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Sports >  Gonzaga athletics

Jeff Hainline, Gonzaga’s all-time home run leader, dies at 56

Aug. 17, 2021 Updated Wed., Aug. 18, 2021 at 10:36 a.m.

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

Before the NCAA collective got all officious about it, autumn baseball used to be a thing.

Not just practices, but doubleheaders on the weekends. The scores didn’t get reported to the newspaper, but it was real baseball with umps and scorebooks and pitchers moving batters off the plate and all of that.

In the fall of 1983, Bobo Brayton brought his Washington State Cougars to Spokane on a Saturday for a pair against Gonzaga at cozy Pecarovich Field, where the basketball shrine now sits. In the bottom of the first inning, a beefy Bulldog freshman named Jeff Hainline stepped into the box and sent a rocket in the direction of the old post office annex on Trent.

Next time up, another bomb. Then a third.

Brayton, making his way to the third-base coaching box between innings, looked into the Gonzaga dugout and growled at coach Steve Hertz, “I’ve got to put up with that for four years?”

“And then Jeff hits another one,” Hertz recalled. “Our place was kind of a launching pad, but these weren’t cheapies. The regular season hadn’t started and I’m thinking, ‘He’s Babe Ruth.’ ”

The stories seem almost Ruthian for sure, about Gonzaga’s all-time home run leader who found his way into the record books of the old Pac-10 – Gonzaga’s baseball home in those days – right next to Mark McGwire.

But there were tears between the toasts over the weekend.

Jeff Hainline died on Thursday at age 56, some long-standing health issues complicated when he was infected with COVID-19 in the past two weeks.

For the Hainline and Schurger families, the blow wasn’t just devastating, but doubly so. Jeff’s wife Delena also contracted the virus and died two days earlier.

“He’d been vaccinated, but there were a lot of other problems,” said Hainline’s older brother, Bill. “This was just kind of the thing that tipped it.”

Monster masher though he might have been at the plate, Jeff Hainline was anything but outside the lines.

“Just a gentle, gentle soul,” said his friend Mark Machtolf, GU’s current head coach, “with a left-handed swing that every player wishes he had.”

Machtolf saw it often enough. He hit third in Gonzaga Prep’s lineup in the early ’80s, Hainline fourth. Bill Hainline saw it, too, from an earlier age.

“We’d play whiffle in the front yard and he’d take too good of a swing, so I’d have to dust him back with the next one,” he remembered. “I can still hear him running into the house hollering, ‘Mom, Bill’s trying to hit me!’ ”

It still didn’t stop little brother from taking a full cut.

The power legend took root in high school, in particular in a summer Legion game at Al Jackson Field when he blasted a ball off the spire of Messiah Lutheran across Longfellow.

“The shot heard ’round Spokane,” said Chris Spring, who witnessed it, having stuck around after pitching the game before.

But Spring’s favorite image comes from his time as Hainline’s teammate at GU – of some homers that didn’t count.

“You’d just be in awe of the way he could make balls fly,” Spring said. “In batting practice, we’d start counting when he hit consecutive balls over the fence. One time, it got to nine and by that time we were laughing at how ridiculous that was. Then 10 and 11 and we’re on the ground. On No. 15 he hits a laser that hits the fence – just didn’t get under it enough.

“Then Hainer being Hainer – he always had a big dip in his lip – just comes out of the cage, does a bat flip and starts walking out toward us smiling, and it was a dogpile. I don’t think it was the end of practice – Hertzie wouldn’t allow that – but it did come to a stop.”

So did Hainline’s college career, for a bit.

He hit 21 dingers as a GU freshman – McGwire had 32 for USC that year – and came within .001 in batting average of the Pac-10 North triple crown. But as his reputation grew, he saw fewer pitches to hit. Declining numbers and a conflict with his coaches over plate approach took its toll on his playing time and enthusiasm. He quit before his senior season – and after a year decided he didn’t want to have any regrets. He and Hertz patched things up in 1988, and Hainline dropped 55 pounds with a 1,000-calorie-a-day diet and daily runs with Machtolf.

In a doubleheader against Washington that May, he hit three homers to equal McGwire’s conference career record of 54, since broken.

His pro career lasted for 29 at-bats in Gastonia, North Carolina, and Butte before he aggravated an old knee injury. He taught school in Hunters, worked for Clarke Stephens Golf for a time and made a career at Northern Quest Resort & Casino, where Spring ran into him one day.

“We’d lost touch, but it was like I’d been with him yesterday,” Spring said. “He was always asking about you, not trying to tell you about he’s doing. He was the most gentle, wonderful guy.”

And he could mash. Some of those baseballs might still be in flight.

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