Now that he’s a full season into his tenure as Pittsburgh’s pitching coach, it seems a fitting coincidence that year two for Jerry Oakes would start right back at the place that launched his college baseball coaching career.
With Pittsburgh visiting Coastal Carolina for a three-game season-opening series set for Saturday and Sunday at TicketReturn.com Field at Pelicans Ballpark, Oakes has had the chance to catch up with his Chanticleer mentors around the practice field while reminiscing about his four years in Conway as a student assistant on Gary Gilmore’s coaching staff.
Not that the two sides had lost touch at all over the last year and a half.
“Jerry was a huge integral part of that four-year run we had that was so good. He was Drew’s right-hand man,” Gilmore said, referencing Coastal pitching coach Drew Thomas. “And I know he’s done a fantastic job in the year he’s been there at Pitt. … He talks to one of us or several of us almost on a daily basis. We have a great relationship, always will. He’s a special guy.”
Oakes said he and Thomas still speak three or four times a week on the phone and reiterated that the bond they all formed in Conway remains as strong as ever – no matter what uniforms they’ll be wearing this weekend.
“It was hitting me on the plane that I was actually coming here,” Oakes said Friday afternoon. “We practiced [Thursday] night and [Friday] here. It’s different. I’m not going to lie, there’s a lot of emotion because I committed here and coached here for four years. Gilley and Drew, they’re like brothers to me. Gilley is like a father figure and Drew is a like a big brother. It’s definitely different [coaching on the other side], but at the same time we’ve got a job to do and it’s just like playing against any other opponent.”
Oakes’ history with Coastal goes beyond his time spent as a student assistant coach before catching his big break with the Panthers. As a touted prospect coming out of Archbishop John Carroll High School in Radnor, Pa., he committed to Gilmore and the Chants before opting to sign a professional contract as a seventh-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2000.
He spent eight years in the minor leagues with five organizations before retiring from pro ball and getting the opportunity to finally make it to Coastal after all, serving on Gilmore’s staff while pursuing a sports management degree at the university.
“I thought he would add to our program, to be very honest with you,” Gilmore said of giving Oakes that opportunity. “The guy had been in professional baseball seven, eight years. I think he’d be the first one to tell you, he wouldn’t trade that seven, eight years for nothing, but if he had to do it all over again he’d have gone to college before he took that on. And that’s a huge thing for our kids to hear because all of them want to play beyond college. Trying to figure out whether they’re making the right choice or not, it’s great to see someone who was a very aggressive draft pick and stay that many years into it and then get his reaction on the other side.”
It was a valuable experience for Oakes as well, of course.
“The biggest thing I took is just what it takes to win on an everyday basis. You look at the success they have here and you can see why things happen,” he said. “It always starts at the top. That’s why I committed here. Gilley has so much pride in what he does and the kids just feed off of it. You can’t really explain it. And obviously being around Drew, I learned so much from him on the mental side. He’s basically like my role model.”
This weekend, they’ll be working toward opposite goals, though, as both teams look to get off to good starts in 2014.
Coastal’s pitching staff looks strong as always with junior left-hander Ben Smith getting the start Saturday after going 5-4 with a 2.23 ERA in a breakout 2013 season, while proven senior righty Tyler Herb (3.33 career ERA) and promising freshman lefty Dalton Moats round out the weekend rotation.
Oakes’ Panthers staff, meanwhile, managed a 3.59 ERA in his first season, achieving the program’s lowest team ERA since 1981 on the way to a school-record 42 wins. He spoke at length about his excitement for the direction of the program and the opportunity that awaits Pittsburgh as it joins the ACC this season.
“It’s been great. Pittsburgh is an unbelievable city, a great place to live and I’m very fortunate,” he said. “It’s a great place to be. It’s a very exciting time at Pitt just because of the transition to the ACC. The coaching staff we have now is going to be there for a while, so it’s been awesome [and] I think it’s going to be a special place for long time.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.