It’s springtime on the South Side, and for the first time since 1990, there’s a fresh face setting the lineups on the baseball field. After head coach Brian Baldea stepped down in July 2014, the Maroons chose one of their own to begin a new baseball coaching legacy.
John Fitzgerald (AB ‘98), played for four years on the Maroons during his time at UChicago. He was a pitcher, and finished his Maroons career with a 12-8 overall record.
After completing his sociology degree, Fitzgerald went on to an MBA program at Loyola University, while also working in Loyola’s athletic department. Upon completing his degree, he began working as the athletic department’s director of marketing and as their basketball team’s radio and television broadcaster. That broadcasting start led to a job in Bloomington, IL as sports director of a radio station, doing play-by-play for ISU football and basketball.
“It was a good job to have at my age,” Fitzgerald reminisced. “At the end of the day, I didn’t think I was making much of a difference, by doing morning sports and being a play-by-play guy full time.”
And that’s what brought Fitzgerald over to the coaching side of sports.
He began his coaching career as the head baseball coach at the Illinois Institute of Technology. It was trial by fire over his three years there, learning the ropes all while starting atop the coaching ladder in his first foray.
After that, Fitzgerald served as an assistant coach at the University of Notre Dame for a year. That led to a job offer from North Central College to teach Sports Marketing and Sports Management classes, and be their baseball coach.
Both IIT and North Central are frequent opponents for the Maroons. Over the 10 years combined coaching both IIT and North Central, his teams compiled a 10-10 record against UChicago.
He was in Naperville with North Central for the past seven years before taking the Maroons’ head coaching job in September.
“I think there’s an affinity aspect to the opportunity to go back to your alma mater,” he said. “And the ability to replace somebody I played for here, Brian Baldea, was one that was attractive to me.”
Fitzgerald harbors that affinity towards both the academic institution and the team itself.
“I had a phenomenal experience over four years here,” Fitzgerald remembered. “I think I would have been hard-pressed to find somewhere...academically, from a baseball standpoint, and from a social standpoint…[to] have been able to have as good an experience...as I did here.”
Coach John Fitzgerald (A.B. '98) is now a member of the Maroons' coaching staff. But a lot has changed since Fitzgerald walked the halls of Cobb and worked out at Crown. To start with, Ratner didn’t even exist yet.
The buildings situation is quite different now.
“I think we’re in a situation now where we probably have as good indoor facilities, across all sports, as anybody around,” he said.
When Fitzgerald was on the baseball team, half of the multipurpose room in Crown was the weight room, and the other half was just a concrete floor. Now, there are indoor batting cages in that room so the team can work on hitting even when Chicago weather snarls outdoor hopes.
“When you compare this to everybody being over at Henry Crown and varsity basketball games taking place there, it’s not even comparable when you really think about it,” he recalled of the athletic facilities situation during his days as a student. “Even that South Campus field that’s turf now...it’s definitely something that is taken a lot more seriously now than it was 15 or 20 years ago.
"If we’re going to do athletics, we want to do it at least in the first-class way we do everything else here.”
The facilities have improved on campus, and it sounds like the enthusiasm for sports here has, too.
“Looking back, I would say that the vast majority of the people that came to our games were probably athletes supporting athletes. That was the feel 15 years ago. I think that has been a bit better, from what I’ve seen in the few months I’ve been here since. There seems to be a lot more excitement about athletics here...It seems to be a much more athletic-friendly campus situation now than it probably was when I was here as a student,” he observed.
Certainly, there have been games and teams that have captivated the student body over the course of the past few years. A few that come to mind include the women’s basketball team going deep into the playoffs in 2010-11 and 2011-12 and the Matt Johnson buzzer beater that made SportsCenter.
“Baseball’s kind of a different animal, I think, in this climate, than maybe even football or basketball...We don’t have a ton of terrific weather home games during [the spring], so it’s not exactly going to be something that everybody’s looking to go out to when it’s 32 degrees and a 25-mile per hour wind’s coming off the lake.”
Plenty has changed outside of athletics in Hyde Park, too.
“The campus itself has changed drastically,” he said. “I think its offerings, for not only food, but other lifestyle aspects, are greater than when I was here.”
Fitzgerald’s love for UChicago has proved instrumental in building his team as a recruiter.
“The growth of this campus, the neighborhood feel to it, I think that’s huge. Not only as a success story for us as an institution, but it’s a huge key for what we need to recruit and to sell to student-athletes,” he said.
With every recruit comes the chance for Fitzgerald to mold his team as he likes, to further the baseball program’s success. For instance, he’d like to coach his team into a NCAA tournament run. Unlike most other UChicago varsity sports, the baseball team isn’t a member of the University Athletic Conference. Instead, they play as an independent. Being unattached to a conference makes it harder to get a bid to the tournament–a certain number are allotted as automatic bids from conference winners, and competing for a non-conference selection is far tougher to do.
“I know that’s been a struggle for Coach Baldea, and the entire staff and the former players, for years. Even when I played here, we had some really good seasons and were on the fringe come selection day, and it didn’t happen,” he said.
“In 15 years, that would obviously be my goal...I would like to work on the consistency of being [a team] not only in the region, but nationally, that is competitive on a year-in-year-out basis.”
With his background as a Maroon and motivation to further the program’s mark, Fitzgerald is on track to push the team to new heights.