By Kim Byrum Skinner
Seldom does a guy interview for an assistant coaching job with Andy Fitzwater’s comedic flair.
“I got tired of umpiring, so one day I just hopped on my moped and rode over to (former head coach) Tom Randall’s house,” the 29-year Kenton Ridge baseball veteran recalled, laughing. “I knocked on the door and said, ‘Tom, could you use any help? … But he didn’t give me an answer right away.”
Little did Fitzwater know just how life-altering that 1985 house call would become.
Now 73, the Miami Valley Baseball Coaches Association and Clark County Hall of Famer has helped mentor, mold and motivate “at least 50” scholarship players, including a handful of major-leaguers.
Dave Burba, Dustin Hermanson, Rick White and Adam Eaton have all been, at one time or another, on the receiving end of a “Fitzy” postgame barb.
“I just love this program,” Fitzwater said with childlike enthusiasm, outfitted head-to-toe in Cougar gear during a recent practice. “There’s only one way to play baseball at Kenton Ridge and that’s the right way — fundamentally sound. But it’s the kids who make it.
“I’ll be 74 on Aug. 1, so I’m more the PR man now,” he added. “I can’t hit the fly balls like I used to, but I tell a few jokes, pat a few backs, keep the kids straight. I love every single one of our kids — varsity and JV. God willing, I hope to be around for a while longer. Motivating the kids keeps me young.”
In fact, no one in Cougar country appears the least bit fazed by Fitzwater’s AARP card. He’s as vital to the program’s 627 wins and three Division II state tournament appearances as folks half his age.
“When I first got the job, one of my very first phone calls was to Fitzy — to make sure he was coming back,” said head coach Aaron Schaeffer, 105-40 in his sixth season. “You’ve just gotta keep a guy like that around. He’s great for the kids. Keeps them on their toes.”
“He’s the good guy; I’m the bad guy,” added Schaeffer, a KR and Carson-Newman graduate who, through 44 games as a junior, led the nation in home runs before suffering back injuries. “If something has to be said, Fitzy’s right there to pick them back up. He’s done that for so long. He’s just so good at it. We love having him around.”
Randall, himself a Hall of Famer, retired in storybook style in the summer of 2007, having led the Cougars to a D-II state runner-up finish. As understudy Schaeffer settled nervously into one of Ohio’s most storied programs, it was Fitzwater who provided the calm.
“They’d just gone to the state finals the year before, and there’s a ton of pressure that goes along with (inheriting) that (tradition),” said Schaeffer, who followed with his own state berth in 2008. “To have Fitzy and Dave Williams come back — it’s like a stability factor. I mean, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
Though Kenton Ridge has struggled to an uncharacteristic .500 start behind injuries to senior pitchers Kendall Colvin and Michael Knotts, the Cougars should be healthy by the season’s second half.
“I’m not a bit worried,’” Fitzwater said. “Aaron is an outstanding coach — he’s a disciplinarian and emphasizes the fundamentals. But it’s also, ‘Have fun … go out and play ball.’ Even though we’re 4-4, we’re going to be all right.
“These kids can laugh and joke with me, but they also know where I stand,” he added. “If things get close or a little tense, I’ll say, ‘Come on boys. Let’s get it going. I’ve got to get back to the Masonic Home soon.’
“I didn’t know, when Tom left, if Aaron would want me back. I’m glad that he did. I love that guy like he’s my own son.”
Fitzwater hesitates, then shuffles through three decades of Cougar memories before settling on a highlight.
“We were playing Fairfield Union at Municipal Stadium (in the 1989 regional finals). They’re the No. 1 team in Ohio. There’s between 600 and 1,000 people in the stands.
“We came from behind and won that game. I’ll never forget looking up into those stands … with tears running down my cheeks. That was our first time going to state. Not too many people get to experience that. It was a great feeling.”