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Stitt’s impact on UA baseball clearly Hall of Fame-worthy

Freelance
SIMPSON COLUMN

You stand there on the bleacher steps at the beautiful, immaculately cared-for campus baseball park and think about him.

You think about the games played there, the oohs and ahhs of the crowd. You think about the championship years and the kids who went on to play in the major leagues.

But on this day, you think about the Greatest Wildcat of Them All – for what he gave and the spirit in which he gave it – Jerry Stitt.

The quiet man known as “Stitter” played four years under Frank Sancet, a tough- minded old coach who left a lasting imprint on Stitt.

Stitt led the team in hitting with a .366 average in 1968 and was a first-team All-American center fielder. He was drafted by the Cleveland Indians and played three years in that organization.

Stitt coached hitters – boy, did he ever! – for 15 years during the Jerry Kindall era before becoming the head coach himself for six seasons.

And now the hitting guru, who helped so many players develop and polish that sweet swing necessary to succeed in baseball, has been inducted into the 2007 Arizona Sports Hall of Fame.

Individuals joining Stitt in the induction class at UA on Friday were Dana Burkholder, volleyball; Tara Chaplin, cross country and track and field; Jennie Finch, softball; Brianna Glenn, track and field; Roland Schoeman, swimming and diving; and Sarah Tolar, swimming and diving.

Stitt was more than an outstanding athlete. In addition to earning first-team All-American honors as the Wildcats’ center fielder, he was an excellent student who graduated on time and then earned master’s and doctoral degrees.

You think about the man who handled himself with such pride and grace and commitment to the game to forever be thought of as a ballplayer (there is no greater title I am aware of), but a competitor always cut deep by defeat.

The Wildcats would win two games out of three in a series and Stitter would say something like, “Yeah, but we let one get away.”

Nobody ever played the game harder. He coached with the same intensity, and more than anyone who ever left a cleat mark on the dirt of that ballpark, he cared.

He cared about the players, he cared about the team, and he cared about the tradition of Arizona baseball.

Terry Francona, who just managed the Boston Red Sox to their second World Series championship in four years, was one of the many players who benefited from Stitt’s teaching.

Francona, also an outfielder, was the NCAA’s player of the year when he led Arizona to the 1980 national championship. He played 10 years in the majors and is managing his second big league ballclub.

“Stitter was the most influential person with me as a young hitter,” Francona said. “And I’m talking about beyond college days at UA. I even went to him after I signed professionally.”

The Wildcats were always among the nation’s top teams offensively under Stitt. Francona, Jack Howell, J.T. Snow, Jack Daugherty and Shelley Duncan, who made a big splash this season with the New York Yankees, were among the many students who learned under Jerry.

Snow, Kevin Long, Scott Erickson and Lance Dickson, all of whom made it to the majors, were on hand to cheer Stitt and the other inductees Friday at the Jim Click Hall of Champions ceremony.

Stitt is now the director of the Baja Arizona Baseball Academy. He is also the hitting instructor for the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Rookie League team in Montana, the Missoula Osprey.

Originally from Phoenix, Stitt was an all-city player at Central High School.

When he followed Kindall as head coach of the Wildcats, Stitt became only the fourth head coach in school history. J.F. “Pop” McKale was the first, Sancet was second, and Kindall was third.

Current coach Andy Lopez, who followed Stitt, is the fifth.

Stitt began his coaching career at Salpointe Catholic High School in 1971.

During his time as hitting coach and then head coach at Arizona, 57 players who sharpened their batting skills under Stitt were drafted by major league teams.

He has an excellent eye for talent and, during his years in college baseball, for recruiting.

His best recruit ever? That’s easy.

It’s Linda, his beautiful and devoted wife. They still live in Tucson.

Corky Simpson retired from the Citizen last year. He writes a column every Saturday.

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