Reversal of Roles: Pelkey and Morrill coaching Keene Blue Jays this Summer
KEENE, N.H. 7/19/12 – Sitting in a dusty dugout at Owl Athletic Complex on a recent sultry Saturday afternoon, Jeff Pelkey shouts out words of encouragement as his Keene Blue Jays diligently go through their pregame ritual preparing for their Central New England Baseball Association contest against Ronnie’s of Worcester.
A lot has changed since the last time Pelkey was in the dugout. After spending the past four seasons pitching for Keene State College, the Fitzwilliam native now finds himself on the other side to the base paths, serving as coach of the Blue Jays. “It’s different,” acknowledged Pelkey. “You’re making decisions inside the dugout and not on the field. You have to readjust and find ways to win baseball games from inside the dugout.”
A two-time All-Little East hurler for the Owls who set the program record for career wins (17) as a senior, Pelkey took the reins of the Blue Jays after pitching for the team the past two years. “Mark Gavin (the general manager of the Blue Jays) called and asked if I wanted the job,” said Pelkey. “I think he liked the leadership I took last summer, calling pitches and helping the catchers, so he made me the coach this year.”
Keene State Coach Ken Howe wasn’t surprised that his former ace was given the job. “We’ve known Jeff since his days at Monadnock and always felt that he had the make-up and leadership skills to coach,” said Howe. “He’s always been very attentive, listening to the coaches in the dugout when he wasn’t pitching.”
Not shy about asking for advice, Pelkey has picked Howe’s brain for a few coaching tips. “Coach Howe has been great. He’s helped me with a lot of things, especially dealing with players,” said Pelkey.
“I just told him to just go out there, have fun, and give the kids an opportunity to play and improve their skills,” said Howe. “That’s what summer baseball is all about.”
Pelkey, who got his feet wet helping to coach the Monadnock boys’ basketball team this past winter, recruited Owl teammate and Auburn, N.H., native Kyle Morrill to join him on the Blue Jay’s bench. “I think it’s a sense of security having me here,” said Morrill, who wrapped up his Owl career by batting .421 and earning All-LEC honors. “He’s just as new at this as I am, so we’re learning things together.”
What has Pelkey learned in his brief time on the bench? “Patience,” Pelkey quickly responded. “There are games when you get really frustrated and you just want to get mad and yell at someone. But you can’t. You have to relax and be patient and let the guys develop, and hopefully something good will end up happening.”
The Blue Jays’ 25-man roster, which is made up of players from New England colleges, includes five players from Keene State. “Without Keene State players I don’t think this would be able to get off the ground,” said Pelkey. “This summer the numbers are a little bit down, but most years about 50 to 60 percent of the guys are from Keene State.”
Pelkey said coaching players who were once teammates hasn’t been an issue. “I feel they have respect for me and Coach Morrill for what we’ve done as players, and they listen,” he said. “It’s competitive, but we’re not in your face. I write up the line-up and try to help the guys improve and get their work in.”
Owl players like Tanner Luopa and Matt Topper have had no problems with the Blue Jays coaching staff. “Jeff and I have a good relationship,” said Luopa, who will be a sophomore infielder at KSC this year. “We played on the same Legion team. It’s different now, but he’s just like one of us.”
“It’s been a little different,” admitted Topper, a senior outfielder looking to crack the Owls’ line-up. “You go from being a teammate where you can bust each other a little bit to watching what you say. But they’ve handled it well. It’s been a relaxed summer.”
The Blue Jays’ coaching tandem also have a future Owl on their roster this summer. Dustin Howe, the son of KSC coach Ken Howe, will be looking to make the Owls this season as a first baseman and designated hitter. Dustin, who had an injury-plagued career at Keene High, played last season at Bridgeton Academy in Maine.
Lacking the luster of upscale summer leagues like the Cape Cod Baseball League and the New England Collegiate Baseball League, the nine-team wooden bat Central New England Baseball Association prides itself in giving Division II and III players an opportunity to improve their baseball skills during the summer months.
“We don’t have problems with guys complaining about playing time,” said Pelkey. “If I have two second basemen, one guy will play the first half and the second guy will play the second half, so everyone gets their work in.”
Coaches constantly weigh the cost of winning versus getting players the needed playing time. “It’s a lot harder making up a line-up in summer ball,” said Morrill. “You want to get all the guys their at-bats and their innings on the mound, but at the same time you want to win, so it’s a tough balancing act.”
Players like Luopa appreciate the playing time “I didn’t see much playing time last spring, so getting live at-bats and seeing time in the field is very important to me,” he said. “Hopefully it will help me next season.”
Putting more emphasis on developing players has cost the Blue Jays in the standings. Heading into Sunday’s play-in tournament game, the Blue Jays find themselves in the league cellar with a 7-23 record.
“I look at the standings,” said Pelkey. “It’s frustrating at times, but my priority is getting playing time for everyone. There are definitely games we could have won, but sometimes your best lineup isn’t out there.”
Pelkey says he enjoyed the experience, and the team’s tough season won’t deter him from coaching again. “I enjoy it. I like being on the baseball field,” he said. “I’m a very competitive kid.”
The desire to compete hasn’t been strong enough to get him back on the mound. “I feel my days are up. I have nothing else to prove,” he said. “I did what I needed to do and have no desire to go back on the mound – unless I have to.”