A few years ago, nearly 20 years after Eastern Washington University eliminated its baseball program, former players from the Jim Wasem era got together.
Organized by longtime EWU associate athletic director Marc Hughes, the event at Avista Stadium in Spokane included a chance for the former players to show Wasem – or “Wassy” and “Papa Was” as he was affectionately called – what they still had on the diamond.
It wasn’t much, but as he most likely did until his very last breath, Wasem coached them anyway and shared a few stories and chuckles along the way.
Wasem, who spent nine years at EWU as head baseball coach in 1982-90 and is a member of six different halls of fame, passed away in Missouri on Saturday. He was 85.
His son, longtime Rogers teacher and baseball coach Jim Wasem Jr., announced the passing of his father on Facebook. In less than a day, more than 230 tributes poured in from former players, students and other friends.
“I only hope I can be as good of a mentor as he has been for young men,” said the announcement from Wasem Jr., who played for his father at EWU in 1983 and 1984. “I’ll miss the stories. And my fishing buddy. He’s finally with the love of his life, ‘Mama Was.’ ”
Wasem Sr. authored nearly two dozen books, and on Jan. 3, 2014, was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. In 2009, he became a member of the Eastern Athletics Hall of Fame when he was recognized with the Service & Contribution Award.
It was the night before the 2009 induction when Hughes, along with help from Otto Klein from the Spokane Indians, organized the surprise gathering of about 20 to 30 former players.
“It meant every bit as much as going into the Hall of Fame, if not more,” said Hughes. “He was a legendary figure at Eastern.”
Wasem’s wife, Jean Wasem, was in on the secret, as was Jim Jr. The players were already on the field playing when the Wasem family arrived.
“As I understand it,” Hughes explained, “he actually walked in and was whining and moaning about having to go out there. But once he walked down and recognized the players and what they were doing, he understood the significance. Without missing a beat, he whistled everybody to home plate and said, ‘Gentlemen, take a knee.’ ”
After some practice and even a game, the night ended with food, beverages and lots of stories. One of the players there that night was Steve McDonald, who played for Wasem in 1982-86.
“He was rock solid, and good for me as a baseball player,” praised McDonald. “One of his classic lines was, ‘Boys, you can’t hoot with the owls if you want to fly with the Eagles.’ We’d party a little bit too hard or something and he’d pull us back in line. We call them Wassyisms, right?”
Wasem coached in more than 900 collegiate baseball games in a 23-year career as a head baseball coach at three different schools from 1968 to 1990. Eastern competed as a member of the Pacific-10 Conference Northern Division before the school dropped the program in 1990. At Eastern, he was 230-251-1 overall with a 78-135 league record.
While at Eastern, Wasem matched wits with such Inland Northwest baseball coaching legends as Chuck “Bobo” Brayton (Washington State), Ed Cheff (Lewis-Clark State) and Steve Hertz (Gonzaga). After EWU dropped its program, Brayton offered Wasem a job, which he turned down to remain living in the area and continue to work in the EWU health, physical education and recreation department.
“He came in and knew just as much as those guys,” said McDonald of Wasem’s arrival at EWU in 1982. “When we used our first five-man infield, people were wondering what was going on. He’d do that and say, ‘Okay, go ahead and bunt.’ He had some good battles with Bobo and Hertzy.”
Wasem’s 1988 Eastern team finished up strong by winning four of six games in the Pac-10 Northern Division Tournament to finish second behind champion Washington State. His best season, percentage-wise, came in 1985 when the Eagles had an overall 42-24 record (.636) in just the third year of EWU’s new baseball venue, Chissus Field.
“We had some great years and great teams,” McDonald said. “Because the weather was so crappy and we couldn’t use our field, we’d have to practice in the early spring on the concrete parking lot behind the football stadium. It was 40-45 degrees and the wind blowing. He’d say, ‘Better work hard to get down there school boys.’ ”
A native of Vandalia, Ill., Wasem played and coached in Illinois and Missouri before coming to the Inland Northwest. Besides the two aforementioned halls of fame, he has also been enshrined in the Washington State High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and those at Illinois Wesleyan University, Northwest Missouri State University and the Clarinda A’s summer collegiate baseball organization.
Jean, his wife of 50 years, passed away on Dec. 12, 2015, at the age of 81.
“They were so welcoming,” McDonald remembers. “Mama Was would always protect the freshmen when the seniors would try to pick on us. You could go to their house at any time for a hot meal, that’s for sure.”
Jim Jr. played for his father at Northwest Missouri State before transferring to EWU. As a senior shortstop in 1984, he was selected to the All-Pac 10 Northern Division team, becoming the first and only Eastern player to earn first team accolades. He later played in the minor leagues and helped his father coach at EWU before embarking upon his own illustrious career at Rogers.
“I remember being in the Red Reese Room after his senior season and it was maybe the first time we saw coach break down because he was talking about his son,” added McDonald. “Coaching your own son is one of the hardest things you ever have to do because you push him twice as hard as the other players. It was touching.”