After Jacob deGrom and Corey Kluber, Stetson University Dreams Even Bigger Express News
DELAND, Fla. — Pete Dunn, the former baseball coach at Stetson University, wore sandals and a trucker hat with “Fish Hippie” emblazoned across the front as he strolled past a bronze bust of his face and stood behind home plate at Melching Field.
In the distance, he eyed the two greatest catches of his 37-year career. To the left of the 403-foot marker on the center field wall were two giant images of pitcher Jacob deGrom along with his professional credentials: 2014 rookie of the year and 2018 Cy Young Award winner in the National League. To the right was a photo of Cleveland Indians pitcher Corey Kluber, the Cy Young winner in the American League in 2014 and 2017.
When Kluber first saw his display, he had a quibble. “You’ve got a picture of me throwing a damn changeup!” Dunn recalled Kluber saying.
Dunn demurred at the nit-picking. It is a pitcher’s ballpark, after all.
“I’ll go to my grave, that year Jacob won rookie of the year and Klubes won the Cy Young, both from little old Stetson,” he said. “Pretty cool.”
Little old Stetson is no longer being overlooked. Last season, it was Logan Gilbert, a 6-foot-6 righty with a fastball touching 97 miles per hour, who drew scouts to the private college of about 3,100 undergraduates. Gilbert led the nation with 163 strikeouts and became the first Hatter selected in the first round of Major League Baseball’s amateur draft when Seattle picked him at No. 14.
In the wake of deGrom, Kluber and now Gilbert, Stetson coaches have honed their recruiting pitch, branding the midmajor program as a hotbed for hurlers looking to develop into Cy Young winners. When recruits enter Coach Steve Trimper’s office, Stetson jerseys with Kluber and deGrom’s names and college numbers stitched into them occupy prime space on a bookcase filled with the 2018 team’s accomplishments. Across the room hang whiteboards with the names of commits from the high school classes of 2019-21 written on them.
“They’re constantly promoting it,” Gilbert said. “Heads turn looking for who’s next. A little bit to live up to.”
Gilbert and his teammates did their part last year. The Stetson pitching staff led the nation in E.R.A. (2.66), strikeouts (635), and had five pitchers selected in the 2018 M.L.B. draft after the Hatters reached their first-ever Super Regional in the N.C.A.A. tournament. The sustained success has allowed Stetson to close the gap in college baseball’s arms race, as well. Over the last two years, the program has renovated its coaches offices, locker room and players lounge. Administrators are working on a new lease for its 20-year-old ballpark and are planning the addition of field-level seats for the first time, as well.
“We’re going to try to compete on the national stage,” said Trimper, who took over for Dunn in 2016.
Dunn saw it all develop over the last half-century. He grew up in Vero Beach, Fla., and made his way to campus as a catcher in 1968, when Stetson shared its stadium with the Red Sox’s Class AAA team (he remembered a farmhand named Carlton Fisk being called up from nearby Ocala for the Sox).
Dunn says he “couldn’t hit the ball with a paddle” as a player, but the Kansas City Royals drafted him in the 36th round of the 1970 draft and he spent two seasons in the minors. He returned to Stetson as an assistant coach in 1974 before taking the managerial reins five years later.
Dunn, now 70, won 1,312 games and watched 84 of his players go on to professional baseball. Nine made it to the majors.
The Cy Young winners just missed each other. Kluber came first. The Stetson staff came across him by accident at a recruiting showcase on Florida’s East Coast, where they were scouting another player. Unimpressed with the intended target, Dunn’s assistant reported back that he “found a guy.”
Once in school, he was underwhelming his freshman and sophomore seasons before exploding with a 12-2 record, 2.05 E.R.A. and 117 strikeouts as a junior in 2007. Undrafted previously, the San Diego Padres picked him in the fourth round of that summer’s amateur draft.
“Point of pride for any program,” Dunn said. “We’ve been able to develop a few.”
Enter deGrom, from nearby De Leon Springs, a no-stoplight town 10 miles north of campus. After playing primarily as a third baseman and shortstop his first two seasons, his arm led him to the rubber, where he was first used in relief. It wasn’t long, though, before he was the team’s ace.
He got over his initial reluctance to switch positions, but he kept his swing in tune. His most memorable at-bat came in the opening game of the 2010 Atlantic Sun conference tournament in Nashville. Starting on the mound that day, deGrom smashed a home run off a lanky Florida Gulf Coast pitcher named Chris Sale. DeGrom downplayed it as lucky; Sale allowed that he crushed it.
Sale rebounded to win that day, and it wound up being deGrom’s last start for Stetson. He left school after the Mets selected him as a pitcher in the ninth round.
DeGrom still lives in the area during the off-season. He returned to Stetson to throw out a first pitch after his rookie season and served as an official starter, along with members of the current Stetson team, for a local 5K race for charity last winter. Trimper, who happened upon the Mets ace at the Firehouse Subs in town shortly after he was hired in 2016, has incorporated deGrom and Kluber into his presentation for high school prospects.
“You got to tangle with the big boys,” said Trimper of his recruiting efforts. “You can’t worry about what you don’t have.”
There have been signs of growth. During a rain delay at Melching Field when Stetson was hosting an N.C.A.A. tournament regional for the first time, a group of alumni were draining bottles of beer to pass the time. High on the success of a team in the midst of an 18-game win streak, contributions started to flow, too. It ended up being the single largest fund-raising day for Stetson baseball.
“They were enjoying some adult refreshments, and they got caught up in committing to contribute to support the baseball team,” Altier said. “I don’t think they were drunk.”
He added: “The success just elevated our opinion of ourselves.”
The major-league accomplishments of its shortstop-turned-ace certainly haven’t hurt, either. DeGrom’s father, Tony, a longtime AT&T employee, can see the banners outside Melching Field when he drives by the stadium.
“You look up there and you go, ‘Wow,” Tony deGrom said. “It’s a little humbling.”
Tony deGrom hasn’t been back to a Stetson game since his son left, but others still keep score. A group of older locals call themselves the Bleacher Creatures, and they position themselves by the visiting dugout on the third base line. They hold up cards that note how many strikeouts the Stetson pitching staff has recorded.
“Psychological warfare,” said Carter Smith, a retiree.
On Wednesday, there were no hits to post at Melching Field. Three Stetson pitchers — a sophomore, a freshman and a senior — combined to throw a no-hitter against Florida State, the blue-blood program Stetson has long looked up to in the rankings. Chipper Jones, a DeLand native who is Dunn’s godson and tracks the program from his home in Georgia, awoke to the news Thursday.
“It warms my heart,” Jones said. “Maybe it’s just the small-town, blue-collar, chip-on-your-shoulder underdog in me. That’s another big feather in your cap.”