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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Ritch, Ritchie Price savor second father-son stint with KU baseball

Kansas University assistant baseball coach Ritchie Price, left, talks with KU head coach Ritch Price, his father, during the Jayhawks’ victory over Oklahoma State on May 24, 2013, at the Big 12 Championship in Oklahoma City.

Kansas University assistant baseball coach Ritchie Price, left, talks with KU head coach Ritch Price, his father, during the Jayhawks’ victory over Oklahoma State on May 24, 2013, at the Big 12 Championship in Oklahoma City.

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When former Kansas University baseball player Robby Price graduated in 2010, it marked the end of an eight-year stretch in which KU coach Ritch Price could pencil at least one son into the Jayhawks’ lineup night in and night out.

Ritch, now in his 11th year at KU and 37th year in the coaching ranks, enjoyed the chance to coach his sons, Ritchie, Ryne and Robby, from 2003 to 2010, but knew that dream eventually would come to an end.

The days of one Price in the KU clubhouse did not last long, however, when less than two years later, oldest son Ritchie rejoined Ritch as a full-time assistant coach.

The road back to KU, where he starred as a shortstop and set more than 20 school records, wasn’t always straightforward for Ritchie. But as father and son just finished their second season of coaching together by guiding the Jayhawks to the Big 12 tournament title game and the doorstep of the NCAA Tournament, life is as sweet as ever for these two baseball junkies.

• • •

Ritchie’s path to his father’s staff included a three-season stint at South Dakota State, where he worked as one of the youngest head coaches in Div. I baseball. From 2009 to 2011, the latest in a long line of Price baseball coaches guided SDSU to 102 victories, delivered the school’s first men’s conference title of any kind since jumping to the D-I level and earned Summit League coach of the year honors. Ritchie was offered the KU assistant coaching job twice, but turned it down once before accepting it in 2011.

“When I went into coaching, the one thing I didn’t want to do was ride my dad’s coattails,” Ritchie said. “I wanted to do it myself and that’s why I went to South Dakota State initially. I really didn’t ever envision myself coming back and coaching with him at any point. But when the job opened up again, I was at the stage in my career where it was the right fit for me from a professional standpoint.”

Although disappointed that he missed out on adding a young, sharp baseball mind to his staff the first time, Ritch admired the way Ritchie handled his return.

“I was actually really proud of him,” Ritch said. “He’s very cognizant of the perception that he’s at KU because his dad’s the head coach. And one of the things I shared with him was something one of our administrators told me one time: ‘Don’t penalize him because of what his last name is.’”

That advice, along with the curiosity in Ritch’s own mind about what could be possible if he added a coach he once groomed, inspired the second offer. And that’s all it took for the two to reunite.

“I was looking for somebody that wanted to be in our dugout that was all Jayhawk,” Ritch said. “And that was him.”

• • •

Although KU’s overall record during the double-Price era has left a little to be desired, the move to bring Ritchie on staff largely has gone well. In addition to adding a young assistant who relates well to recruits and has baseball on his brain day and night, Ritchie has had success handling KU’s offense.

“I don’t say this because he’s my son,” Ritch said. “But he’s the smartest player I’ve ever coached. His baseball IQ is as high or higher than any assistant coach’s in the country.”

Never was that more evident than when Ritchie coached a team made up primarily of singles hitters to one of the better offensive seasons in the Big 12.

“We were offensively challenged,” Ritch admitted. “But we stole over 95 bases, we led our league in sacrifice flies, we led our league in sacrifice bunts, (senior shortstop Kevin) Kuntz led the country. It was a complete change of our style, but we had to do that. With our personnel, he managed our offense as good as it could’ve been done.”

Of course, there have been other benefits of coaching together, too, things that have nothing to do with baseball.

“The one thing I try to do, when we’re on the road, is to go to dinner with him each night after the games, just to take advantage of that time we have together,” Ritchie said. “We rarely talk about our team or the game itself. It’s more about our family or former players or whatever’s going on on ‘SportsCenter.’”

Added Ritch: “It’s given me somebody to just go to dinner with and relax and have a good time with. It’s been fabulous from that standpoint.”

• • •

One of the most memorable moments of their second year as coaching companions came late in the season during KU’s crucial three-game, home series against Kansas State.

The Wildcats came into Lawrence in first place in the Big 12, but, with a good weekend, the Jayhawks were in position to switch spots with them. It never happened. K-State swept KU in three hard-fought games and sent the Jayhawks into a momentary free-fall that may have cost them a chance at the postseason.

The losses stung, but something happened during that series that kept the weekend from being a total bust.

“In the sixth inning of the Friday night game, my wife comes to the door of the dugout and she’s hyperventilating,” Ritch recalled of his wife and Ritchie’s mother, Cindy. “And she says, ‘Ritchie’s gotta go to the hospital.’ So I looked down the dugout and I go, ‘(Number) Six, you’re gone.’”

Several hours later, Ritch’s first grandson was born. Ryan Alexander Price — named in part after Ritch’s father and Ritchie’s grandfather, R.A. Price — came into the world at 1:40 a.m. Saturday, May 11. And he got here in the nick of time.

“If we win that game, we’re in first place,” Ritch said weeks later but with an energy that made the loss seem just hours old. “That’s the devastation of that loss. But to have Ryan Alexander born later that night put the whole baseball experience in perspective.”

Ritch did not officially meet his first grandchild until later that morning, when he stopped by the hospital around 6:30 a.m. on his way to a recruiting breakfast.

“I’ve never seen him have a bigger smile on his face than when he walked in the door,” Ritchie said. “He was pretty excited to be a grandpa and that’s something I’ll never forget. He was there with me when we got the news, so that was pretty cool. It was definitely a huge bright spot for a bad weekend.”

As for how Ritch reacted to hearing his new grandson’s name?

“That’s pretty special,” Ritch said, choking back tears from the memories associated with the man who passed away 11 years ago. “My dad was my idol. And I miss him every day.”

• • •

Although he never knew that having dinner with his oldest son in Waco, Texas, or Morgantown, W.Va., would be a part of their lives some day, Ritch was confident that Ritchie eventually would step into the coaching box.

During his days as the head coach at Cal Poly prior to joining the Jayhawks, Ritch routinely got together with his assistant coaches on Friday nights, hunkered down in his home office and talked shop. They went over strategy, personnel, philosophy and scouting, and they had an eager observer every time.

“Ritchie would sit in the room with us and listen to every word,” Ritch recalled. “I knew from the time he was 5 years old that he was going to coach. And I knew he was gonna be good at it.”

Time has passed quickly, and baseball, for both Price men, remains a key part of their lives. It’s hard to say how much longer they’ll work together. Ritch thinks the end is just around the corner and Ritchie’s more open to going with the flow and seeing what happens.

“I enjoyed being a head coach,” Ritchie said. “But I’m also really enjoying being an assistant coach here. It’s kind of nice not writing the lineup card and pissing off all the players on a daily basis. You get to be everybody’s buddy.”

The mere mention of such an advantage sent Ritch into a fit of laughter, but the old veteran who’s seen it all in this game is not expecting Ritchie’s latest role to last.

“He earned the right to come back and, for me, that was the best part,” Ritch said. “I’ll tell you what, though, I know it’s short term. I have no doubts that by next year he’ll be a head coach some place. It’ll happen that fast for him. But having him here has been a really good thing.”

Comments

Adam Gerval 1 year, 6 months ago

"Although KU’s overall record during the double-Price era has left a little to be desired..." Nuff said.

jhwkr542 1 year, 6 months ago

Exactly. Not a whole lotta winning going on with Price. A quick look says the highest finish since 2006-2007 was 4th with most years in the bottom half of the conference, if not last.

HawkTronic 1 year, 6 months ago

Thanks for the great article. Can you share anything about recruiting for baseball? Seems to me we need to replace a couple pitchers and and significantly improve in hitting. Any chance that we are bringing in some guys to do that? Local guys have always done pretty well for KU - any prospects from LHS or FSHS?

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