SDSU’s Dietz Wonders If Struggle Is Worth It

What is it like coaching baseball at San Diego State University?

Picture a captain standing in a trench with a guerrilla band of maybe 22 men equipped with slingshots and B.B. guns and provisioned with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The enemy comes at this little group with wave after wave of troops outfitted with state of the art equipment, but each time, the enemy retreats in disorder.

Buoyed by success, this captain we’ll call Jim Dietz calls headquarters and asks for help.


“Help?” headquarters gasps. “Why? Aren’t you doing fine with what you have? In fact, send us your two first lieutenants, would you please? We need help.”

This is what it is like to coach baseball at SDSU.

This is a baseball program Jim Dietz has built into a national power by scrimping and scraping and begging and borrowing. He has been at this for 19 years and won 816 games in the process.

Scrimping and scraping?

How many major college programs in any sport help make ends meet by collecting newspapers and aluminum cans for recycling? How many major college coaches in any sport have no, as in zero, recruiting budget?

That’s called scrimping and scrapping.

This is also called exhausting and frustrating, and this explains why a weary Jim Dietz will reassess his future at the conclusion of the 1990 season.

However, there is work to be done. Dietz and his Aztecs are in Palo Alto, preparing to face Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA West I Regional Thursday morning.

Of course, considerable hard work has already been done, much of it by the players. But the players come and go. Dietz has been paying that price for 19 years, and he feels it.

“For a lot of reasons,” he said, “this has been the most stressful year ever of all the years I have coached. The players have sensed the stress, but they’ve really been great. The play of the team has been exceptionally positive.”

He can say that again. The Aztecs, 46-20 for the season, finished with a 13-game winning streak and won the Western Athletic Conference regular season and tournament championships.

All that, however, was frosting on a cake that didn’t always taste so good.

At one point this year, in fact, an exhausted Dietz was told by doctors that he would have to take it easy and cut down on his schedule because he had developed an irregular heartbeat. Suffice it to say that stress caused the irregular heartbeat rather than the other way around.

Making do with limited resources has been tough, but even those resources are fragile.

“We’ve experienced a couple more budget cutbacks,” Dietz said, “and I’m losing both my assistant coaches. I see what’s done for other schools and, I don’t know, sometimes it gets to be discouraging. It’s safe to say we don’t have any stuff handed to us.”

On the eve of the Aztecs’ departure for their seventh NCAA appearance, the man who got them there was subdued. The baseball program, like others, seems to sit out on the fringe of consciousness at a university obsessed with finding a way to make money with its mediocre football and basketball programs.

Here is a man who is being told by his doctors to slow down at the same time his bosses are telling him he has to do the job with less help.

“I need more help,” he said. “The job is much bigger than I can handle by myself. Maybe some day, someone will say, ‘Hey Jim, good job. We’re going to help you out.’ I can’t emphasize enough that the community and alumni have been very supportive. Where we need help is from the (athletic) department, but it seems like we just run into more and more logjams and hurdles. If they’re not careful, they’re going to have to bury me here.”

A bit of appreciation might also go a long way.

After Dietz won his 500th game at SDSU, he was presented a commemorative plaque that hangs in his office. This year, when he won his 800th, he received a one-line, two-sentence typewritten memo from Athletic Director Fred Miller.

And so Jim Dietz can be excused if maybe he’s wondering . . .

“Is it really worth it?” he asked. “I’ve given my life to this university, but I’m having second thoughts. I want to keep coaching, but I’d like to be in an environment where people will sit down and work with you and help you. I feel like this is more of a take it or leave it type thing.”

In more ways than one, this is not a healthy situation.

“When the whole thing is over,” he said, “I’m going to sit down and look around and decide what I really want to do.”

It’s not over, however. There are games to be played. This is the fun part.

“This,” said Dietz, “is my time to relax.”

For a few days or maybe even a couple of weeks, should hard work and good fortune carry this team to the College World Series, hold the memos and the telephone calls and forget budgets and cutbacks. This time belongs to the game itself.

There will be plenty of time in the future to deal with all the off-the-field frustrations. Jim Dietz knows that, because he has spent so much time in the past doing exactly that.