by Scott Kindberg
June 8, 1996
Leader Of Men
But for the last 7 1/2 years, the 49-year-old Jamestown resident has quietly gone about the business of teaching 10th grade English at Frewsburg Central School.
He's also done a pretty fair job on the diamond after taking over as the Bears' baseball coach in 1991. Today's semifinal contest with Rensselaer marks the third time this decade Schmitt has guided Frewsburg to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class D championships. The Bears have already won two state titles.
Most coaches never even make it to the states during an entire career.
Noted Rich Pinciaro, who played with Schmitt on the Jock Shop's national champion modified softball team of the early 1980's: "He's a master."
Making a Choice
Early in 1989, Schmitt received two phone calls within minutes of each other.
The first was to inquire if he'd be interested in interviewing for a 10th grade English teaching position at Frewsburg. The second was a call about interviewing for a kindergarten teaching job at another Chautauqua County School.
Intrigued by both offers, Schmitt called Frewsburg school superintendent Paul Grekalski and asked if he could wait for two days for an answer. Given the OK, Schmitt called the other school and asked if he could teach kindergarten for two days to see if he liked it.
With - pardon the pun - all bases covered, Schmitt arrived for his first day with the 5-year olds just as they were getting ready for Valentine's Day.
"I go in there the first day and everybody is cutting up valentines and doilies, cutting out all this in pink, white and red stuff," Schmitt recalled. "And all these kids are sitting up in my lap and they're crying. They can't find their boots and they're getting them on the wrong feet.
"I did that on Thursday and I went back there on Friday when they were having a "hula thing" in the gym. They wanted me to put on a grass skirt and dance. I said, "That's it."
"I called Grekalski and I said, "I'll take the job in Frewsburg, thank you very much."
No, Frewsburg is the one that's thankful.
Since his arrival at the school for the last half of the 1988-89 school year, Schmitt's impact has been felt both in the classroom and on the diamond in a big way.
Deciding on a career change in his early 40's, Schmitt left a job in team sporting goods sales at the Jock Shop in Jamestown and went back to school to get his teaching certification.
While he completed the three years of schooling in two, his wife, Leslie, continued to work as a supervising pharmacist at the Resource Center. With her blessing, and financial support, Schmitt studied at Jamestown Community College and later Fredonia State. He eventually began substitute teaching in the fall of 1988.
By January of 1989, he had resumes and applications out all over, ultimately receiving two job offers mentioned above.
Judy Beckerink, a biology teacher at Frewsburg, is glad he ended up where he did.
"I think it's hard for a new teacher to come in a get established. That might even be more so when you're older, but he did so immediately." Beckerink said, "The teachers made friends with him and the kids respected him. ... I think a lot of it has to do with his personality. He is fun, but also has a good discipline."
Hire As Coach
For the first two years at Frewsburg, Schmitt distanced himself from the baseball team.
"In 1990 when they got (to the Far West Regional) I didn't even go to see the game," he said.
Instead, he did some umpiring and even served as junior varsity baseball coach at Maple Grove for a year.
But when Dave Champ resigned as the Bears coach after the 1990 season, Schmitt applied for the job and got it.
"I really wanted to do it because I knew I had those guys coming back from the year before and I had had all those guys in my class." Schmitt said. "I liked that bunch of kids. They reminded me of the guys I played (softball) with. That's why I wanted a piece of that. They were a bunch of characters."
Led by the likes of Todd Chitester and Kane Brink, the Bears went on to capture the first state title in 1991.
Their motto? We don't care if you don't like us.
It was only a sign of things to come for the Bears and Schmitt's watchful eye. In six seasons, Schmitt has guided Frewsburg to four Section 6 titles, three Far West Regional championships, two state titles and a 42-0 record the last two years.
"I've always been really glad that he's a coach," said Beckerink whose sons, Darin and Adam, have both played for Schmitt (Darin graduated last year, while Adam is a junior on this year's team). "Not only because he knows baseball, but I think he's a really good example. He expects their respect. He doesn't accept behavior that's unacceptable. He's helped a lot of kids out in many ways.
"He's there at the right time and at the right place for many kids."
Noted Adam Beckerink: "He's able to push the right buttons and push you in the right direction, and then it's your incentive from there."
In The Beginning
Schmitt grew up in Depew, attended Lancaster schools and spent countless hours playing three-man baseball in the sandlot near his home. In those games each team had a pitcher, a shortstop and an outfielder.
"We use to play as kids, get up in the morning, ride our bikes to the park, bring our lunch, play until lunch and after lunch play until 4," he said. "Then we'd go home, have dinner and play our Little League game at night."
Schmitt’s father, Bob Sr., was his Little League coach. He would play catch with his son in the backyard but only as long as the younger Schmitt would throw accurately.
"If I threw one by him, he'd quit." Schmitt said. "I think that was his way of getting me to concentrate more. ... I can still throw the ball where I want to."
To this day, if he wants to saw the bat off in the hands of one of his players during batting practice, no problem. Throw a ball on the black on the outside corner? Piece of cake.
His baseball prowess continued in high school, but upon graduation in 1965, he decided to postpone entering Brockport State so that he could work in a pickle factory to earn some money. He later changed his mind and matriculated at Jamestown Community College.
About that time, the Vietnam War was going on, and Schmitt, not wanting to be drafted, joined the Peace Corps and spent the next two years building irrigation systems.
"I wanted to do it," he said. "I was scared of the Army."
But during his stay in the African country, he developed malaria.
"I lost so much weight," he said. "I was so skinny. They let me out a few months early because I was so sick. I got drafted but the fact that I had malaria kept me from going to Vietnam. I went into the reserves for six years (instead)."
Schmitt's first real job after the Peace Corps was as an insurance adjustor. He later worked with county forester Chuck Bauer, a job he loved. But all the while, Schmitt's passion was softball, a sport he dove into head first.
As the unofficial coach for the Jock Shop team, Schmitt, who began working at the store in 1977, organized trips to tournaments and ordered equipment.
"The first couple of years I played, Jim Jacobson was the coach, but he moved away and I was the logical choice because I was right there at the store," Schmitt said.
By the 1980's, the Jock Shop was one of the country's best teams, capturing national titles in 1983 and 1984. Schmitt was an integral part of those teams.
"He'd come in the dugout and he'd say, "Go for the kill because these guys are ready to roll over," Pinciaro said. "He'd see something in a game that nobody else saw. ...Nobody else was smart enough to do that. Nobody else had the get-up-and-go like he did."
Schmitt continued to work at the Jock Shop until 1987 when he decided to change careers, exchanging his glove for a textbook.
The trade has turned out to be one of Schmitt's best moves.
"The kids really like him," Pinciaro said. "He's such a likeable guy. He's one of them and they will play for him. ... I guess he knows how to give people a role."
A Role Model
Judy Beckerink has watched the players and Schmitt interact for years as her sons have worked their way through high school. Not only does she like what she sees of Schmitt as a teacher in the classroom, but she's impressed with him as a teacher on the field.
"He doesn't yell to get his point across," she said. "They just know when he's proud and when he's unhappy, and they react very well to him. I couldn’t ask for a better male figure."
Added Adam Beckerink: He knows the game really well, he knows what to say and when to say it. He really knows how to coach a team.
Schmitt is aware that success can also bring its share of criticism from people outside of the Frewsburg "family".
At the Section 6 championship game against Ripley last week, Schmitt's father-in-law was sitting next to a man who thought Schmitt was too critical of his players.
But, still unaware of the relationship between Schmitt and his father-in-law, the man admitted that he had found out the players enjoyed playing for their coach.
So much for criticism.
Yet, Schmitt know his competiveness can get in the way.
For example, before last year's state tournament semifinal, the players went to breakfast and didn't return to the bus quickly enough for their coach.
Quietly seething, Schmitt informed the team that there would be no time for batting practice. Maybe out of fear, the Bears went out and whipped Lake Placid anyway, 28-1, a tournament record for runs in one game. Afterward, Schmitt, never one to lose his sense of humor, boarded the bus and quipped: "It must have been the breakfast."
A plaque, sporting the quote and a box of Wheaties, hang on a wall in his room at school, courtesy of the Frewsburg Baseball Boosters.
"The big problem I have is I come down on these guys because I expect them to be perfect, but they're just kids," Schmitt said.
"When they make errors, I don't say too much to them about that. But when they make mental mistakes, I get on them pretty hard about that. On the same token, I think that's probably just as much my fault, because that's what I'm supposed to teach them so they don' make those kind of mistakes. That's where I have to improve."
But it's apparent that the school, the players and the parents like him just the way he is.