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John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s Steve Hertz may retire, but he’ll be out standing in his field

UPDATED: Fri., May 11, 2018, 7:55 a.m.

He shook the trees – hard – for the money that built the joint. There’s a bronze bust of him on display just inside the front gate. On game nights, he’s upstairs underneath a radio headset, quizzing his partner – and, by extension, Gonzaga coach Mark Machtolf – as to whether this would be the proper time to send the runner. All of which barely begins to account for a connection to Bulldogs baseball that goes back 48 years.

And now that he’s just a few innings away from retirement, Steve Hertz is already lining up his next gig.

“Don’t be surprised,” he said, strolling across the infield, “to see me down here with a rake.”

Call it the pride of ownership. After all, his name will be over the front door.

By the time the ump orders the Zags and New Mexico State to play ball Friday night, the little jewel on the corner of Cincinnati and Spokane Falls Boulevard will have had its name amended to Patterson Baseball Complex and Coach Steve Hertz Field Presented by Washington Trust.

A mouthful, yes, especially with a nest of sunflower seeds tucked in your cheek. But worth every syllable, both for the man and the precedent.

It’s hard to find a square foot in Gonzaga’s athletic plant that hasn’t been named for a donor that bought a coat of paint – proof of the school’s gratitude. As the department’s director of athletic relations since leaving coaching 15 years ago, Hertz acknowledged, “I’ve been right in the middle of that.”

But it’s harder still out there in athletic-arms-race-land to find a sponsor scooting over a seat to make room for someone with sweat equity in the program.

“When (athletic director) Mike Roth approached us, we thought it would be a great tribute,” said Pete Stanton, chairman and CEO of Washington Trust. “We’ve got plenty of billboards around. I’m a sports guy at heart and I’ve never been a big fan of all the stadiums being named after big companies anyway.

“We’re happy to do it.”

For Hertz, the happy took root back in 1969, when Gonzaga’s baseball coach at the time, Larry Koentopp, called in December to offer a raw Los Angeles junior college pitcher a scholarship – sight unseen – on the recommendation of a legendary scout named George Genovese. Hertz said no, thanks: He and his high school sweetheart, Vicki, had already mapped out a plan, which had him walking on at UCLA – and what school are you from again? Koentopp then tried to sweeten the pot – offering to let Hertz start GU’s game at UCLA the next spring.

“I never used that as a recruiting ploy when I was coaching – but I considered it a few times,” Hertz laughed.

But Hertz’s father insisted they check out Gonzaga, and when he and Vicki stepped off the airplane in Spokane into a snowstorm – he’d never seen snow before – he was sold.

At least until he made his first start at Whitworth and a fly ball got lost amid the flakes coming down and fell for the winning hit in a 1-0 loss.

“But that very first day on campus, these people were incredible,” he said. And though he noted Gonzaga athletics is decidedly more prosperous now, “the essence of this place hasn’t changed at all.”

He would leave twice – to pitch in the Minnesota Twins chain for three years, and to coach at UC Irvine for a couple – but his comfort zone was right here and so was his cause. There were 637 wins and three trips to the NCAA Tournament to celebrate – and some tough years, too, when maybe the only consolation was listening to the ever-growing chorus of his children – five daughters and a son – harmonize on “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at the seventh-inning stretch.

Eventually, he’d walk two of those daughters down the aisle to be married to a couple of his left-handed pitchers – Barry Matthews and Michael Jackson.

“I guess that was bound to happen,” he said. “You scout a guy thinking, ‘Good arm, good speed, power.’ I should have asked myself, ‘Would you sign him thinking he might be your son-in-law?’ ”

Still, the family’s a pretty good advertisement for the school. There are 20 Gonzaga degrees at any holiday that can bring them all together.

Like this one. All of the kids and most of the spouses and 11 grandkids will be on hand for the dedication, from as far away as Germany and Colombia. RSVPs have come from scads of former players – like Jason Bay – and old teammates, too.

He’ll remember all their names when he sees his on the signage.

“It’s about a bunch of dirtbags who played baseball here,” he said. “The one name just kind of carries all of our pride in it.”


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