Steve Christilaw: Jack Spring Stadium – idea moved quickly to reality
Good ideas come and go all the time, every day. Great ideas, though, make you get up off the stool and do something about them.
“Like all great ideas, this one started at Jack and Dan’s Tavern,” West Valley grad Bob Finn said. “A group of us were sitting around, having a beer, and we started talking about the West Valley baseball field and we wondered what it would take to get it renamed for Jack Spring.”
Jack Spring is the legendary baseball coach at West Valley, leading the Eagles to the 1978 state championship – a beloved figure to several generations.
Jack Spring is also the lanky lefthander on the All-Time, All-Spokane baseball team after 17 years in professional baseball, playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, Cleveland Indians and, largely, the Los Angeles Angels.
Surprisingly, he was among the throng of former Red Sox players pouring out of the centerfield door when Fenway Park celebrated its 100th anniversary. The surprising part is that his career with the Red Sox lasted exactly one inning, just three outs (two by strikeouts) before being traded to the Angels.
After his playing career ended, he became a teacher at West Valley High School and coached the Eagles baseball team.
Finn came along in 1981 and played three seasons for coach Spring.
“He was just an incredible teacher and coach, and he’s been a great friend for all these years,” he said. “He was a great influence on all of us at that table. I got on the phone with Jamie Nilles, the athletic director, and we figured out what needed to be done to make it happen. Once we found that out, 15 minutes later I had someone willing to pay for the sign and guys willing to help out to make it work.”
“I got this text from Bob Finn asking me about it and I finally called him and asked what was going on,” Nilles said. “I looked into it and saw that it could be done and what would be needed.”
A committee was put together, including current WV baseball coach Don O’Neal and a pair of players from the state championship team: Mark McIntyre and Ron Soss.
The West Valley School Board added its approval at its last meeting and Jack Spring Stadium will be unveiled Sept. 18 before West Valley plays its homecoming football game.
It will be the second field at West Valley to be renamed. The football field is named in honor of former coach Ward Mauer.
“That was kind of the start of it all,” Finn said. “We couldn’t remember Ward Mauer, but we could remember Jack Spring.”
The same group that got the process rolling over a few beers doesn’t plan to stop there. There are plans to raise money for a new scoreboard, complete with “Jack Spring Stadium” writ large. And there are plans to raise funds to endow a West Valley scholarship in his name.
“I would like to get as many members of that state championship team there for the ceremony – and as many of his former players as we can,” Finn said. “I’d like to get them involved with the scholarship campaign as well.”
Jack Spring made learning fun, whether it was in the classroom or on the baseball field. And he was a consummate storyteller.
Students as well as players would gather in his classroom during lunch to listen to him tell stories about life in the big leagues. Some days he’d talk about what it was like to play alongside Leroy “Satchel” Paige (he’s mentioned in Paige’s autobiography, “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever”). Other times he’d tell stories about pitching to the likes of Harmon Killebrew or about coaching a young prospect in his first professional baseball season – a young guy named Kurt Russell.
They were great stories and he always kept his audience in the palm of his hand. They were so good, in fact, that they inspired one young West Valley student to pursue a career telling sports stories.
Finn recalls being deathly afraid that coach Spring would cut him his first year at West Valley.
“I’d broken my foot playing Legion ball and my foot was in a cast,” he said. “I just knew he was going to cut me and I wouldn’t get to play. But he kept me that year and he even got me into a game as a pinch hitter with the cast still on my foot.
“I loved how he would never come right out and insult anyone if they were playing bad. I was never the fastest guy, even after I got my foot out of the cast. One day he yelled over at me ‘Finny, I know you have to carry that piano down to first base with you ever time, but do you have to stop and play it along the way?’ ”
Now the alumni director at Gonzaga University, Finn and his family have long spent the Fourth of July weekend at the lake with the Spring family.
This year, he was able to pass along the special news.
“The whole family was there – cousins, everyone,” he said. “I told them what we were going to do and Jack’s jaw just dropped open. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house and I could see just how much he appreciated the honor.
“But for once, he was speechless.”