Former Players Reunite for Gene Stephenson’s Hall of Fame Induction

Gene Stephenson
Photo courtesy of GoShockers.com

500 people crowded into the Drury Plaza hotel ballroom on Friday night for one man, a mentor, and coach who influenced their career after baseball.

As former Wichita State baseball coach Gene Stephenson was introduced for his induction, everyone rose from their seats and their eyes filled with tears as he received his plaque.

Former players and coaches who served under him witness the 36-year Shocker baseball coach be honored over the weekend as Wichita State Athletics only inductee for 2018 in the Shocker Sports Hall of Fame.

“I loved what I was doing.” Stephenson said. “The passion-it’s hard to describe because every day was a joy. Those guys are all my sons…In my mind, they were all guys that I cared so much for while they were players and after. We had lots of joys, even when we didn’t have a stadium at the beginning.”

Joe Carter wanted to be a multi-sport athlete in college, where Wichita State was the only school that allowed him to play football in the fall and baseball in the spring. Not only did Stephenson mold the 1981 College Baseball Player of the Year into a power hitter, he cared for the players off the field.

Carter recalled that during the second game of doubleheaders, Stephenson allowed the players that stayed in the dormitories to leave around the fifth inning if the Shockers were ahead by a large margin so they could eat before the dining hall closed. Playing in the Major Leagues from 1983-1996 and obtaining two World Series titles, Carter credits his success after his time as a Shocker to his college coach.

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“Behind every success there’s a person who really helps you and who believes in you,” Carter said. “Coming from Millwood High School in Oklahoma City, I was a very good baseball player, but I was raw. I wasn’t really tested because my school was all about football and basketball. But I knew that baseball was what I wanted to play and Gene took a chance. He saw some talent in me and said, ‘Hey, you come here and we’ll get you to the next level.’ It was just a matter of if I wanted to work. Talking to him, he was always offensive-minded, which was good because everybody loves to hit. It just blossomed from day one.”

Tommy Hottovy knew he wanted to be apart of Stephenson’s program when he made his visit to Wichita. It wasn’t the game experience that benefited him the most, however. Most of the knowledge that he soaked up was learned behind closed doors.

Hottovy remembers that Stephenson pushed the players to be at their best on and off the field, with his passion for the game influencing the rest of the team. The current Chicago Cubs pitching coach said that he has taken the lessons Stephenson taught him in college into the pros, using that in his new role.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be with some amazing, amazing coaches,” Hottovy said. “A lot of that is reflected on who was available here and the coaches we have at Wichita State and they all reflected what Gene’s montro was. It was about doing things the right way, about working hard, and having the right people around you and that’s why I think we had such a good staff here with Brent (Kemnitz) and (Jim Thomas) by his side and I learned so much from all three of them. I think the biggest thing that I took from him was how passionate he was to make us better and help us a team get better. I’m trying to take that on as my next position takes shape.”

With Wichita State in his own backyard, Mike Pelfrey would rush over to Eck Stadium after baseball practice at Wichita Heights High School to catch the Shockers in action. His favorite memories of seeing home games was hearing the fans yell “Hoop!” for pitcher Kevin Hooper, hoping to one day follow in his footsteps.

Pelfrey had dreams of going to the Major Leagues but knew that playing college baseball was the best option to get there. Learning from Stephenson and pitching coach Brent Kemnitz, Pelfrey was able to get his mindset right for 12 seasons in the MLB.

“I thought going into college, I thought physically I was blessed,” Pelfrey said. “I also think at 18-years-old, it’s hard for any kid to make it to pro ball and I think I really matured. Obviously being around Gene and being around Brent and growing up mentally helped me get to the next level and be successful.”

Stephenson walked onto the INTRUST Bank Arena court at halftime the next day in front of another standing ovation from over 9,000 fans. Every former player in attendance after the game took a picture with Stephenson holding his new induction plaque.

Seeing a plethora of former players back to honor the impact he made on them, Stephenson looked back on his coaching tenure as not an accomplishment for himself, but for changing the lives of his players.

“We didn’t get into coaching for any other reason than the passion of the game and the joy of the game,” Stephenson said. “Accolades, I told many times to the players, those are meaningless. It’s the people that are involved. It’s the interaction of working with young men and trying to mold them into something that’s a better product, whether that’s on the field or off the field.”

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