adapt and survive, or you fall behind. SRU Baseball head coach Jeff Messer has seen change for nearly 40 years in the same town.

The same town that he had heard of when he was in high school — Slippery Rock, what kind of name is that for a town? That kind of thought crosses the mind of a lot of people who hear about the town. In Messer’s case, the decision to not come here as a student may have changed history for many.

It all started in a little town called Lee, Massachusetts. Today, the population in the town is just around 6,000 people. It has not changed much. To be fair, neither has Messer’s love for the game of baseball.

“Every kid that grows up wants to be a pro baseball player,” Messer said with a smile on his face.

He played three sports in high school, but baseball was always his top sport. It was his first love, and he knew immediately that it was what he wanted to do. He played basketball, football and baseball at high level though. So, he did not know which sport he would pursue while in college.

“I wasn’t sure which sport I was going to play in college, because I had a few places I could’ve gone for any of those,” Messer said.

Messer had to make the decision on where he wanted to go to play baseball in college. There were really only a few places that were even in the discussion.

“It came down to Murray State, Florida Southern and Springfield College, which was a huge physical education college,” Messer said. “I didn’t want to go too far from home and it was only 45 minutes away, so I chose Springfield.”

It was around then that Messer had first heard of Slippery Rock.

“Slippery Rock came up with my guidance counselor, who basically told me I was going to be a plumber,” Messer said. “I remember thinking, ‘what is a Slippery Rock?”’

Ultimately, it just made sense for him to stay close to home, though. He did not live up to the expectations he had set for himself. Back then, if you did not get drafted, college was the end.

“When you finish your career, whether it be whatever level it is, you want to have a great experience, so you still have a love for the sport,” Messer said. “I don’t think that was the case for me when I graduated from Springfield.”

At that point, Messer felt that was going to be it. He thought his playing days had to come to an end on a little bit of a sour note.

But conversations with his college coach convinced him to go play professional baseball in Amsterdam. The league was essentially the equivalent of what independent ball is here in the U.S. now.

“It kept my foot in the door with baseball, and I had an unbelievable experience traveling [to] Europe playing professional baseball and getting paid to do it,” Messer said.

He only played that one year there, however.

“I was going to go back the following year, but I tell you, when you’re away from the mainland United States, you appreciate it a little bit more,” Messer said. “One of my best friends married a Dutch girl, and I didn’t have that connection.”

His playing days were over.

That was for the best though. He did not want to stay in Europe, and luckily for him, when one door closed another opened.

“Out of fate, I applied for a college coaching job at West Field State College in Massachusetts,” Messer said. “It was close to home, and I could substitute teach because there still weren’t teaching jobs even after being in Europe for a year.”

Getting the job changed his mindset on what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a college baseball coach; he did not want to do high school or anything else. College was the place for him.

“I got the job at West Field State, and it changed my thought process…I wanted to be a college coach, that’s what I wanted to do,” Messer said. “But getting into college sports was really difficult.”

Not only was it difficult to get into college sports, but at the same time, Messer had gotten married to his wife, Mary.

“One other new arrival was that I was married, so I was married, coaching and we had a six-month-old son,” Messer said.

Still, he was determined to find a job in coaching. He sent out copies of his resume to anyone and everyone who take it. Someone was bound to take a bite, and eventually, someone did. But that someone was in Oklahoma.

“I flew out for the interview, and at the time I was working as a service writer for a local car dealership at home,” Messer said. “I loved it. My parents and my wife’s parents thought we were crazy, but we loaded up the car and we drove out to Oklahoma City.”

At Oklahoma City University, the team played what was very likely the most difficult Div. I schedule in all of college baseball. To add to that, they did not have a set home stadium. They found themselves playing their home games in downtown Oklahoma City.

They played almost every big school you can name that season. It felt like they were never from the same state. From Texas to Minnesota to San Diego State, they played all the schools that are still a staple of college baseball today.

“I was never home, it was good for me, but it was [not] good for my wife or my one-year-old,” Messer said.

Just as soon as they got there, they were looking to get out. They wanted to go back east of the Mississippi. Things continued to work to plan though, because while he was up in Minnesota for a series, he got a call from his wife.

“My wife calls me and told me that she saw in the Oklahoma Tribune that OCU was dropping from Div. I to NAIA,” Messer said. “It said in the article that they’d keep all their funding and stuff, but they’d drop their number of coaches, and I knew I was the yankee.”

This is where Slippery Rock comes back into the story.

He landed an interview with The Rock, but as he puts it, back then, things were a lot different from the way things look to the way everything operated.

“I get off the exit, and I thought to myself that this was not going to be the place,” Messer said. “They had 3,800 students, there was one telephone, I mean there was nothing.”

It was the best opportunity at the time though. So, he and his family took it. Initially, they thought Slippery Rock was just another one-year stop on their journey. Boy were they wrong.

When he started settling into his new position, there were more than a few uncertainties.

He had to take everything going on into consideration. Sure, SRU was a good option for right now, but what would be best for his future? And even more importantly, what would be best for his family?

While Messer had made the decision a while ago that he wanted to be a college coach, movement in staff positions is not uncommon in collegiate and professional sports.

Early on in his SRU career, Messer was not aware of how long he would be staying here. Even though he had found a place where he could succeed, there remained a thought in the back of his mind that he could find a place better suited for him and his family.

“Whatever job, whatever coaching job, there’s going to be challenges,” Messer said.

He did not let the unknowns affect his effort toward the game and his team’s production.

1986 was Messer’s first year at the helm of Slippery Rock Men’s Baseball. At this same time, he was an assistant professor in SRU’s health and physical education department, a title he would hold for a long time.

His first win with The Rock came in the form of a 5-2 victory over Atlantic Christian College on March 23 of 1986.

That squad finished 24-16. Many coaches struggle right out of the gate with their first team, but Messer did not stumble nor flinch in taking one year to rack up his first .600 winning percentage season.

The record would be good enough for a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Tournament berth, but unfortunately not a championship. The team also included six players who would be named to the All-PSAC West team.

It also didn’t take long for Messer to prove that his first season was not a fluke. In fact, it took until 1994 for him to have his first losing season. Taking nine years to accumulate one’s first losing season, which was still solid at 21-24, is not a common stat.

In his 1980s career, Messer coached his team to 124 wins and a .636 winning percentage. 1980s Messer alone would be a resume many schools would be proud of.

His most successful season of the decade came in 1989.

Messer’s 1989 squad recorded a then-record 42 wins on their way to Slippery Rock’s first-ever NCAA Division II World Series appearance. The team was Atlantic Region champions and ended the season ranked No. 10 in the country.

Slippery Rock’s 1989 squad saw Craig White, Matt Deinert and Kirk Scurpa named All-Americans and five players placed on the All-PSAC West Team. White went on to join the 1987 team’s Willy Fillard as the second player coached by Messer to be drafted into Major League Baseball. Fillard was drafted to the Toronto Blue Jays and Scurpa was drafted to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The 90s did not start quite as hot as the 80s ended, but many teams across the country would take a 27-20-1 season where five players were named to the All-PSAC West Team.

1991 was the second season with Messer leading the way where Slippery Rock achieved an NCAA tournament berth after accumulating a 34-20 record. The squad won the PSAC Tournament Championship, ended the season ranked No. 17 in the country and saw Kevin Keryan named an All-American with, once again, five players on the All-PSAC West team.

As for individual accolades, 1992 was a big year for Messer. In a year that The Rock qualified for the PSAC Tournament with a 28-15 record and ended the season ranked 27th in the country with four players on the All-PSAC West team, Messer acquired his first PSAC West Coach of the Year award. It would not be his last.

Between 1992 and 1996, Messer was awarded a stunning four PSAC West Coach of the Year awards. During a five-year stretch, he was only the 1994 “down year” away from sweeping half a decade of coach of the year awards.

1993 saw The Rock Baseball’s fourth 30-win season with Messer as head coach as they went 37-12 and advanced to the NCAA tournament. The team finished the season inside the top 15 in national rankings again at No. 12. Bill Gross was named an All-American and The Rock yet again was home to five All-PSAC West team members.

As previously mentioned, 1994 was Messer’s first losing season.

In what supposedly could be considered one of Messer’s worse seasons (although it feels wrong to use negative words toward a season that was hardly under .500), The Rock still saw John Davide named an All-American, TJ Kamerer named the PSAC West Freshman of the Year, two players making the All-PSAC West team and Tony Dougherty getting drafted to the then Cleveland Indians in the MLB Draft.

If Messer has had any flukes during his tenure, 1994 was one as he immediately righted the ship for 1995, compiling a 29-21 record and starting a 21-season stretch of consecutive winning seasons. The Rock won the PSAC West regular season championship, had six players on the All-PSAC west team for the second time in Messer’s tenure at SRU and saw Mark Drager get drafted by the Texas Rangers in the MLB Draft.

Slippery Rock was nationally ranked 26 or higher in each season from 1996 through 1999, placing six, seven, or eight players on the All PSAC West team every year during the stretch as well.

The 1997 team made the College World Series at 30-21 and won the PSAC West regular season championship. The ’98 squad also won the PSAC West regular season championship.

Messer had another impressive coaching performance to cap off the 90s. His 1999 team fell just short of the 40-win landmark at 39-14, but they did qualify for the NCAA tournament yet again. It was the fourth season out of six straight qualifying for the NCAA tournament and another PSAC West regular season championship.

Bob Spangler was named an All-American, Nate Thimons was named PSAC West Athlete of the Year, George Johnson won PSAC West Freshman of the Year and The Rock placed eight on All-PSAC West Team.

The 90s were a great representation of Messer’s coaching ability. During the decade, there was a 50% chance each year that he would win PSAC West Coach of the Year as he accrued five such awards over the ten year span.

The turn of the millennia proved to do nothing to slow down Messer’s legacy of success. The 2000s brought another College World Series appearance with a 37-14 record and, to no one’s surprise, another Atlantic Region Championship and PSAC West regular season championship.

Slippery Rock ranked No. 8 nationally and put nine players on the All-PSAC West Team including Dan DeCola, the PSAC West Athlete of the Year.

In potentially one of the most impressive showings of Messer’s career, he oversaw four players who were drafted into Major League Baseball. Greg Stokes, Tom Sullivan and Dan DeCola were drafted to the Twins while Craig Petulla was drafted to the Astros.

Getting a single player to the MLB draft is quite an accomplishment. Doing it four times in one year as a division II program is the stuff of legend.

The 2001-02 seasons brought another 30-win season, a PSAC Tournament championship, five players on the All-PSAC West Team both years and Messer’s 500th career victory.

2003 was a return to PSAC dominance. The Rock complied a stunning 48-13 record, good for a .787 winning percentage. The last time any major baseball organization amassed a winning percentage that high was the 1884 St. Louis Maroons. 1884 was the first year that overhand pitching was allowed in Major League Baseball.

Over a 162-game season, a .787 winning percentage extrapolates out to a 127-34 season. The highest win total an MLB team has ever achieved was the 2001 Mariners, tied with the 1906 Cubs, with 116.

The season entailed an Atlantic Region championship, a final ranking of 12 in the nation, two separate 14-game winning streaks, three All-Americans between Alan Reichl, Joe Neidrack and Steve Norris, the Atlantic Region Pitcher of the Year in Norris and eleven players on the All-PSAC West Team.

The 2003 season was likely Messer’s crown jewel unless he is able to surpass those accolades. He was once again rewarded with a PSAC Coach of the Year award.

2004 through 2007 was a four-year stretch of 30+ win seasons. The stretch included three trips to the NCAA Tournament, two top 30 rankings nationwide and at least six All-PSAC West players each season.

2007 specifically included Messer’s 700th career win, the introduction of likely the most renowned Slippery Rock baseball player ever, Matt Adams, in 2007 with a PSAC West Freshman of the year award and two All-Americans in Adams and MJ Parsons.

During 2008, any lingering doubt about whether Slippery Rock had always been the right decision for Messer was eliminated. Some of the stadium was upgraded, and this was the year he was able to retire as an assistant professor and be a full-time head baseball coach. He had officially achieved the height of his baseball coaching dreams.

“Years went by, we went for weekends at other places and had to figure out whether it was good for the family or not and it led to when we stopped looking when we built this. When we built this I was able to negotiate with the president that I wouldn’t teach anymore… so just 100% Baseball,” Messer said.

The next two seasons were Matt Adams’ career at The Rock. Both 2008 and ’09 were winning seasons, the latter being a 36-win season and both resulting in PSAC Tournament appearances.

Adams was an All-American both years and was the Daktronics Division II Player of the Year and PSAC West Athlete of the Year in 2009. He would go on to be drafted in the 23rd round of the 2009 MLB Draft. His career would be a gem in the centerpiece of Messer’s decades-long coaching masterclass.

Adams is still hanging around between the minor and major leagues in 2023. He has played for ten years in the majors and was part of the 2019 Nationals World Series Championship team.

The next three years would have win totals in the mid-20s and PSAC Tournament appearances, with 2010 and 2011 being back-to-back 27-win seasons both with five players on the All-PSAC West Team. 2011 saw Matt Howard win PSAC West Athlete of the Year and Ryan Oglesby win PSAC West Freshman of the Year while 2012 had Lou Trivino as an All-American. Each team had at least three players on the All-PSAC West team.

A 31-21 record in 2013 was SRU’s best in a four-year stretch. Both 2013 and 2014 included PSAC Tournament berths and players being drafted to Major League Baseball, Lou Trivino to the Oakland Athletics and Will Kengor to the Detroit Tigers respectively. Kengor was an All-American in both seasons and PSAC West Athlete of the Year in 2014.

Kengor was Messer’s fifth PSAC West Athlete of the Year and third in six years. He would eventually coach seven such players.

2015 marked a large change to the MLB game. Statcast was introduced to all 30 stadiums, and an era of great emphasis on analytics began.

Not only were analytics making teams better, but a school’s access to analytical tools started to become more and more of an influence over where high school students would choose to begin their collegiate athletic careers.

Plenty of times throughout sports history, staff members were fired or let go for their inability to adapt to changes in the game. Run-heavy offensive coordinators have died off somewhat in the NFL due to its becoming a pass-heavy game. MLB managers who will not make analytical adjustments are less popular now because there is data to support that analytics-driven teams often have success.

The Tampa Bay Rays are known as a deeply analytical franchise, and it has brought them success. The 2020 Rays at one point had a $28.3 million payroll, good for third lowest out of 30 teams, and they made it the whole way to the World Series.

If Messer was unable to adapt to the way the game was becoming more analytical, he likely would not have been able to replicate his past success. This was not the case.

SRU has adapted some analytical programs for current and prospective players. Hitters and pitchers have programs they follow which have been proven to increase bat speed, spin rate on pitches thrown and other underlying stats that have a significantly higher emphasis than ever before. Messer has, no pun intended, stepped up to the plate and hit it out of the park by fusing his older style coaching with newly available analytics.

The next two seasons, 2015 and ’16, had an SRU All-American, Adam Urbania and 2015 PSAC West Freshman of the Year Tyler Walters respectively. Jack Graham from the 2015 squad was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles.

2017 was a rebound year from 2016’s losing season where The Rock returned to the PSAC Tournament, had six players on the All-PSAC West Team, and the highest academic award that the PSAC bestows, Chris Anastas was the PSAC Baseball Champion Scholar.

Messer orchestrated another 30-win season in 2018 and sported Tyler Walters as an All-American and PSAC West Athlete of the Year, Abraham Mow as the PSAC West Freshman of the Year, and eight All-PSAC West representatives. Chris Anastas was once again the PSAC Baseball Champion Scholar.

2019 was only Messer’s third losing season, and the most recent, in 38 years at the helm. It did however include a March 14 win over Franklin Pierce University for Messer’s 1,000th career victory. Joe Campagna was an All-American, and SRU had four All-PSAC West representatives.

The 2020 season was a disappointment by no fault of Messer’s as it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Joe Sibeto was, however, named PSAC Baseball Champion Scholar.

The year also brought a lot of perspective to players and coaches alike.

“[COVID-19] kinda was awakening that you need to enjoy it more,” Messer said.

Cancellations introduced the idea to everyone that baseball is not a given. It is important to live in the moments you are enjoying while they are still here.

“I think the guys that were in the program and went through it, we only played the ten games that one year, I think they saw how quickly it can go away,” Messer said. “Especially the fifth-year guys, this could be your last game, so experience not only on the field but experience off the field with your teammates and same with the coaches. You never know what’s gonna happen.”

The year brought a lot to SRU despite game cancellations.

Several renovations were made to Jack Critchfield Park. By the time renovations were done, it had a turf playing surface and lights. This made it so that games could be played and night and shortly following bad weather. The renovations have made the stadium a premier location for PSAC Championships.

“We were the first [PSAC] facility to get to what is like a Division I facility,” Messer said.

These upgrades have joined the analytical development of the program to add appeal for prospective players coming in.

Messer said that having a great baseball facility in combination with a historically successful program helps him with his scouting process and bringing players in.

“Unless you’re at one of those top 50 schools and you’re playing it’s all about experience and being able to go somewhere you can play and just having a good time and enjoying what you’re doing,” Messer said.

The facility as it is currently upgraded is just another thing that Messer has come to love about Slippery Rock. The longer he has been here, the more he and his family have enjoyed it.

“This was just an ideal place for us to raise a family,” Messer said. “It was my choice and my family’s choice that we stay here because we just love Slippery Rock and it got better each year.”

Much of 2021 was canceled as well, but The Rock was still able to win 23 games. The team had All-American Jon Kozarian and five All-PSAC West participants.

Last year was another great representation of Messer’s coaching job as SRU went 33-16 and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. Connor Hamilton was a massive part of the squad, being named an All-American, part of the PSAC Spring Top 10 and the PSAC Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

Ethan Edkins was named PSAC West Freshman of the Year and SRU had six representatives on the All-PSAC West Team. The Rock also sent another player to the MLB system when Ricky Mineo signed with the Minnesota Twins.

Messer was rewarded for yet another greatly impressive year by being named PSAC West Coach of the Year and Atlantic Region Coach of the Year.

His history as an assistant professor clearly played a role in how he manages his team. His players will not only be great athletes, but they will also be great students.

SRU baseball has had six players named to the CoSIDA Academica All-America Team since 1997. The list includes 2022 Academic All-American of the year Connor Hamilton, who matched his academic prowess with incredible athletic ability. Hamilton is the SRU single-season home run leader with 17 in 2021 in addition to being third in SRU history in SLG%, fourth in OBP, eighth in BA and ninth in home runs overall.

He has also coached 151 PSAC Scholar-Athletes and six players who have been named PSAC Champion Scholars, the highest academic honor the PSAC has to offer. It comes as no surprise that Slippery Rock Baseball as a whole has accumulated a team GPA of at least 3.0 every season for the last 10 years.

At the end of all of it, he manages to make his program enjoyable to be a part of; otherwise, good players would not come and stay here. They achieve both athletic and academic prowess, and they enjoy it.

“It’s got to be fun or why do it, bottom line. If I didn’t enjoy doing this, I wouldn’t still be doing it. 100% I wouldn’t be doing it,” Messer said.

The sports community sees firings all the time when a team struggles, whether it is actually the fault of management and coaching or they are simply being used as scapegoats for the faltering of a program. Messer had been able to maintain a high level of play from his players through multiple decades and changes to the game.

His 38-year tenure with The Rock speaks to consistency and success. No one makes it that long at any level of athletics if they are not truly elite at what they do.

In 2023, if you look into his office, it is not hard to see how much Messer has done here. His office is decked out with all of his accomplishments and decorations, none of which he wanted in his office in the first place.

“I’m not that guy, anything you see in here is because of my assistant coaches, one of which is retiring this year and a lot of this shit is going with him because I’m not that guy,” Messer said as he looked around laughing.

On the window behind his desk, the baseball from each milestone from 100 wins to 1,000 wins is stretched out and marked. It is to the point that there is not room for the ball that he will get when he likely hits his 1,100th win. The feat could even be done this year as he is just 28 wins from the mark.

“I hopefully will be here for 1,100, but I don’t want anyone to do anything crazy,” Messer said. “I can still remember my first game.”

Thirty-eight years is a long time, and eventually, the road will come to an end, but that road will not come until Messer feels he cannot do his job at a high level.

“Father time is going to get to me eventually, but I look at it like as long as I can do what I did in my fifth year of coaching equally to or better than I did and I still enjoy then I think I have another three to five years,” Messer said. “But when I’m done, I want to be done, I don’t want to ever have another job.”

No matter what, he has made the most unlikely of places his forever home.

“Even when I retire, I’ll look to retire I might vacation down south, but I’m staying in Slippery Rock because I love it here,” Messer said.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here