Some call him "Itchy" and some call him "Itch," but whatever he's called, those who know Southern Illinois University baseball Coach Richard Jones say he's good for whatever might ail baseball.
Jones, 47, twice has won college Coach of the Year honors during his 16 years of guiding the Salukis and helping develop such players as Dave Stieb of the Toronto Blue Jays, George Vukovich of the Cleveland Indians and Jim Dwyer of the Baltimore Orioles.
Jones' team have a cumulative 548-228 record despite finishing below .500 in each of the past two years for the first time in his career. Things had looked promising for ending the skid this year until the Salukis dropped their last dozen games in a row to finish 28-29.
But Jones, who tells his players to prepare themselves for the day when the crowd stops cheering for them, thinks the tougher times for his teams is a sign college baseball is getting healthier by the year.
"Colleges are now recruiting baseball players like they have been recruiting football and basketball players," said Jones. "There are some teams we used to beat 12 to 15 times in a row. Now we are playing .500 ball against them because they've upped their scholarships and are placing more emphasis on their baseball programs.
"College baseball is probably at its best. About eight to 10 years ago, there were certain baseball organizations that would not draft a college player. They would only draft high school players because they wanted to bring them up in their own organization.
"Today, the picture is completely changed. Last year, I think about 85% of the players drafted were college players. Colleges are quickly becoming the training and proving grounds for the young athletes the professionals are looking for."
Jones recalls that his cousin, Albert, tagged him with his nickname when he was in the third grade. Jones had a cast on a broken leg and used the handle of a fly swatter to poke between the cast and his leg to relieve the itching.
"They used to call me 'Itchy' but now, as I've grown older, they've dropped the 'y.' I guess it's more sophisticated without the 'y,"' Jones said with a grin.
A native of Herrin, Ill., where he still lives, Jones was named college Coach of the Year in 1971 by the Adirondack bat company and in 1978 by The Sporting News.
He has taken the Salukis into post-season play eight times and three times made it to the College World Series at Omaha, finishing second in 1971 and third in 1974 and 1977. In 1981, he was voted Missouri Valley Coach of the Year.
His scariest moment in baseball came in 1977 when he coached the U.S. team at the World Games in Nicaragua, only six months before the overthrow of the government of President Anastasio Somoza. Jones still has vivid recollections of soldiers with submachine guns in the dugouts and around the park.
Jones was a pint-sized basketball guard on the Herrin Junior High team that finished second in the South State tournament and played four years as guard at Herrin High School.
He was a standout second baseman at Southern Illinois U., winning all-Intercollegiate Conference honors, before spending one year in pro ball in the Baltimore Orioles organization.
Stieb, who came to SIU from San Jose Community College as an outfielder, hadn't pitched a game in his life before coming to SIU, where his pitching potential was recognized. Stieb took a few brief stints on the mound but Jones said it was decided against any late-season conversion to pitching for fear it would injure Stieb's arm.
As an outfielder for the Salukis, Stieb hit .395 and slammed a dozen home runs, a school record at the time.
Jones said the late Danny Thomas of the Milwaukee Brewers, who played first base for Jones, probably had more raw talent when he arrived at SIU than any player he has ever coached.
And Jones still recalls the daredevil dives from a third-floor hotel room into a swimming pool by ex-Saluki and Chicago Cub Joe "Tarzan" Wallis.
"He would dive without being able to see the pool and pick it up on the way down," Jones said.
Coaching baseball has been more fun than a job for Jones. He keeps in close touch with his former players. Stieb and Vukovich each contributed $10,000 to a fund to help build dressing rooms for the players at the SIU diamond, Jones said.
"My wife has promised me a few times that she's going to get me a job in the real world before I quit," he said.