“We just play hard”
The winningest coach in the program’s history, Ed Blankmeyer led St. John’s to its 37th NCAA Tournament berth in 2018, tied with Oklahoma and Southern California for the eighth-highest total among all Division I programs. The Johnnies also captured their ninth BIG EAST Regular Season and ninth BIG EAST Tournament titles, both of which are league records. Their 40 wins in 2018 marked the ninth time in the past 14 seasons that St. John’s baseball has reached that plateau.
Blankmeyer, who was inducted into the ABCA Hall of Fame earlier this year, currently has a 798-477 record and is the winningest coach in the history of BIG EAST play, with 323 conference victories. He has coached more than 100 players that have gone on to play professional baseball, including 1995 American League MVP Mo Vaughn, 2014 World Series Champion Joe Panik, 2015 Hall of Fame inductee.
As a player, Blankmeyer was a four-year standout and team captain at Seton Hall, where he was the starting second baseman for both the 1974 and 1975 teams that played in the College World Series. He earned Academic All-America accolades and was the Atlantic Collegiate League Most Valuable Player in 1975. He spent one year in the Baltimore Orioles organization before beginning his coaching career.
What are your observations about how recruiting has changed?
Recruiting is very difficult nowadays. There are no hidden gems, no secrets, kids are committing very early, and that’s difficult. To make a determination of a kid at a young age in terms of where they’re going to be in 3-4 years, that’s difficult. It’s not just the physical skills, it’s the character, the makeup, the intangibles.
Most schools are going to get a lot of players from their region, but everybody is branching out and trying to get into JC settings, graduate transfers. Each institutions situation is different. Your objective is to put the best team on the field.
You’ve got to get pretty good high school players that are ready to play as freshmen, and that’s getting more difficult. You just have to try to find players that fit your profile and your style of play.
What’s the hardest position to find?
I think the big thing with recruiting now is finding those everyday position players. I think there’s enough pitching out there to put together a competitive staff most places, I really do. Plus, arms have a chance to develop a lot more than most hitters.
What’s the hardest tool to evaluate?
Quite frankly, I think the bat is the toughest thing to evaluate. Any organization that can really evaluate the bat is worth their weight in gold. Certain kids like Kyle Schwarber or Kris Bryant are no-brainers, sure, but when you get the kids that are a little toolsy and you have to commit signing bonuses or scholarship dollars, that’s difficult.
I want guys who can play the game. I like to try to recruit the middle of the field and when I do look for corner players, I really have to feel good about it. If I go watch a first baseman and he’s a bat-only, he better be hitting! If I’m watching a middle infielder and he can defend and run a little bit, now he’s playable and we can have some flexibility in position movement.
What’s your philosophy on playing freshmen?
Playing too many freshmen is a recipe for disaster. The transition from High School to good Division I baseball is huge. You may have a couple who are ready to compete at our level, but most of them are going to ride that roller coaster. Then you have some developmental guys who have a skill or two, but are they willing to sit in the background and work for a year or two. We try to have one or two that can play every day from the start, and the others fit more of that second category, that are more developmental guys. That’s the formula we try to get to.
Our success has been a combination of a lot of things. You try to maintain a good core of players, and if you can build around it, it keeps you consistent in your play, and you’re able to compete. Those programs that ‘reload’ just have a wealth of talent. We are just trying to keep that talent core as competitive as possible.
What are the methods you use for ‘team-building’ throughout the year?
There isn’t really one specific team-building thing we look at. We just try to establish the routine of playing the game the right way, establishing a process within our players’ abilities. Each of these guys has to find something that works for them. Over the course of the year, they buy into it, and our older guys help with that. We also talk about appreciating the game, playing for the love of the game. Our society is so success-oriented, but baseball revolves around failure.
We emphasize breathing, box/mound routines, relaxation routines in the dugout, walkup or running in from the bullpen routine. Those things just help the guys get a little more relaxed and focused. How many of them really buy into it? I couldn’t tell you, but we’re big on those things.
Your assistant coaches have moved on to some pretty big time jobs (Scott Brown to Vanderbilt, Corey Muscara to Maryland)…
I take a lot of pride when our assistant coaches move on. As much as they might learn from me, I learn from them. And the program gets the credit for it. We’ve had two Hall of Fame coaches before me, we’ve had Howie Gershberg, a legendary pitching coach- before me, and we’ve been blessed with good players as well.
Did you really have Mo Vaughn, Craig Biggio and Jon Valentin together on the same team at Seton Hall?
Mo Vaughn, Craig Biggio, and Jon Valentin were all three on the same team at Seton Hall, in 1987. And the best player of all was Marteese Robinson, who was the collegiate co-player of the year with Robin Ventura. Mo Vaughn was tremendous- an MVP in the American League, Craig is a Hall of Famer, and Valentin [11-year big leaguer] hit ninth for us, he figured it out. I don’t think those guys would’ve ever seen a college campus if you fast-forwarded to today.
Joe Panik went from being undrafted out of high school to a first-rounder after three years with you. How?
Joe Panik was committed to us around May in his junior year in high school, before he really hit the summer ‘circuit.’ You just watched him play and for a kid his age, he was really fundamentally sound. Didn’t run great, didn’t throw great, didn’t show much power, but we knew he was going to play a lot for us as a freshman, and he did. Now, three years later and he’s still an average runner, average arm, shows average power, average hit tool- but wait until you watch him play. We played some of the best arms in the country that year and [Joe] performed well against each of them. It’s also a testament to the Giants’ scouting system- they watched him a lot throughout the spring. His tool set and his ability to play the game will give him a chance to be a really solid major league player for a long time.
Your team is built almost entirely with players from your area. Is that by design?
I think the Northeast kids are pretty resilient, pretty tough. We have a little bit of an attitude, we create a culture of pride through competition. When we are playing bigger schools, I love saying to our guys, ‘everybody wanted those guys across the way, and nobody wanted you. Let’s see who’s better.’ If you have a bunch of guys who are willing to compete, anything can happen.
We don’t talk. We just play hard. There are expectations in our program of how you prepare, how you work, how you compete. Competing is not talking, it’s ‘show me.’ Let your actions speak, not your words. I know that New Yorkers have a reputation of being a little chippy at times, yes, but they play hard, they compete. That’s just how we go about our business.