Prep baseball: 'Shoe' Nelson leaving big shoes to fill
Spanish Fork • Jim "Shoe" Nelson sat in the desk of a small cinderblock classroom adjacent to the Spanish Fork High School gym where he teaches English. Pictures of smiling baseball players filled the corner wall behind him.
It's a humble place that fits the modest man with the strange nickname who many consider to be the best high school baseball coach Utah has ever produced.
"I'm known as Shoe by the students, faculty members and townspeople," laughed Nelson, a 1975 Spanish Fork High graduate who has worked at the school since graduating from Southern Utah State College in 1979 and plans to retire after this season. "The only one who calls me Jim is my wife, and then only if she is mad at me."
Nelson, who has been head baseball coach at his alma mater for 29 years, has compiled quite a record. With six games and probably a state tournament to play, his mark is 564 wins and 180 losses. His teams have won six state championships, taken second twice, third nine times and captured 16 region titles. Seventy-eight of his players have gone on to play college ball and one, Tyson Brummett, made it to the major leagues for a brief time. He has coached 63 all-staters. In 2011, the Dons won the state title with a 29-3 record. The American Baseball Coaches Association named him National Coach of the Year for that effort. In 29 years, he's had one losing season and that team still finished third in state.
Nelson is close to breaking the all-time Utah high school baseball win record held by former Pleasant Grove and Cottonwood High coach Jon Hoover.
"In my mind, Jon Hoover will always be the best coach in high school baseball," said Shoe, who could get to 570 wins or more to tie or break Hoover's record before the season ends. "I want our team to win, but I could not care less about passing him. Whatever happens, happens. It's not a priority of mine and not something I am worried about."
Nelson, whose team plays at a city-owned ballpark built in 1952 where he plans to still work summers as a groundskeeper after he retires, credits the community for much of his teams' successes over the years.
Driving around Spanish Fork, it's easy to see why. There seem to be beautiful, lighted baseball fields everywhere. The town's youth start in recreation leagues and graduate to little league, colt league, pony league and super league.
"Baseball is and will always be king in this community," said Nelson, who turned 57 Friday and played baseball, football and basketball at Spanish Fork High School. "We are known for our baseball. â¦ You kind of go to what you are good at. We seem to be fairly good at playing the game."
But, in chatting with four of this year's Spanish Fork players including Shoe's son Brock, the third of his three boys to play for their dad, an observer is also left with the impression that the man who keeps a worn baseball glove and ball in his classroom file drawer is more than just a baseball coach.
"He teaches you to be a better person in general," said Jade Nielsen, a catcher. "Coach always says that if you are a better person in school and around the community, you will be a better person on the field. â¦ He teaches you not to be the guy who is better than anyone, but that you have to work as a team."
Second baseman Cooper Thorpe said that since his dad works at the ballpark, he has been watching games and Shoe coach his entire life. He always wanted to be part of the program.
"It's a good feeling to know you have a National Coach of the Year with so much experience," said pitcher and third baseman Maverik Buffo. "He's coached a lot of good guys. When you play for him, you know you are going to have a competitive team."
Brock Nelson, who plays first base, said it will be weird not having Spanish Fork baseball in the family anymore.
Shoe, for his part, seems to relish memories of playing in baseball tournaments in St. George each March, where hundreds of Dons fans travel to support their teams, or the National Classic Tournament in Anaheim. And there are all those state titles, too.
"I always remember my first, in 1988," he said. "We won it on a walk-off home run by Eric Smith. A homeless guy in the outfield got the ball, jumped over the fence and ran it back in to give to him."
Nelson said today's high school players are bigger, faster and stronger than when he started. They play more games in a season and also during summer baseball and with travel teams.
"The coaching has changed, more than anything," he said. "We have better coaches. Back in the day, you'd take infield and hit a few and that was it. Now, we have four batting cages and we field freshman, sophomore, J.V. and varsity teams."
Shoe, who got his nickname when he was a young child and older family members would tell him to "shoo" when he tried to weasel into a game, has few regrets. The worst thing, he said, is having to cut kids who grew up wanting to be part of the program.
He worries that fewer and fewer coaches stay in the business for long, largely because they get tired of dealing with parents. He said a big percentage of parents are supportive, but a vocal minority can make life miserable for a coach.
"No coach is trying to do a bad job," he said.
And it's obvious that, in 29 years as a head coach and earlier times as an assistant, Shoe Nelson has never done a bad job.
By the numbers • Jim 'Shoe' Nelson
• 29 years as head baseball coach at Spanish Fork.
• Record of 564-180 with the remainder of this season to play.
• Teams have won six state championships and 16 region titles. His 2011 team finished the season ranked second in the nation.
• Coached 63 all-staters, 78 players who received college scholarships to play baseball, and one major leaguer.
• National coach of the year in 2011.
• Graduated from Spanish Fork High in 1975 and, after graduating from CEU and SUU, has spent his entire career at his alma mater.