Coaches Feeling COVID-19 Pinch

Photo: Jeff Calhoon (Biola Athletics)

Keystone College head coach Jamie Shevchik was bluntly honest about the impending prospect of canceling the college baseball due to the coronavirus. Initially, he thought it was a ridiculous decision.

“A few days before we were getting on the bus to go, I got an email from (Kean University Head Coach Neil Loviero) that their spring trip was canceled and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Man, talk about jumping the gun.’”

Shevchik, like dozens, if not hundreds of other college coaches, were all thinking the same thing. There was no way a teeny microscopic germ was going to put a kibosh on their season. It was a preposterous thought, completely ludicrous. The Keystone coach even admitted that he had wanted to hightail it out of town and get his team on the bus as quickly as possible to head south and to save the Keystone administration from making the same foolish preemptive strike on the trip as the Cougars’ directors had.

It wasn’t long before his perspective changed.

“We ended up getting to Florida and it was was like one school getting picked off every day. You go to the fields and you have programs down there doing senior days seven games into their season,” Shevchik lamented, “Now it was like, when is our number going to get called? When am I going to get a phone call from my AD or administration saying that our season is over?

“We kept playing and I think we got about maybe five games in, maybe four games in, and then we get that call, ‘You guys need to shut down operation and start making arrangements to get back to campus.’ It was really sobering.”

Since then the Giants’ coach has little doubt suspending the smart decision was made. “The safety and well-being of everybody is the most important thing,” he enforced.

The college baseball season of 2020, or more accurately, the lack thereof, will be memorable for a number of reasons. Primarily it will be remembered as a lost season of opportunity for players and their families. Decisions on eligibility and the subsequent professional draft have been at the forefront, and understandably so. The players on the diamond are what drives the game. It’s safe to say that the bulk of fans head to the field to see one of their school’s players take a rival deep or see one of their pitchers pump their fist after a crucial strikeout rather than to see a third base coach execute a timely hit-and-run sign or watch the a closer get waved in by the pitching coach as he saunters to the mound.

Nevertheless, the coaches are an integral part of the game and getting overlooked in the corona conversation is the effect it is having on the coaches who share the dugouts with the athletes. The mentors, teachers and instructors of the game’s next generation – especially on the small school level – are facing serious hardships as social distancing heads into summer. While the athletes can return to school or start the next chapter in their lives, coaches are missing out on the opportunity to earn their livelihood and the impact of missing a season is having a dire financial and social impact on their lives.

At Benedictine Mesa, a thriving up-and-coming NAIA program based in the Phoenix metro area, all of the coaches, aside from head coach Brian McCabe, are volunteers. They are able to spend their time building the Redhawk program because the experience provides them opportunities to earn money by conducing camps, providing lessons, working local tournaments and coaching over the summer. With the sudden shutdown on the diamond, their ability to draw a paycheck has come to a standstill.

On top of missing out on baseball, Benedictine Mesa’s assistants have received a double punch in the gut.

“All my coaches with our program are volunteers so that’s obviously a wrinkle in itself,” McCabe explained. “But all the guys that coach for me are substitute teachers. Obviously, they aren’t paid when school isn’t happening, so there goes the little money they were able to make.”

The often altruistic-investment coaches make in themselves is a long-standing baseball tradition. Aspiring coaches often must pay their dues before they can pay the bills. Working camps or leading summer clubs in tiny Iowa towns over the summer is typically a vital step in advancing their career.

“After being the volunteer assistant at UC San Diego for three years, that was how I survived was lessons and running our camps,” explained Jeff Calhoon who is the head coach at Biola, a private D-II school in Southern California. “I know that for me I wouldn’t have been able to keep just doing baseball … Our staff is being creative, they’re looking for something in town that they can do, like stocking shelves at Costco or the local grocery store just to try to find a bit of bonus money in case camps don’t happen.

“I feel a lot for the volunteer assistants who were banking on camp to pay their rent or counting on eight lessons a week to make rent or whatever it is and now they don’t have that.”

The need to make ends meet by picking up supplemental work isn’t just limited to assistant coaches. Shevchik has spent over a decade as a summer ball manager in New England in both the New England Collegiate Baseball League and Cape Cod Baseball League. He counts on the summer paychecks as a part of his annual income.

“It’s going to hurt a lot of coaches that the stimulus package and unemployment doesn’t cover,” he explained. “I know I count on it. I count on my salary in the summer of coaching in the Cape to get through the entire year. I’m watching this thing very, very closely and hoping we get back to baseball at some point.”

The COVID-19 cancelations haven’t just taken a financial burden on coaches. Adapting and overcoming in response to having their seasons cut short or eliminated altogether has required them to become de-facto counselors and take an emotional toll as well.

McCabe was preparing to take his team to Sacramento early the next morning when he learned the series had been called off due to virus concerns. At the time he anticipated they’d simply regroup as a team a couple of days later, but the opportunity never came. Much of team had gone home for spring break after their trip was canceled.

As the situation unfolded exponentially students were prohibited from returning to campus. Instead they started taking virtual classes and his Redhawks were scattered across the country and beyond.

“I’m doing exit meetings over the phone right now and calling the Dominican and Washington and Oregon,” McCabe lamented. “I’m thinking the 2020 team will never be together again.”

Regardless of their personal circumstances and situations, it seems unanimous that college coaches have been unequivocally focused on the athletes rather than themselves.

“The players are the most important thing in all of this,” Calhoon affirmed. “If something were to happen to one of them or someone in their family because they came to a game, that’d be something I don’t think I could live through. I couldn’t live with the conscious of that. We’re responsible for taking care of these kids and they are our family.”

Shevchik perhaps simply summed up the situation best.

“There’s a lot of coaches and probably a lot of players going forward that are going to not take baseball and the opportunity to play college baseball for granted.”

For the players and coaches of the game, hopefully that will happen soon.