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Brooks’ baseball era in Fairmont comes to a close

MOUND MEETING — Fairmont Cardinals’ co-head baseball coach Jerry Brooks (red shirt) discusses strategy with pitcher Joey Flohrs (with baseball), shortstop Dalen Keltgen (sunglasses), first baseman Jack Hested (second from right), second baseman Nick Eversman (far right), catcher Zac Ringnell and third baseman Mario Maldonado (4) during a regular-season game at Herb Wolf Field in Fairmont. After 25 years of coaching baseball in Fairmont, Brooks is stepping away from the sport. (Photo by Charlie Sorrells)

FAIRMONT — Umpire, public address announcer, concession stand grill master, groundskeeper, team psychologist, baseball association member and last, but not least, coach.

After 25 years of serving in nearly every capacity in the sport of baseball at nearly every level in Fairmont, current Cardinals co-head varsity coach Jerry Brooks is hanging up his spikes.

“With it being the first year of flight school, I don’t have enough time to literally get the program off the ground if I continue to coach baseball,” said Brooks, who’s literally been the guiding force behind Fairmont High School’s newly-created aviation curriculum.

While Brooks resigned from his diamond duties that he has shared with Don Waletich during the recently-completed campaign and 2018, he will continue to teach calculus and pre-calculus, in addition to Principles of Flight, in the upcoming school year.

“Coaching is still a young man’s game, and well … I’m not anymore. It’s time for others to step into that role and carry the (baseball) program forward,” Brooks said with a chuckle. “Maybe a young guy like (former Fairmont pitcher) Matt Lytle, who the district just hired as a teacher, will want to do the job and keep the ball rolling in the right direction.”

Indeed. Brooks and Waletich co-piloted this year’s Cardinals baseball lineup to a 15-8 overall record and a somewhat unexpected Final 3 appearance in the Section 3AA playoffs.

Brooks and Waletich also co-led Fairmont to a 12-10 overall mark and a 2-2 record during the 2018 postseason tournament after taking over the Cardinals’ helm via the departure of head baseball mentor Todd Sukalski.

“The three of us were all fine with our coaching roles during that incredible 11-year stretch,” said Brooks, who — along with Waletich — served as both a varsity assistant and a B-squad coach during Sukalski’s record-setting tenure. “We all enjoyed baseball, and the combination worked because we all brought something different to the table from a coaching perspective.”

Fairmont compiled a staggering 203-71 record and .741 winning percentage from 2007-17, including the high school program’s single-season record for wins (25) and best single-season success rate (.925) during its 2014 Class AA state runner-up campaign. The Cardinals captured seven South Central or Big South Conference championships and made four state appearances, including a third-place showing in 2011 and a fourth-place performance in 2012.

Brooks, Sukalski and Waletich also played key roles in the development of former Kentucky Wildcat standout and current Northwest League Class A short season minor leaguer Luke Becker, current Abilene Christian ace right-hander Spencer Chirpich, current Minnesota State University, Mankato outfielder Jack Waletich and current Buena Vista University first baseman Tyler Tennyson.

“There’s no doubt about it, we’ve had some outstanding athletes come through our system. Hopefully, we had a hand in helping them emerge into the ball players and (well-rounded) people they are today,” Brooks said with a grin.

Brooks definitely played a key role in teaching the principles of the game to all of the above four players and many more when he, ironically, stepped down as Fairmont head varsity baseball coach in 2001.

“When I first came here to teach in 1994, I took over the varsity program in the spring,” said Brooks. “In 2001, I stepped down to spend more time with my family, including my own boys,” said Jerry Brooks. “The time the job required definitely put a lot of extra stress on Heidi in that she was raising our kids by herself, and I needed to step up and do my share of the parenting.”

The move paid two-fold in dividends as Jerry was able to spend more time with sons Zach, Brandon, Ryan and Casey, as a family, while also allowing him to create a summertime feeder system to the varsity.

“Tyrone Wacker from Jackson and I created what we called minor league baseball that involved fourth- and fifth-graders in the spring, and it carried over into the summer of 2002 to eventually become the I-90 League,” said Brooks. “In 2003, I helped lay the foundation for both the junior and pony leagues to create a three-tier program.

“Our initial goal was to get kids out of the house and playing a game that was close to real baseball. It really caught on and I think those players developed a real passion for the game that continues today in Fairmont.”

Now that he has officially exited the dugout one last time, what will Brooks miss about coaching?

“The life-long relationships that you build with the players, coaches and umpires is what I’ll miss the most by not being around the game in an official capacity,” said Brooks. “From a personal perspective, I’ll miss that time when everybody’s gone home, the sprinklers are turned on, and I’m getting the field ready for the next game.

“As (Sentinel photographer) Greg Abel said to me once, ‘You’re in your happy place.'”

Now, Brooks will find that solace a few thousand feet above the baseball diamond as he teaches a new generation of pilots.

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