That Jim McDermott still relies on his eyes, his instincts and the occasional need to shout at his players makes him a dinosaur in the eyes of some. The Mount Olive High School baseball coach, however, isn’t ready for extinction just yet.
McDermott, 57, has been a staple at Mount Olive for nearly two decades and has lived a life intertwined with baseball. Though there are some coaches his age, who employ his style, that are looking to wind down and start thinking about retirement, McDermott is simply thinking about baseball.
He’s thinking about how he’ll manage the games during the remainder of the 2018 season. He’s thinking about the fall when he begins his countdown to spring training and he’s more than likely already mapping out the pitching rotation for the 2019 season.
“People ask me all the time how long will I be doing this,” the Randolph, N.J. native said. “I’ll stop doing it when, in November, I don’t start counting down the days until practice begins. I look forward to that every day of the year. The old adage is that if you find something you love to do, it’s never a day of work.
“This is fun; I love being here. I’ll die in the dugout or in the third-base coaching box. Bury me with my fungo [bat].”
It’s that intense love of baseball that not only inspires McDermott’s players but has helped make him one of the most successful high school coaches in the State. He’s brought respectability back to the Mount Olive program, winning a pair of NJSIAA Sectional titles. He guided the Marauders to their first Sectional title in more than two decades in 2014 and added another the following year. Mount Olive reached the Sectional semis again last year before bowing out to a talented Ridgewood squad.
McDermott employs an old-school approach – he’s not big on the analytics that have taken over the game – relying more on what he sees than what the numbers say. Consider the Marauders 2014 Sectional title game against Cranford. Chris Grillo, who is now playing at Muhlenberg College (Pa.), threw 10 shutout innings in a game that Mount Olive would go on to win 1-0 when Grillo stole home in the 11th.
“I’m not a cyber metrics fan,” McDermott said. “You have to take the eye test. Now, because a pitcher reaches a certain pitch count, they take him out. But some kids, like Grillo in 2014, you don’t have to. He threw 120 pitches in 10 innings and they couldn’t touch him.
“I’m not easy to play for. I get on them a little. But they know they have to check their feelings before they get in the locker room. When you are here, you do what’s best for Mount Olive baseball. Shape up or ship out because someone is coming for your spot. I’m not yelling at them personally, but they see the time and effort the coaches put in and they realize if they can do it, I can do it.”
McDermott’s career dates back long before he arrived in Mount Olive in 2002. The Seton Hall grad has crisscrossed North Jersey, coaching at his alma mater along with The County College of Morris, Fairleigh Dickinson-Madison and the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. He began coaching as an assistant at FDU when he was a senior in college and later became the youngest (28) Division III coach in the country when he took over the program in 1989.
He’s accomplished all that despite not being the best of players in his youth. McDermott began coaching when he was 18, taking over a Morris County Major League team. He admits, though, that “he stunk” as a player and only tried out for the high school baseball team as a senior.
“I was the ninth-string catcher warming up the pitcher in between innings,” McDermott said.
Historically some of the game’s best role players become managers and coaches and McDermott is no different. He’s been able to use his love and knowledge of baseball in the dugout rather than the field and the results are impressive. He’s put one player in the pros and 17 others in college ball, including Grillo, Chris Neuhaus (Kings College, Pa.) and Bobby Shannon (Ramapo College, NJ). The trio are all currently excelling on the collegiate level and each points to McDermott as a big reason why.
“He was really the type of coach, where wanted to earn his respect because of everything he accomplished in his career up until the time he was coaching our high school team,” Grillo said. “He held us to a certain standard, so much so that we expected something of ourselves because of the way he treated us as students and athletes. He held us to high standards and wanted what was best for us and that was really rewarding.
“He had college experience and he got away from that whole daddy ball aspect of baseball. The best players were going to play and it didn’t matter who you were or what you did before high school. People were going to earn their positions and it didn’t matter whether you were a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. The best players were going to play and he made that very clear from the beginning. It was different from middle school because kids earned a spot rather than playing because of who was coaching.”
McDermott doesn’t discriminate, either. His son Scott was playing on the West Morris High School freshman team when it came up against Mount Olive. The younger McDermott knew his father would likely tell his pitcher to throw one high and tight and that was okay. It’s part of the coach’s style.
“I told him don’t dig in,” Jim McDermott said.
Scott McDermott is now 26 and lives in Baltimore. His sister Andrea (24) lives in Hartford while his other sister Valerie (19) is a freshman at The University of Scranton. All three remain close to their dad and mom, Dawn. The couple celebrated their 30th anniversary last month and baseball has been a big part of the family life as well.
The younger McDermott served as a ball boy at Seton Hall when his dad was working under legendary Pirates coach Mike Sheppard. He attended Bloomsburg College (Pa.) and when the semester ended each May, he’d join his dad’s staff as a coach and scout other teams. The father and son went to scout the opposition again as recently as last month, taking in a Saturday doubleheader when Scott was home on a visit from Maryland.
“He does an excellent job [scouting],” Jim McDermott said.
Jim McDermott wasn’t always a full-time baseball coach, though. He began working at a title insurance agency in Morristown as a senior in high school, working there summers and when returning on breaks from college. He would end up spending 20 years there but the job became too much when, while coaching at Seton Hall, McDermott would burn most of his vacation time going away for spring training, road trips, the Big East and NCAA Tournaments.
“You’d go to UConn or drive to Pittsburgh or West Virginia,” said McDermott, who has more than 100 career wins at Mount Olive but doesn’t pay close enough attention to know the exact total. “I loved it but I had a wife and three kids. I had a degree in teaching so at that point I got into teaching. I wanted a change of pace.
“I never thought that I would be doing this [coaching] this long. It’s something I really like. I enjoy the competition and the mental side of the game.”
When McDermott eventually does retire he said he wouldn’t mind getting into professional scouting. Lee Seras, the director of northeast scouting for the Cincinnati Reds who lives in nearby Flanders, coached with McDermott at The County College of Morris and FDU. McDermott has shadowed him on occasion and likes the idea of baseball being part of his retirement.
“I learned a lot watching Lee Seras,” said McDermott, who teaches health and physical education in another district. “It’s something I wouldn’t mind getting into. He took me to the [Major League Baseball] draft once and we walk in down on the floor and we ran into [former Yankee pitcher] Andy Pettitte. He pitched at San Jacinto Junior College when we were at Morris and we beat them in the [Junior] College World Series when he was pitching. He remembered.”
No doubt McDermott’s players will remember him in years to come. He works to instill values in them that go far beyond baseball. He stresses the importance of giving back to the community and helping others.
“I try to get the kids to understand how fortunate they are to play this great game,” McDermott said. “Colin Berg, our freshman scorekeeper, has Acute Linfoblastick Leukemia and has been battling cancer for two-and-a-half years.”
McDermott had Berg, then a seventh-grader, throw out the first pitch of the 2016 Mount Olive season and also had Berg jerseys made for his players that they wore during the game.
“It’s important,” McDermott said. “This year we are supporting autism awareness. We have blue laces in our spikes and we’re going to have an autism awareness day in May. We will bring out some kids out who are less fortunate than we are and give them a chance to see the great game of baseball.”