It’s the ultimate goal for every baseball player: To make it home.
To score, though, you must touch a series of bases, each increasingly difficult to reach. Adversity is common, which is why high-fives and handshakes typically follow a run.
Gregg Ritchie made it home last season when he returned to coach George Washington University’s baseball program. It’s where he starred as an All-American outfielder and a pitcher in the 1980s. He met his wife, Kelly, at GW. The Foggy Bottom Campus is also only 45 miles from his home in Stafford County, Va.
Still, his return to rejuvenate a once strong program turned more than a few heads. It’s virtually unprecedented for a Major League Baseball coach to resign and take over a college program. And his top career goal, from the time he wore the Colonials’ buff and blue uniform, was to reach the big leagues.
The Major League Baseball players—Pittsburgh Pirates batters—Mr. Ritchie had instructed since their minor-league days couldn’t believe the news when he broke it to them last October. Several of his new players at GW were similarly stunned.
“I use the word uncommon,” says Pirates’ Manager Clint Hurdle. “But Gregg’s not a common man. Gregg looked at the opportunity to be very impactful on young lives. It wasn’t easy, but it made more sense for him and his family. It wasn’t just about him.”
Or, as his wife put it, “It’s like the perfect fortune cookie. This has really let Gregg embrace his biggest loves: his family and GW baseball.”
“How many people,” Mr. Ritchie asks, “get to go back to the school where they got their degree, where they graduated, where they met their wife, and make a difference in young lives while doing something they love to do? I’m lucky.”
|As a senior in 1986, Gregg Ritchie posted a school-record .479 batting average - second-highest in the nation that season - and 1.91 ERA on the mound, which made him eighth in the nation. (Photo courtesy GW Athletics.)
Despite a distinguished career at North Stafford (Va.) High School, he wasn’t exactly swamped with college offers. He could outrun almost anyone, and he was a left-hander who threw 90 mph, but he barely weighed 150 pounds. George Mason University offered him a chance to walk on, but no school was willing to risk a scholarship.
Fortuitously, though, a veteran scout named “Big Jack” Fogarty happened to see Mr. Ritchie strike out 15 Stonewall Jackson High School batters in one of his final prep games in 1982. “Big Jack” talked to Jim Goss, GW’s new head coach, and Mr. Ritchie ended up with a scholarship.
He still ranks second in university history in career stolen bases (71), fourth in batting average (.391), and 11th in complete games pitched (11). As a senior in 1986, he posted a school-record .479 batting average (second-highest in the nation that season) and went 6-3 with a 1.91 ERA on the mound, which made him eighth in the nation.
He earned All-American honors, became a member of the All-Century team, and was inducted into GW’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999. He went on to play for the San Francisco Giants farm team when they drafted him in the eighth round. (Mike Toomey, former GW baseball player, coach, and Hall of Fame member was a scout for the team at the time).
“He had a lot of tools,” says John Castleberry, who succeeded Mr. Goss as head coach in 1984. “If he came around today, he probably would play in the big leagues, but there weren’t as many teams at the time. He could run, he could throw, and he could hit. He didn’t have a lot of power, but that didn’t matter that much, because he was a leadoff type of guy.
“And he was self-motivated. We always stressed that we would work harder than the next person or team. And with the type of student that we were recruiting, we would be smarter than and outwork anybody else. He was one of those guys that it was probably good for him to have that structure.”
Baseball honors and a degree weren’t all the coach gained from his time at GW. In a theater class during his freshman year, he met Kelly Siegel, a New Yorker who came to GW with an interest in communications—but not athletics or athletes.
“I was never into sports,” she says. “My sisters and I all took piano lessons.”
But her petite size made her an ideal coxswain for the men’s crew team, so she turned out to be a college athlete after all. Her first encounter with the future love of her life came when she borrowed a sheet of paper to take notes. “But I wasn’t really interested,” she says with a laugh.
Still, though, one of her friends was dating one of Mr. Ritchie’s baseball teammates, so they began to socialize regularly, and “everything kind of took off,” he says. They were married in 1990. She stayed in Washington, D.C., and worked in public television while her husband pursued his dream of pro baseball.
He rose quickly through the Giants’ farm system. In his second pro season, 1987, he was named to the Class-A Midwest League All-Star team after batting .337 with 41 stolen bases for Clinton (Iowa). A year later, he led the high Class-A California League with 118 runs scored at San Jose.
He spent three seasons at the Triple-A level—one step below his dream of the big leagues—and left the Giants organization after the 1992 season (just before they signed a free-agent outfielder named Barry Bonds).
Mr. Ritchie played in Mexico with a Major League Baseball-affiliated team. He also participated in spring training in South Korea as a player/coach at a time when Korea was not signing overseas players to play during the season. He ended up back in the Texas Rangers’ Triple-A team, where he was released in 1995. But at 31, his playing days were winding down.
Long before his final game as a player he had laid the foundation for his next career. During the off-seasons, he conducted individual and group hitting instruction sessions in his backyard batting cage for local youth, charging as little as $5 a pop. His protégés learned to hit so well that he soon had a waiting list of students.
Largely because he wasn’t as big or strong as his rivals, Mr. Ritchie became a student of hitting. He pored over videotape and honed mechanics, always searching for the perfect swing.
Watching youngsters struggle to maintain proper balance and form inspired him to invent and patent “The Hitter’s Seat,” an adjustable device designed to teach proper athletic position and sequential connection throughout the swing. His father-in-law, Myron Siegel, helped him design and manufacture the seat, which became an in-demand item among high school, college, and pro teams. The devices are still assembled in his garage when he has time—which isn’t often.
He also volunteered at the University of Mary Washington for Tom Sheridan, head coach of the baseball program at the Division III school in nearby Fredericksburg, Va.
Mr. Sheridan had come to UMW after serving as an assistant coach at James Madison University, helping the Dukes make an unexpected run to the 1983 College World Series. While Mr. Sheridan instructed UMW’s pitchers, Mr. Ritchie spent a couple of fall semesters teaching the Eagles’ batters. In 1995, the Chicago White Sox offered Mr. Ritchie a job as the hitting instructor for their Bristol (Tenn.) affiliate in the rookie Appalachian League, but their relationship continued.
“His passion for baseball is who he is and what he does,” says Mr. Sheridan, who is now GW’s associate head coach. “He has a great heart. He’s so giving of himself to other people—almost to a fault.”
As he had done as a player, he rose through the coaching ranks. In 2002, his Birmingham Barons led the Double-A Southern League in team batting average (.269). A year later, he and many of his charges were promoted to Triple-A Charlotte and led the International League in home runs and team slugging percentage. Along the way, he instructed many of the hitters who would help Chicago win the 2005 World Series, including Aaron Rowand and Joe Crede.
The floundering Pittsburgh Pirates took notice of Mr. Ritchie’s success and made him the minor league hitting coordinator in 2005. The Pirates hadn’t enjoyed a winning major league season since 1992, and they needed someone to get the most out of their young talent.
For six seasons, Mr. Ritchie spent three weeks out of every month working with the Pirates’ six minor league affiliates—observing, instructing both players and coaches, and instituting an organizational hitting philosophy.
One of his prize pupils was outfielder Andrew McCutchen, a former first-round draft pick who had torn up the low minors but was struggling at Double-A because of inconsistencies in his play.
Mr. Ritchie was summoned to Altoona, Pa., and presented “Cutch” with a set of meticulous notes that pointed out his bad habits and offered solutions. He took the suggestions to heart and eventually became an All-Star for the Pirates, finishing third in the 2012 National League Most Valuable Player voting with a .327 average and 31 home runs. His photo now hangs in a prominent position in Mr. Ritchie’s office at GW.
After nearly a quarter-century in the minors, he got the long-awaited call. Mr. Ritchie was asked to become the Pirates’ major league batting coach.
“A dream come true,” Mr. Ritchie calls it.
The Pirates contended for the NL Central title in both of Mr. Ritchie’s seasons in Pittsburgh, but failed both times to make the playoffs. Still, all of his pupils’ statistics improved, and with Mr. McCutchen and rookie phenom Starling Marte, they seemed poised for success.
|Coach Ritchie salutes his team at a game against Quinnipiac University in March. In May, Coach Ritchie announced 20 commitments from 10 states in his inaugural recruiting class. (Photo by Greg Fiume.)
That’s why there were skeptics aplenty when rumors spread in the summer of 2012 that Mr. Ritchie might return to his alma mater. GW had dismissed coach Steve Mrowka in May after a 20–35 season, the Colonials’ seventh straight losing record.
In February, GW had announced a strategic plan for athletics, designed to make the school’s teams more competitive. Beginning his second year as the Colonials’ athletic director, Patrick Nero wanted to make a splash. John Castleberry, GW’s former coach and GW Hall of Famer, was among a group of alumni asked to recommend coaching candidates.
“When [Ritchie’s] name came up, I said, ‘Are you kidding me? If he wants the job, you couldn’t find a better guy,’” Mr. Castleberry says. “I didn’t know if GW would step up and meet the parameters he set forth. I think [Nero] deserves a lot of kudos. It takes courage to fully commit to something like that.”
Mr. Ritchie was flattered and intrigued. But he felt a loyalty to the Pirates, who were pursuing their first playoff spot in two decades. So he declined to comment publicly and insists he didn’t finally decide to leave until Pittsburgh’s season ended in October.
“All good things are worth the wait,” Mr. Nero says. “I had confidence in my ability to trust Gregg. Typically, I’m not a patient man.”
Still, any program that’s not moving forward is losing ground in the ultracompetitive world of intercollegiate athletics. So in August, GW hired Mr. Sheridan, a Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame member, away from Mary Washington after 25 years to become the Colonials’ associate head coach.
Mr. Sheridan made all the decisions, including hiring a talented and accomplished staff that Mr. Ritchie met for the first time when he arrived back at GW.
Says Mr. Sheridan: “He said, ‘I trust you. I know you’ll do what you think is right. Run the program the way you would run it.’ I was ordering equipment and uniforms; my goal for when he got here was for him to hit the ground running.”
Having achieved his goal of reaching the majors helped convince Mr. Ritchie to make the move. After the Pirates’ final game on Oct. 3, he broke the news to his stunned players, many of whom couldn’t believe someone would voluntarily leave the majors.
“The reaction I got from the players was humbling,” Mr. Ritchie says. “[Leaving] was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do in my career—harder than going to Mexico to play. There was a sense of accomplishment personally. I’m a guy who likes to finish things, and I had to grapple with the idea that we hadn’t finished. It would have been great to have a chance to win a championship there.” Which, he added, was right around the corner.
There was unfinished business elsewhere, as well. For two decades, the pursuit of his dream had kept Mr. Ritchie away from his family for months at a time.
His wife and children would visit him occasionally on the road, but they had their own interests and pursuits. By the fall of 2012, the family’s oldest two children (daughter Kaetlin and son Logan) were attending George Mason University. Two teenage daughters (Riley and Arizona) still live at home.
“He told me, ‘I really don’t know my older children. I’ve spent years by myself,’” Mr. Sheridan says.
Returning to GW gave Mr. Ritchie a chance to grow the relationships with his family—to see his younger daughters before school each morning and be home for late dinners every night. He still puts in long hours, but unless the Colonials are playing on the road, he’s at home each night.
Says Kelly Ritchie: “I’ve been living for 20 years during baseball seasons without him, being king and queen of it all here. It’s made me who I am as a parent and a partner. And the same goes for him.”
While most of the family supported his decision to come home, there was one notable objection. Arizona Ritchie, now 13, is a budding softball standout who loved visiting her dad at his various stops, mingling with professional players like Pirates Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, and Michael McHenry, and snagging pregame fly balls.
“She was the one most opposed to it,” her mother says, “simply because she loved the lifestyle of being on a major league field.”
She may not visit Pittsburgh’s PNC Park anymore, but Arizona was the youngest participant at GW’s recent softball camp and finished second to an 18-year-old in a fielding competition drill. And, according to her father, “she was [disappointed] that she lost,” proudly acknowledging that his daughter inherited his competitive instinct.
GW athletics are becoming a family affair for the Ritchies. Eldest daughter Kaetlin sang the national anthem before the March 2 grand re-opening of Barcroft Park in Arlington, Va., the Colonials’ refurbished home field.
|In his new job, Gregg Ritchie is able to spend more time with his family: (from left) Kelly, Riley, Arizona, Kaetlin, and Logan. (Photo courtesy GW Athletics.)
As the coach reconnects with his family, he’s also trying to resurrect a baseball program that started the 2013 season with losses in its first nine games.
He is leaning on his staff, which includes Mr. Sheridan, Assistant Coach Dave Lorber (an assistant on Stony Brook’s College World Series team in 2012), Volunteer Assistant Coach Stephanos Stroop, and Director of Baseball Operations LaDale Hayes. They’ve made recruiting a priority, securing 20 high school seniors to join the Colonials as freshmen next season.
“If you’re a position player with aspirations of playing in the big leagues,” Mr. Sheridan says, “the opportunity to work with someone who’s worked in the big leagues and played in the big leagues—you have to look at his experience and contacts, and that has to be a plus.”
GW has backed Mr. Ritchie by increasing the size and compensation of his staff (now four full- and part-time assistants). The Colonials also now fund the NCAA Division I maximum of 11.7 scholarship equivalencies after falling below that number in recent seasons.
And GW spent two years and $3 million renovating Barcroft Park, its home field for the past 20 years. Several baseball alumni who attended the March 2 grand opening said they didn’t recognize the refurbished facility.
For now, the coach is working with his current players, trying to get the most out of each—hoping there may be another Gregg Ritchie on this roster, a diamond in the rough who can become a star through skill, work, and will.
“Things are really different,” says junior Colin Milon. “There’s a lot more energy with the new coaching staff. The team is much more disciplined. The biggest two words are ‘attitude’ and ‘effort.’ That’s our team motto.
“We come out here every day, and you’re starting to see that team that Coach Ritchie is turning us into. This thing is going to take a little more time than we wanted, but I think we’re going to be great really soon.”
Written in capital letters on a dry erase board in his office is “Omaha”—the site of the annual College World Series. It’s a distant goal, but he’s taking the first steps toward it.
“I could see this being my [final] spot,” Mr. Ritchie says. “As long as they want me, I want to be here. I plan to be part of something great.”