LA GRANDE — Mike McInerney has been Eastern Oregon University’s baseball coach just more than a week.
But the man charged with the task of leading the program’s reinstatement is wasting no time — reaching out to the recruits who will make up the team when it takes the field in early 2021, building relationships with alumni and with the community, gathering input from former coaches and seeing what the program will need with regard to everything from equipment and uniforms to members of his coaching staff.
McInerney, 36, knows he has a tall task ahead of him, but the former Western Oregon University associate head coach and pitching coach is looking forward to the challenge.
And although he's been in La Grande only a short time, he already knows he is not forging this path alone, and he believes having the community and alumni support will be a major benefit.
“It’s not me, it’s everybody. The alumni are going to be a huge piece to this,” McInerney said Wednesday in an interview with The Observer. “It’s one of the best schools I’ve ever heard of or seen with alumni that are really involved and excited about the program coming back, and they want to be a piece of it, and so that’s where it’s a huge advantage. Just them being interested and connected and being around is going to be a huge kind of kickoff to this whole thing starting back up, so I don’t feel like it’s just me.”
McInerney said he has been contacted by alumni who want to help get the program moving forward in any way possible, whether it be financially, giving him advice, or helping navigate tasks that may arise in restarting baseball, which was reinstated in October 2019 after being cut in 2006.
One of those closely connected to the program whom McInerney has been in contract with — and whom he spoke with when the job came open — is Howard Fetz, the longtime coach who successfully guided the Mountaineers for about two decades in 1960s, '70s and '80s.
“I talked to him yesterday,” McInerney said on Wednesday. “He just is literally there to help and support, and has asked me questions about how everything’s going with hiring assistant coaches, how recruiting’s going, giving his two cents on what he thinks I should do — he’s basically there to guide and help me through the entire process. It’s enormous to have a former coach that is willing to give all his time and energy to help in anything I need.”
There is plenty to be accomplished in the upcoming year, which feels like a long time until one gets a look at the to-do list.
Most important is getting players to Eastern — and players who will fit the billing McInerney is looking for. The coach said he is hoping to have 35-40 players signed by the time fall practice begins in September.
McInerney said he has already spoken with at least 50-60 players and has a binder about 3 inches thick stuffed with names of prospective future Mountaineers.
A major part of his recruiting philosophy? Own this region — both at the high school level and when it comes to getting junior college transfers.
“Pretty much any program that's going to be successful, you want to pretty much dominate your area and region,” he said. “I really want to do that. There’s a ton of excitement in this region. Eastern Oregon, over to Idaho, Eastern Washington, high school and the NWAC. There are tons of people reaching out and they’re really excited. I want to get the best players I possibly can in the region. That’s really my first focus. That’s who I’ve been talking to the most.”
Once he’s tapped the Northwest, he will expand his focus to reach out across the West — from Alaska to Arizona. The coach said there are several junior college coaches in California and in the Northwest Athletic Conference who either played for or against EOU.
He also said since this will be the first time he’s not “coaching or playing baseball in the spring since Little League,” he’ll get the added time to see players in person.
McInerney added WOU had ample success with NCAA Division I kickbacks — players who start at the higher level but who later transfer to a smaller school — and he anticipates the same for Eastern.
“Those are the main guys that got drafted for us, all-Americans, just really solid players,” McInerney said of the kickbacks the Wolves picked up.
Building relationships with players has been — and will continue to be — vital for the personable McInerney. Even if a player he’s recruiting elects to go elsewhere, fostering a relationship now could be a major benefit in the future if a player, say, goes to a Division I school but later chooses to leave.
“You’ve already built that relationship recruiting them, and it becomes an easy fallback where they understand the region, they understand the school, and it becomes an easy place for Division I kickbacks to kind of come back to,” he said.
The former pitching coach, who himself was a pitcher in his high school and college days, said pitching and defense “is an absolute must for me” when it comes to his coaching philosophy.
“We’re going to be good on the mound. I feel really confident about that,” he said, adding he would like to have a pitching staff of around 14-16 players. “I’ve always had success with pitchers, and whoever I bring in to work with the pitchers is going to be good. We’re definitely going to pitch.”
Offensively, the coach is not tied to any one method when it comes to generating runs, and he doesn’t want to have an offense fit to succeed under just one style. What he would like to bring in are what he called “athletes" — that is, players who can be multifaceted. That would mean, he said, players who are able to not only hit for power and pile up runs in a hurry for EOU in a slugfest, but players who also could drop down a bunt, steal a base or execute a hit-and-run when called upon to help manufacture a run in a pitchers’ duel.
McInerney noted one year at WOU the team took more of a power approach on offense and was loaded with big power hitters. That team broke records and could win high-scoring battles but couldn’t win close, low-scoring contests.
“We shattered records offensively. A really offensive team, but we were just clogging the bases,” he said. “We weren’t athletic. It was all big, physical, extra-base-hit kind of guys. We broke all kinds of records offensively, (but) that was one of our worst years at Western. That was one of the first years we didn’t win the conference. Games when it was a slugfest, we won them all, (but) any other type of game, we weren’t able to adjust to win those games. Learning from that, I think we’re going to be athletic and we’re going to do both.”
He also is big on recruiting two-way players who can both pitch and play in the field.
“Love them, and had tons of success at Western Oregon with two-way guys,” he said. “Last year, Koty Fallon got drafted. He came in and did both. He was a first baseman and a pitcher, and then he decided to be only a pitcher his senior year and got drafted.”
The EOU job is McInerney’s first official collegiate head coaching gig, but he does already have experience leading a program and having success while doing so.
In 2018, he was thrust into an interim head coaching position at Western Oregon when head coach Kellen Walker had to step away for a year for personal reasons. He had worked alongside Walker — a close friend who he said is more like a brother — since Walker became the head coach, so he had an idea of what being head coach looked like.
But that spring, Western got off to an uncharacteristically slow start. The Wolves opened the season with a tough California road trip that included Division II powers Azusa Pacific and Cal State Monterey Bay, and started 0-7, losing four one-run games in the process.
“You go 0-7 to start your season, and I think there was like a hint of questioning, ‘What’s going on? Are these teams really good? Maybe Coach Mac isn’t doing something correctly?’ And so just a super high-pressure, really stressful situation,” McInerney said, noting though that “I felt calm and collected during that entire thing.”
McInerney and Co. righted the ship after the slow start, going 27-14 the rest of the way to finish second in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference and win the GNAC tournament title.
That experience was one of just many over his time at Western that helped groom him to be ready to take on the EOU job and will help during the inevitable highs and lows of restarting Eastern’s program.
“I learned a lot. I feel really comfortable,” he said. “There are going to be tons of stresses and just the growing pains of starting this back up again (but) I’m pretty confident I can work my way through it.”
The coach also is big on player development and using technology to help break down the player’s mechanics, show him what needs improved, and then work with him through the process.
He used the example of a player who is struggling to hit an inside fastball, and using video to show him where the adjustment in his swing needs to be made.
“You’re going to see stuff with just the naked eye and maybe you can tell right away, but it’s a lot easier, and I think it helps the players see it, in film, frame by frame, really slow motion,” McInerney said. “It’s going to help him feel everything, see and be like, ‘OK, that’s why I’m getting beat.' Then you're going to create drills that will help clean up his mechanics where he’s going to be able to get to that inside pitch quicker, easier and better.”
As for the hopes McInerney has for EOU? Yes, it’s to build a conference and national contender that can churn out all-Americans and professional prospects.
But long term, the new coach wants to turn La Grande and EOU into a baseball destination.
“Bigger picture is I want to make sure the university, this community, players I’m bringing in and players in the region understand that we want (EOU) to become a center for baseball,” he said, laying out a long-term vision that uses all the resources and faculties at the school and in the town — both those already in place and those yet to come — to bring in hundreds of players for major tournaments, camps and clinics, just to name a few. “That’s kind of my driving force.”
A lot has to happen before EOU reaches that point — purchasing equipment, deciding on uniform designs, figuring out how Quinn Coliseum can be utilized as an indoor training location during the winter months, getting Optimist Field ready to handle a college and a high school baseball team until Eastern’s on-campus field is built, and putting together a coaching staff and a roster.
But McInerney exudes a confidence that all those tasks can be done, and when they are Eastern will again have a thriving baseball program.
"With the right effort, you can win anywhere," he said. "I’m not really worried. I think this is going to be an awesome spot.”
And, he knows, he won’t be alone as he leads the charge to rebuild EOU baseball.