The big hire of the Peninsula Oilers’ offseason came last October, when the organization picked up American Baseball Coaches Association hall of famer Jim Dietz.
Now, the time has come to watch the move pay dividends. At least, that is the prerogative.
A year after a second-place finish in the Alaska Baseball League with a 24-20 showing, the Oilers are looking for more glory amid a season of revival. Dietz brings in untold value with years of experience as a manager.
Last year, the Oilers beat the Anchorage Glacier Pilots 8-5 in the Top of the World Series semifinals, but were swept in two games to the Mat-Su Miners for the title.
The Oilers will have a tough test right out of the gate when they host the defending ABL champion Mat-Su Miners tonight at 7 p.m. at Coral Seymour Memorial Park. The Oilers open their season with a six-game series with the Miners that includes a Sunday doubleheader at 2 p.m.
The numbers that helped Dietz, 78, gain entry into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame are impressive — he won 1,231 games in 30 years as head coach at San Diego State University, and had three separate stints with the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks, starting from 1971 to 1977 and continuing to 1990 through 1993 and 2009 through 2012, finishing with a notable mark of 588-290.
In his first stint, Dietz guided the Goldpanners to three straight National Baseball Congress World Series titles from 1972 to 1974. Dietz also had a run with the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, where he coached major league star Mark McGwire. He is also currently a talent scout for the San Diego Padres.
But Dietz has his sights set on helping the Oilers reach new heights as an organization. As a summertime Alaskan, Dietz has seen the team struggle through recent seasons trying to stay afloat as funds dried up and the roof blew off in a freak windstorm in May 2014. The roof still hasn’t been repaired due to budget issues.
Dietz says that process begins with community involvement.
“We’ll be successful this year,” he said. “It starts with the camps and community, you get involved. The coaches that were here before really didn’t care, they were just here. I have a home, I come and watch the games, and I wasn’t thrilled with what I was watching.
“You’ll see it. You’re going to sense it.”
The Oilers have already begun the process of gaining more of the community’s support with several baseball camps aimed at teaching young kids the value and excitement of the sport. Dietz said the team recently hosted 140 young players ages 3 to 15 for a baseball camp in Soldotna, as well as about 50 in Homer and close to 40 in Kenai.
The players also spent time Thursday helping the Kenai Watershed Forum set up tents for the Kenai River Festival in Soldotna.
“We’ve really been enjoying it,” Dietz said.
The team returns just one player from last year’s squad, utility man Ryan Smith from Mapleton, Oregon, but Dietz said he hopes to retain most of this year’s crop of players for next summer and beyond.
“We want to start building this up, and one way is to have returning players,” he said. “The fans get to know them, and when you don’t have that, it doesn’t build the level of billeting back up.”
The team’s biggest issue for Week 1 is getting players here. Currently, only 14 have showed up from colleges and hometowns across the country, which will surely strain the pitching rotation until the numbers come up.
One local name fans will be seeing in the season program is 2016 Soldotna graduate Joey Becher, a right-hander that helped lead the Post 20 Twins to the Legion AA state championship last July. Becher pitched three no-hitters last summer with the Soldotna High School and Legion Twins teams, and will test his arm against some of the country’s best collegiate hitters at age 19.
Dietz said he hopes the team will be able to get through the opening weeks of the season with exceptional defense.
“I don’t want to be too optimistic, because baseball will put a knife in your back in two seconds,” Dietz said. “But I think our team will be exciting to watch.”
Dietz will be joined this summer by assistant coaches Kyle Brown of Southwestern College, Taylor Vile of Goldey-Beacom College and Ryan Doran, who has played for the Arizona Diamondbacks minor league system.