By Mark Schremmer
Globe Sports Writer
Gratitude is the word that comes to mind for P.J. Forbes and Pat Cedeno when they think of former Wichita State baseball coach Gene Stephenson.
You see, Stephenson and the Shockers’ coaching staff gave two kids from Pittsburg, Kan., the chance to play college baseball at the highest level. Forbes and Cedeno repaid Stephenson by helping Wichita State win the College World Series in 1989.
“All I have is gratitude for him and the entire staff,” said Forbes, who played at Wichita State from 1987-1990 and is now a manager for a minor league team in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. “This game is all about opportunity. Without the opportunity Wichita State gave me, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”
“I have nothing but good memories and gratitude for Coach Stephenson,” said Cedeno, who pitched for the Shockers from 1986-1989 and now works for Watco Companies in Pittsburg. “He gave me the opportunity to continue my education and play baseball. I’m able to do what I do today in no small part to the opportunity he gave me.”
Stephenson was fired on Tuesday after leading Wichita State to 1,837 victories, 20 conference championships, seven College World Series appearances and one national championship in his 36 years as head coach. He restarted the defunct baseball program in 1977 and had the Shockers in the NCAA tournament three years later.
“If you go back and look, he resurrected the program from nothing,” Cedeno said. “He had to recruit the first players. There was no equipment. There were no uniforms. In five years, he took the program from nothing to competing for a national championship.”
Despite all the success, Wichita State had struggled in recent seasons. The Shockers needed to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament this season to reach the NCAA regional for the first time since 2009. Wichita State lost to Arkansas and Kansas State at the regional.
According to The Associated Press, Stephenson was given an ultimatum to either resign or be fired.
Wichita State athletics director Eric Sexton indicated that now is the right time for the Shockers baseball program to move in a new direction.
“I was really disappointed to hear that it went down the way it did,” Cedeno said. “I’m probably like a lot of alumni who thinks Gene earned the right to go out on his own terms. Everybody retires. Everybody has to call it quits at some point, but I would sure like to believe there could have been a way to do this in a better manner.”
Under the direction of Stephenson, Cedeno and Forbes helped Wichita State win the ultimate prize in 1989.
Cedeno, a Pittsburg High graduate, posted a 13-4 record and earned second-team all-conference honors that season. Forbes, a second baseman for the Shockers who graduated from St. Mary’s-Colgan, received second-team all-Missouri Valley honors as a junior.
Forbes went on to play 13 seasons in the minor leagues and had stints in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles and the Philadelphia Phillies.
However, Forbes said his top baseball moment was winning the championship with Wichita State.
“Still, nothing compares to it,” Forbes said. “Of course, making it to the major leagues was great ... But that time and that group of people at Wichita State were just special. I still get goosebumps when I talk about it. I still consider some of those guys on that team as some of the best friends I have.”
Wichita State pitching coach Brent Kemnitz has been named the interim coach but will not be considered for the full-time job, according to The Associated Press. Sexton said a national search for the next coach will begin immediately.
Potential candidates that have surfaced in the media include Forbes and Wichita Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper. Forbes has managed in the minor leagues since 2004.
“If Wichita State calls, I’d love to talk to them,” Forbes said. “But I have not heard from them as of yet.”