To understand the true meaning of that coaching cliché "building a program" let your fingers do some walking through the yellowed cards in Jim Dietz's Rolodex. Let's see now, Industrial Metals and Salvage...International Masonry Apprenticeship Training...Kunkel Heating Service...Resilient Floor and Decorative Workers Union 1711...San Diego Building and Trades Council. Is this guy a coach or a contractor?
A bit of both, actually. In his 14 seasons at San Diego State University, Dietz, 47, has built—we're talking hammers, nails and pipe wrenches here—one of the finest college baseball stadiums in the country and a comparable club to play in it.
Smith Field, home of the Aztecs, will never be confused with the elegant arenas of other Western Athletic Conference schools like BYU or Hawaii. No, scenic and spacious Smith is as natural as its turf, 336 down the lines and 412 to dead center. The field features lights, a press box, a concession stand and enclosed batting cages. It also comes with its own two-story clubhouse, complete with locker room, showers, offices, players' lounge and—here's a nice touch—a live-in assistant coach.
It's on the walls of assistant coach Gary Brown's "bedroom" that one finds framed pictures of some of State's most famous alums: big league stars like outfielder Tony Gwynn of the Padres, pitcher Bud Black of the Royals, pitcher Dave Smith of the Astros and shortstop Bobby Meacham of the Yankees. And, while certainly not as celebrated as Texas, Miami or Arizona State, the Aztecs have won 58, 62, 66 and 45 games (injuries marred that one) in the last four seasons. That's more wins than any other U.S. college team.
In 1984 the Aztecs went 66-23 and were ranked No. 1 for two weeks. Collegiate Baseball named Dietz the Division I Coach of the Year and honored him with its Superstar Award for "shedding light on our game in so many ways." This year SDSU was 18-9-1 as of March 30. "It's one of the best programs in the country," says Lou Pavlovich Sr., publisher of Collegiate Baseball, "and Jim, well, he's just one of the great ones. Nobody works harder than he does and touches so many bases." Says Lou Jr., who edits the newspaper, "He has the most unusual program I've ever seen in my life. There's always something going on."
The center of that something is invariably Dietz, radiating the energy of 10 men—electrician, horticulturist, carpenter, plumber, promoter, groundskeeper, you name it. He does all jobs with determination, if not great expertise. But how can you knock a coach whose idea of a double steal is finding two $150,480-volt fixtures in Tijuana for only $50? "It made my whole week," says Dietz.
Dietz, the son of a salesman for rubber goods and mill products, grew up amid the tall timber of the Pacific Northwest. "It was tough," says Dietz. "My dad was never sure of a job; we lived month to month."
His mother, the product of a well-known pioneer family, soon found the Dietz life-style demeaning. She not only told her husband so, she also vented her anger and frustration on her son. "No matter what Jim did," says his wife, Carol, "it wasn't good enough for his mother. He would get three hits and she would want four." So the son, as often happens, got rid of his anger through arduous work in supermarkets, sawmills, and caring for the field at Southern Oregon, where he lettered in four sports. Nothing was too tough. Not even the mill's 2 a.m. "hoot owl" shift on which he worked with loggers so mean they would nail his lunch bucket to a tree, then fill it with deer droppings. "I have a lot of feeling for working people," says Dietz. "I don't have much sympathy for kids who say they're tired."
He made that clear right off the bat in 1972 at his first day of practice at SDSU. Dietz was greeted by an apathetic administration—"They didn't care if we won 50 or lost 50"—and a team that put fun and sun before athletics. State had won a national title in '58 and later had enjoyed some glory days with Graig Nettles on the team (1964-65), but this group, well...needed work.
"I remember my first speech at practice," says Dietz. "I talked about all the new rules—no facial hair, plenty of discipline, dedication. At the end, I asked the players to go halfway with me on this. The next day, one guy showed up wearing half a mustache. I had to cut 12 or 13 veterans that first year."
As for the field, it was a great place to run an off-road race. Or breed mosquitoes. "It was terrible," says Dietz. "The dugouts were always under water. Technically, in the eyes of the administration, it never existed. There was no budget for improvements. I've had to beg, borrow and steal to build it."
"Jim's like a supply sergeant," says Ron Tessada, a longtime friend and the supervisor of grounds and landscape services at SDSU. "He'll tell you he's a master builder but, honestly, he doesn't know an amp from a volt. But you tell him to appropriate some No. 4 wire and he'll get it."
Sitting at brunch not too long ago with Carol, Dietz—his face tanned, nose sloping off to one side—discussed his modus operandi. "The one thing I've learned is that certain sports will find success if they're treated with respect."
And if they're not?
"Well, it forced me to become...."
"An outlaw," says Carol.
"Yeah, in a way. It forced me to work outside the system to get things done."
Former players smile ruefully when they explain where their coach headed to get things done: construction sites, condo projects, places scouted as carefully as any playoff opponent. "We've done some raiding," admits Aztec assistant coach Dave Legg, 28, now in his sixth season. "Six, seven guys in a truck. We would toss in some drywall and have it hung before anyone knew it. I'd ask Jim about it, and he'd say, 'If they want it, let them come and get it.' "
Dietz has also been known to reroute materials meant for one part of the campus to Smith Field and its pressing needs. Fertilizer, hoses, even trees. One evening 75 evergreens mysteriously disappeared from one corner of the campus, only to be spotted the next day—freshly planted—beyond the centerfield fence. Says one former State official and a close friend of Dietz's, "Jim would trade cases of beer with the grounds crew. He used to tell me that it's amazing how much work you can get out of a case of beer."
Whatever building materials or greenery Dietz and his players have gathered through the years, he has honorably come by donations worth 10 times more. The batting cages at Smith Field were built with wood torn off the roofs of old monkey cages donated by the biology department; the batting nets came courtesy of the local tuna fleet; the clubhouse was framed by a player's dad; the wall behind third base was a donation from Dave Smith's father, a contractor, though today Smith says, "I don't think my dad knew it was a donation at the time."
It's January, and a spot check shows Dietz's baseball budget—just $67,000 a year, not even top 60 in the U.S.—with a balance of $516.72. Not bad, but not unexpected for a coach who's famous for taking prized recruits out to $2.50 lunches, for selling T shirts back to the ballplayers who donated them, for having his team collect aluminum cans in the parking lot at Charger games. Thank goodness his deal with the Padres is much better. The Aztecs play the major leaguers in an annual April exhibition game for which the college guys get a guaranteed $10,000. Last year the game drew 34,182 fans to San Diego Stadium and netted Aztec baseball $18,230.
When State plays at home, it's bizarro baseball at its best. One minute a fire engine will pull up behind third base, the company hooked on Aztec baseball; the next minute the Trees (players 6'3" and over), Bushes (5'10" to 6'2") and Hats (5'10" and under) strike up a three-tiered chorus. Wearing caps and jackets inside out, with hands clapping and toes tapping, teammates urge each other to manufacture runs any way they can.
And don't forget the amazing live-in coach. Brown, 36, is a former New Jersey state trooper and high school baseball coach. He's now in his third year as State's hurly-burly outfield coach. "How do I like living in the clubhouse? I love it," says Brown. "When you're spending 15, 16 hours at the field, and you have a TV, phone, shower and a place to sleep, what else do you need?"
A vacuum roars along the floor outside Dietz's second-floor office. "Be done in a sec," says the head coach. The office, which overlooks first base, is crammed with every conceivable kind of baseball memorabilia. Most are from Alaska—Dietz coached the legendary Alaska Goldpanners (a summer-league team) from 1971 to '77. He won four National Baseball Congress titles, including an unprecedented three straight from 1972 to '74, and finished second three times. His teams were so talent-rich (Dave Winfield, Steve Kemp, Floyd Bannister and Mike Boddicker all played for the Panners) that Dietz was honored as NBC Coach of the Decade in 1977, a full two years before the decade ended. Don Dennis, former G.M. of the Panners, hired Dietz and recalls him as a no-nonsense disciplinarian. "There are very few funny Jim Dietz stories," says Dennis, who then relates what he says is the ultimate Dietz tale.
"It was 1972, and we were taking pre-game batting practice at Anchorage for a doubleheader," says Dennis. "Jim took a line drive in the eye. He never left the field. He managed both games, the Partners swept, and we flew back to Fairbanks, where at 1 a.m. he underwent plastic surgery. He still has a Teflon plate in his cheekbone, you know."
Such single-minded resolve keeps the coach on the job 18 hours a day, coaching 250 games a year, year after year. (He once coached 318 games in 12 months.) "He's only eaten 10 Sunday meals in 14 years," says Carol, shaking her head. "But I must admit he does give our children [Jennifer, 10, and Steven, 15] quality time."
There was a third child. A towheaded boy who always wore a red baseball cap and followed his dad like a puppy, dragging a bat twice his size. But Scotty Dietz lost a three-year struggle against leukemia in January 1979. "It was the only time I saw Jim down," says Tessada. "He told me he was going to quit." Dietz didn't quit, but it's no coincidence that most of State's major construction work was done after Scotty's death. "I escaped," says Dietz simply.
Today there is a special SDSU baseball scholarship fund in Scotty's name. And another in honor of Mike Anaya, a former Aztec first baseman who became a San Diego cop, only to be killed on his first major assignment. Last year, when one particularly well-liked former Aztec was killed by a drunk driver, Dietz organized another fund-raising drive. "It was tough at first," says Carol, "but I know now that 30 other kids come before his." She's sitting alone in the stands, watching something like her one-millionth batting practice. Suddenly, Dietz bounds up to her. In his hands he holds a collection of cookies, cupcakes and candy. "I just about panicked," he says. "I thought I forgot these." He leans over and gives Carol a peck on the cheek.
"Happy Valentine's Day," he says. Then he races back down the bleachers.
What drives Dietz today are dreams of a new stadium (cost: $800,000 to $1 million), a WAC championship and, of course, a trip to Omaha and the College World Series. The Aztecs have made the NCAA regionals in five of the last seven years. In 1983 they were eliminated 4-3 by Stanford when a Cardinal runner scored from second base on a passed ball. In '84, playing seven hours in searing 114° heat—Jennifer fainted—the Aztecs beat both Fullerton and Fresno, two Top 10 clubs, to force a final game against Fullerton. Fullerton jumped out 7-0 after just two innings. But State, which had six players drafted off a team that was, according to Dietz, as "gutty and tough as any I've ever coached," rallied to tie the score. The Aztecs eventually lost 8-7 in 11 innings. Fullerton went on to win the national title in Omaha. "It took me days to get over that game," says Dietz.
Today is Alumni Day at SDSU. Some 100 former Aztecs—Gwynn, Meacham, Smith and Black among them—are gearing up for a game against the varsity. It is, without doubt, Dietz's favorite game. And he stages it every year, come hell or high water. But on this raw February day heavy rains have left Smith Field looking like a tidal pool.
Dietz is undaunted. He has been up since 6 a.m. making calls, yelling at the varsity to dig those drainage ditches deeper, fill those coffee cans faster. Still, it's Mud City.
Dietz quietly repairs to his office. He thumbs the Rolodex. It's time for one last call.
An hour later, a distant helicopter comes into view, on the way to dry Smith Field with its downdraft.