Jim Gilligan is Lamar University baseball.
For 38 years Gilligan was, in some shape or form, part of the baseball program at Lamar, the now well-established team in Beaumont, Texas. He was the team’s ace pitcher in 1967 and 1968 and, after a brief stint in the Detroit Tigers farm system, Gilligan began his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Bill Vincent in 1970. Two years later, Gilligan landed his first head coaching gig at Western New Mexico University, but just a year later in 1973, he landed the head coach position at Lamar, a job he held on to until retiring this past spring, at the conclusion of Lamar’s season.
Gilligan, approaching his 70th birthday on October 1, won 1,320 games as a college head coach—one of 19 coaches in the history of the NCAA to win 1,300 games—with a career record of 1,320-875-1. Ten of Lamar’s 12 conference championships were won under Gilligan and the team had 29 30-win seasons, eight 40-win seasons and one 50-win season, with his 1981 team setting the school record for victories with 54. Gilligan was also a six-time league coach of the year and was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004, alongside former Houston Astros Jeff Bagwell and native Long Islander Craig Biggio and former Texas Ranger Kenny Rogers.
Gilligan, who was born and raised in Bayside, Queens, before moving to Beaumont full time when he became head coach of Lamar, said he felt like he accomplished as much as he could during his long tenure and it was simply time to move on. He knew his baseball life wasn’t over just yet though.
Gilligan landed a job with the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League this past winter. He wears a number of different hats for the league, including roving pitching instructor, helping out all of the teams in the league with their young arms, and he’s also a league advisor. Since he goes from game to game throughout the East End, Gilligan has now become a summer resident of Westhampton Beach with his wife, LaVerne.
Last week, The Press sat down with Gilligan to get to know him a little bit better and to pick his brain about the HCBL and baseball in general.
Question: How did you get the job with HCBL?
Jim Gilligan: It was created. Pat Short, one of my former players who is one of the scouts out here, asked me if I wanted to do something with the league, so I started talking to people at the Hamptons League and I told [Pat] I’d like to work with pitchers. What I really wanted to do is be a bridge between coaches and colleges, because I know as a college coach, you send players out in the summer that could have a major-league slider, and they would come back, their slider is down, they’ve got a new pitch.
The way I’ve been approaching this is, if I see a guy who needs help, I’ll call their coach. So, for example, I’ll call up coach Eddie Blankmeyer over at St. John’s and say, “Eddie, you don’t want this kid creating a hook do you?” And he’ll say something like, “No, we’ve been working with him on that,” and I’ll say, “Permission for major surgery?” and he’ll say, “Go get ’em, he’s all yours.”
The big thing here is that we’re trying to develop pitchers, we don’t want to do anything to destroy them. I’ve had fun doing what I’m doing and I feel I’ve really helped the kids while I’m up here.
Q: What is the biggest issue facing pitchers across the country these days, at any level?
JG: Without a doubt, it’s all of the Tommy John surgeries that have been occurring. Everyone wants to know why, well I know why: the problem is, all these camps that promise velocity, they’re overworking and overtraining these kids and wearing their arms out. The things they do are for momentary velocity; most arms cannot withstand the program. So if you were an 87 guy and you go to 92, that’s great, but how good are you really pitching? All they ever talk about is velo; they don’t talk about how to pitch. And people will spend thousands of dollars on those camps. You’ve got these scouts, where the only thing they can do is read a radar gun and write it down on a piece of paper.
There is a guy out here, who I won’t name, but he has messed up more pitching deliveries than anything else, and this guy charges quite a bit to screw you up. I think about what I’m going to do to make sure people don’t fall prey to guys like that and it would be a good venture, not from a money-making stand point, but to save people from hurting themselves and save their money.
Q: How do you decide when a pitcher has reached his pitch limit?
JG: Here’s the thing, we use the PitchSmart formula here, the coaches take care of that, but if you talk to Nolan Ryan, he doesn’t agree with it. Now Nolan used to throw 150 to 160 pitches in a game, The Big Unit [Randy Johnson] used to throw 165 in a game and come back and threw a relief inning. Now those are two different animals we’re talking about, but the Texas Rangers always used an emphasis on pitch counts, and they never made it to the playoffs until Nolan showed up.
The one thing I like about radar guns, they can tell you how hard a guy is throwing, but they can also tell you when he’s tired. In any sport, when a player leaves good form, you know they’re tired. Doesn’t matter if it’s football in the fourth quarter or baseball, you look for the signs of when a guy is tired. I could tell when all my pitchers were tired, they would have a tell. Now it was usually when they got around a certain pitch count that tell would show up.
Just like anything else, to get good at something you have to develop that ability. Teams these days always shut a guy down at a certain pitch count, but the stronger the kid is, the stronger his arm is.
Q: At this point in the season, teams throughout the league are struggling to keep pitchers. What do you think the reason is for that?
JG: Well you’ve got to remember that very few of these guys were their college’s Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or weekend guys. [Southampton Breaker pitcher John Rooney] was for Hofstra, but he’s one of the best pitchers in the league with a 93 mile per hour lefty fastball, but most of those guys are shutting it down for the summer, unless they need the work. Maybe they only threw 50 innings, maybe we’re getting relievers who only threw 17 to 20 innings in the spring and maybe they’re someone who redshirted and they’re simply trying to get their innings up. That’s what this league is providing.
But the guys that are still pitching, these are bottom of the staff guys who are going to make a difference in the final standings.
Q: You’re about to complete your first season in the HCBL, what do you like most about it so far?
JG: There are several things I like about it. The people in league have been great to me. [HCBL League President Henry Bramwell] has just been so hospitable, and [Sag Harbor General Manager] Sandi Kruel has been too. She treats these kids like they are her own. And the host families are special people. Everyone that I’ve met, these are some the best people I’ve ever been around.
I’ve been competitive in baseball forever; after a while it can be unhealthy for you. But to get a chance just to watch some of these kids … I love what Nick Kruel has been doing this summer. Here’s a kid that had heart surgery over a year ago. He’s throwing against another kid tonight who I put some time in with, so I would love the game to end in a tie and everyone goes home happy. But I’m going to win tonight no matter who wins because one of my guys is going to win. There is a total emphasis on teaching, not on winning, and that makes me want to stay around it a lot longer.
Q: If there was something that needed improving, what would it be?
JG: Here’s the deal: Why is the Hamptons League not the Cape? That’s a question that I think we can answer. If I was a player, I would much rather be in the Hamptons hanging at the beach than in the Cape eating ice cream every night. What better place in the world for kids to be than a summer in the Hamptons? It’s a destination for kids these ages.
So what do you need to improve still? It starts with the fields. If we can keep every field we have now and do the little things that could be done to make the fields a little better. I think what they did with adding a pitching coordinator is a good idea and they may want to think about doing it for hitting.
Anything we can do to encourage the best players we can get right now we should do it. The Cape Cod League has done a great job for so long, and it’s not like we’re going to step in and take all their boys, but we’ve got to try and be as good they are and encourage players to come to us. College teams send players to the Cape on temporary contracts. That type of thing always discouraged me from sending my players there because if I’m going to send them out in the summer I want them to play. We can promise that here. We want to get as good of caliber players as the Cape is getting.
But I was at the [HCBL All-Star Game] the other night, which I thought was spectacular. We’ve got good players out here already, but we need to make it so that players are banging on the door to get into this league, and I think with this area, that’s a possibility.