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Big Red Machine: Eastern Washington baseball goes down fighting

UPDATED: Mon., July 26, 2021

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

It was 1990, and Jim Wasem was ready to confirm his seven baseball scholarships for the next season with athletic director Darlene Bailey.

He wasn’t going to get them.

The Eastern Washington baseball program, as well as its wrestling team, was being eliminated.

“When they dropped our baseball program, the area was just infuriated,” said Wasem, now 85. “We were good.”

It was a financial decision, interim Eastern president B. Dell Felder said at the time.

“This decision comes after a careful and thorough analysis of our financial situation in athletics,” she said , according to a Spokesman-Review story from June 19, 1990. “We are disappointed that the university’s resources are not sufficient to continue the sports.”

Wasem, who lived in the Spokane area until February 2020 when he moved to Missouri, never coached another college baseball game.

But the years he had in Cheney were memorable, even if the program’s time in the Division I Pac-10 – “the best conference in America,” Wasem said – was relatively brief.

The Eagles joined the Northern Pacific Conference in 1980, and two years later merged into the northern division of the Pac-10, where it played until its end.

The Eagles had their best regular-season record in 1982, when they finished 15-9 in the conference, third in the North behind Oregon State (16-8) and Washington State (16-8), who dominated the division in the 1980s.

Eastern never finished higher than third in the seven-team north, but in 1988 it made an unlikely run in the division tournament. After finishing 6-18 in the conference and 25-34 overall, the Eagles finished second in the North Division Tournament, losing the championship game to Washington State after beating Oregon State, Gonzaga and Portland.

“We were really down at the end of the regular season,” said John Raekes, a senior outfielder on the 1988 team. “To turn around and play in the tournament, I don’t think anybody expected we would be there at the end. Anybody outside of coach Wasem.”

‘We put it all together’

Randy Absalonson, a Mead High School graduate, was a left-handed starter for the Eagles, and in 1988 he, a sophomore, was one of 13 underclassmen to play for them that year. He appeared in 13 games, starting three of them, and finished with a 2-3 record and a 6.69 ERA, nearly a run above the team ERA of 5.81.

Runs were plentiful for both the Eagles (4.77 runs per game) and their opponents (6.01) that year, and to the players it seemed like they just weren’t able to do everything well at the same time during the regular season.

“Wasem always portrayed an image that hey, it’s a new, fresh nine innings every game and we always have a chance to win,” Absalonson said. “It didn’t work out that way a lot, but I did not have any sense going into a game that we expected to lose. We still expected to win as a team.”

They endured losing streaks of six games and five games in April, then won seven of nine to rebound at the end of the month and into early May. But leading up to the division tournament, the Eagles lost eight games in a row, capped by a pair of 13-0 losses to the Cougars during a doubleheader in Pullman.

“It just didn’t seem we could put a whole game together,” said Gary Hagy, who played shortstop on the team as a freshman. “We’d have a game where the pitching was good but had too many errors, or a game where we hit the ball good but couldn’t pitch.”

“But we got to the conference tournament,” Hagy said, “and we put it all together.”

The seventh-seeded Eagles opened with a 6-3 victory over sixth-seeded Washington before losing 10-3 to top-seeded WSU the next day. They worked their way back in the double-elimination tournament, beating No. 5 seed Portland 2-0, No. 4 Gonzaga 10-0 and then second-seeded Oregon State 8-7.

It came in front of many friendly fans, too, as Spokane hosted the tournament that year.

“There were games we weren’t supposed to win,” said Greg Adelsbach, then a senior outfielder whose .292 average ranked fifth on the team. “You’d look up at the end of the ninth inning and we’d won the game. Things really came into place for us.”

The Eagles had defeated the Cougars once earlier in the season, 3-2 in Cheney, but that was the lone victory in an otherwise lopsided series that year: They played five times in the regular season, and the Cougars outscored the Eagles a combined 38-4.

Then, in the division title game, WSU won 9-2. Washington State, 18-4 in the conference and 52-14 overall, went 2-2 in the West I Regional of the NCAA Tournament and was eliminated by Fresno State.

“We went up against, in my opinion, one of the best teams in the nation at the time, which was Wazzu with Johnny Olerud,” said Rick Harris, the team’s senior second baseman. “They had everything. A ton of pitching. Hitting. Great D. It was a tough matchup, but we, a ragtag group of Eastern guys, just did our best to compete, and unfortunately it came up one game short.

“But for a team of JUCO transfers and guys that were undersized, we competed and gave it our best, and it was fun. It was a fun run.”

A program disbands

Individual accolades didn’t come to the Eagles that year. Of the 15 spots on the North’s All-Conference team in 1988, six went to WSU players and two to Gonzaga’s. None went to Eastern Washington players.

The next season the Eagles went 24-29-1 overall and 6-18 again in conference play. During the North Division Tournament that followed, Eastern beat Washington 10-5 and then defeated WSU 9-8.

“I struck out Olerud twice in a row,” Absalonson said of that game, “but he still hit a ball (off me) that’s still going (right now).”

Eastern lost its next two games, however, to end its season.

Then, in 1990, they went 14-36 and 4-20, their fewest conference wins during their nine seasons in the Pac-10. Shortly after that, the program was eliminated, and players with remaining eligibility were scrambling to find a place to play.

Hagy, who now lives back in his hometown of Ephrata, said he remembered hearing rumors of the program being eliminated, but he blew them off.

“So, in a way it kind of was sudden,” Hagy said. “I remember coach Wasem just had players coming in (his office). He said, ‘I’ll call anywhere you’re interested in going.’ ”

Hagy ended up at UCLA for his senior year, playing for Gary Adams, who was then in Year 17 of his 30 coaching the Bruins. They needed a shortstop, Hagy said, and it turned out to be a great fit.

The California Angels drafted Hagy in the 10th round of the 1991 Major League Baseball draft, and he played in 429 minor-league games before retiring after the 1998 season.

His time at Eastern left an impression on him, specifically that of Wasem.

“He taught me how to respect people and that you should respect people,” Hagy said. “To this day, when I meet someone new I’ll stand up and shake their hand, and that came from coach Wasem. And I know I’m not the only one (he taught).”

Hagy was one of 22 Washington-born players on the 1988 team, and consistently the program was stocked mostly with in-state talent. Two others – Adelsbach, from Moscow, and third-baseman Bob King, from Post Falls – came from just across the Idaho border.

“I would always recruit all of the (Greater Spokane League),” Wasem said. “There were eight teams, and there were eight good teams, and I always got three or four of the best players.”

Partially that recruiting was the nature of a program operating with a limited budget. Wasem, for example, didn’t always have an assistant coach. He also taught at the university and earned part of his salary as an associate professor.

Cutting the program saved Eastern $80,000, according to an article in the Spokane Chronicle on May 31, 1990, after the athletics department fell $175,000 short of its projected expenses for the 1990-91 school year.

After the program folded, Wasem said he got a phone call from Chuck “Bobo” Brayton, Washington State’s longtime coach, whose team had just won the Pac-10 North Division Tournament.

“He said, ‘Wassy, how’d you like to be a Cougar?’” Wasem recalled. “I said ‘The only good Cougar’s a dead Cougar.’ ”

Brayton offered him a job as an assistant coach making $70,000 at WSU, which Wasem said was about double what he made at Eastern. But Wasem told Brayton he wasn’t interested, and instead he stayed at Eastern and continued to teach.

“That would have been one heck of a combination,” Harris said of a potential Brayton-Wasem pairing. “I’m not sure how they would’ve gotten along, but that’s a lot of knowledge up there.”

Wasem’s legacy

Wasem’s coaching career began in 1968 at Monmouth College in Illinois, continued at Northwest Missouri State in 1973 and ended at Eastern in 1990. In all, he coached in 933 games and his teams went 520-411-2.

At Eastern he coached his son, Jim Wasem Jr., who later played minor-league baseball and became the head baseball coach at Rogers High School where he also coached his son, Jim Wasem III.

Wasem Sr. also wrote articles and books about the sport and taught a class at Eastern about baseball that many of his players took.

“That was a blast,” Hagy said. “The stuff he would cover.”

Wasem had an “unbelievable” understanding of the game, said Jim Straw, an All-Conference outfielder at Eastern in 1989 and 1990.

“We spent time talking about situations and we were prepared,” said Straw, a long-time coach himself who is now principal at Freeman Middle School. “We practiced situations that were gonna happen once, maybe twice in a season.

“He knew ways to put pressure on the other team. We were gonna hit, we were gonna play the game fast, and we were gonna put pressure on the other team and make that team execute.”

Straw and other outfielders like Adelsbach and Raekes remembered times when they were pulled in as a fifth outfielder, as well as other times when Wasem would call for a suicide squeeze – from second base. Raekes said he even has the trick on video, where the batter bunts to the third, and as the fielder throws to first, the baserunner just keeps going.

Absalonson remembers plays like that, too.

“The guy from second never touches third base,” he said. “He cuts across the grass because all the umpires are focused on the activity of the squeeze. … That was crazy to see happen.”

Not all of that worked all the time, Absalonson said. But it was clear to him that Wasem knew the game better than anyone.

“I came in from high school playing since I was 8 years old, and I thought I knew everything about baseball,” Absalonson said. “I learned so much from him about the inner workings of the game.”

Raekes, who is now a lawyer in the Tri-Cities, coached youth baseball for 15 years.

“A lot what I heard from Coach Wasem got passed down,” Raekes said, “and my kids did really well.”

Opportunities to play

Harris, who remained in Spokane after his playing career, has now worked at the West Central Community Center for 30 years. He wasn’t the greatest student in school, Harris said, and he was grateful that coach Steve Farrington – an Eastern grad who replaced Brayton at WSU in June 1994 – gave him a chance to play his first two years at Lower Columbia Community College in Longview.

Without that, he said, he might not have gone to college in the first place. That is one of the reasons he is sad the Eastern program went away.

“It’s unfortunate they did away with the program, because I know a lot of young people rely on that,” Harris said. “I was not the greatest student, but I loved to compete.”

That playoff run was the end of the road for Harris, just as it was for Raekes and eight other seniors.

Raekes said he has come back up to Cheney a few times and still thinks it’s a great place and a great school, though it is disappointing there is no longer a baseball program. But he could see the signs that it wasn’t a financially sustainable Pac-10 program.

“We didn’t even have uniforms that matched home and away. I had a different number away than I had at home,” Raekes said. “I think there’s a little bit of bonding when you’re all in that situation together, so it was fun to get to the end (of the tournament).”

“It was a great way to finish,” he said. “A great way to go out.”

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