No one truly comes into or leaves this world on his own terms. But Mike Sheppard, Sr., the Lion of Seton Hall University, controlled what little he could at the end.
While “Coach Shep” was slipping slowly from this world on Saturday, April 6, his sons Michael, Rob and John, were coaching their baseball teams as they would on most spring Saturdays.
“We didn’t know it, but the order went out (from mom, Phyllis Sheppard) through the wives, not to interfere with the sons’ baseball games,” said Mike Sheppard, Jr., in his 33rd year as the Seton Hall Prep baseball coach. “That’s the way dad wanted it.”
John Sheppard was coaching his Morristown Beard squad and Rob Sheppard, who had taken over for his dad at Seton Hall University in 2004, was coaching the Pirates in Philadelphia at Villanova University.
“After my game, my wife came up to me,” said Mike, Jr. “John and I got to hospital on time, about 3:10 p.m. Dad died at 3:40 p.m. Rob unfortunately didn’t make it. Dad had his ups and downs the past six months. He took a turn for the worse last week.”
Like in his life, there was a certain stubbornness and beauty in that last order from the old Marine, Phyllis, of course, incredibly loyal right to the very end. Sheppard, Sr. died on Saturday, April 6 at age 82. Visitation is Friday 2 p.m.-7 p.m. at Walsh Gymnasium on the campus of Seton Hall University in South Orange. A Funeral Mass will be heard on Saturday at 10 a.m., also at Walsh Gymnasium. Could there be a more appropriate setting?
“He was a good guy who had a rough exterior,” said oldest son Mike, Jr. “But those who got to know him, know he was a compassionate and caring person. We certainly know that by the calls we’ve received the past couple days. We are hearing stories about how wonderful he was to so many people.”
It’s been a terrible stretch for the New Jersey baseball community as it was still mourning the March 2 death of longtime Rutgers coach Fred Hill. Sheppard, Sr. and Hill were fierce competitors on the field. Rob Sheppard witnessed that first hand as a player and assistant coach with his dad. Rob’s comment after Hill died can just as easily be applied to his own father.
“Coach Hill was called old school,” said Rob Sheppard. “Men from that era are genuine, good family men. They tell you how they feel about something. Freddy’s relationship with my dad and mom grew the last several years.”
Sheppard, Sr. was truly a legend in New Jersey baseball circles and his name resonates nationally for the outstanding Seton Hall teams and players he coached, including Hall of Famer Craig Biggio. The longtime Houston Astros second baseman loved his old college coach, often inviting him to Houston to visit at the stadium.
During Biggio’s 2015 induction speech in Cooperstown, he singled out Sheppard in the crowd.
“My college coach was Mike Sheppard. He was a tough man; he was a Marine. He was a disciplinarian, but he kept you in line,” said Biggio, looking at Sheppard. “Most of all, he loved his players and he had their backs no matter what. Coach Shep’s motto was, ‘Never lose your hustle,’ which is something I took to my pro career. I’m very grateful to have played for you, Shep. Thank you.”
Coach Shep amassed a 998-540-11 record in 31 seasons (1973-’03) at Seton Hall University, guiding the Pirates to 15 Big East Tournament appearances and 12 trips to the NCAA Tournament. Seton Hall reached the College World Series in 1974 and ‘75 and won a Big East title in 1987 with Biggio, Mo Vaughn, Martese Robinson, John Valentin and company. Sheppard’s son, John, was the second baseman on that ’87 team.
Jack Cust, Sr., the owner of Diamond Nation in Flemington, N.J., played first base for Sheppard, Sr. in 1973 and ‘74, the latter being Shep’s first College World Series qualifier.
“There are certain people you meet that have a profound effect on your life,” said Cust. “Coach Shep was at the top of that list for me. He was a legendary coach with tremendous coaching records and accomplishments. He taught lessons of life and wanted his players to be the best they can be on the field, off the field and in the classroom.”
Cust’s son, Mike, the assistant general manager at Diamond Nation, was a freshman during Sheppard, Sr.’s last season at Seton Hall University. “Coach Shep always made you work hard to earn your spot on the team,” said Mike Cust. “Nothing was ever handed to anyone playing for Shep.”
Sheppard, Sr. was named Big East Coach of the Year in 1985, ‘87 and ‘89. His teams won 40 or more games, five times, 30 or more games, 22 times and 20 or more games 30 times. All five Sheppard children — Mike, Jr., Susan, Kathleen, John and Rob — are Seton Hall University grads. Mike, Jr., John and Rob starred at Seton Hall Prep and played for their dad at the University. Susan’s husband is St. John’s University coach Ed Blankmeyer. Kathy played softball scholastically at East Orange Catholic. Phyllis Sheppard has certainly taken in more baseball games, in person, the past 40 years than any woman in the nation. And she’s taken some swings herself, we hear.
At the center of this family baseball business was that tough old Marine with the big heart.
“He was tough but always had your back,” said Jack Cust. “I’m sure I speak for the many players that had the honor of playing for Shep when I say that we wouldn’t be where we are today without his tutelage. I’m sure he’s up in baseball heaven with his friend and rival, Coach Hill, trying to find a way to go at it again. Shep has had one remarkable and unforgettable life.
The example Sheppard put forth in baseball and life spawned a phalanx of coaches around the state and nation, none more obvious than his own sons and son-in-law, the affable Blankmeyer. Mike, Jr. is on pace to eventually become New Jersey high schools all-time wins leader. Rob has surpassed 400 wins at Seton Hall University, John has more than 400 wins at Morristown Beard and Blankmeyer just passed 800 wins in his 24th season at St. John’s.
“I fell into coaching by default,” John Sheppard told Jim Hague of the Morristown Daily Record in 2016. “Dad told me all these nice things about coaching and I realized that this was the greatest thing.”
It all started with a young man’s wish to make a worthy contribution in life.
“My dad went into coaching because he wanted to make a difference,” said Mike Sheppard, Jr. “He felt education and coaching was the best way. He was very proud of his sons and nephews, the Byrons. It went beyond immediate family. The apples didn’t fall far from the tree.”
Vinny and Tim Byron, the sons of Phyllis Sheppard’s sister, contribute further to the remarkable lineage. Both played for Shep at Seton Hall University and both went into coaching. Tim, the longtime Old Tappan coach, won his 500th career game in early 2017. Vinny, a 30-year superstar in his own right in the Essex County Prosecutors office, found time to coach as an assistant at a number of high schools before a couple-year stint assisting at Rutgers Newark.
Blankmeyer, of course, was one of those major building blocks for Sheppard, Sr. at Seton Hall University.
“We lost a great man,” Blankmeyer tweeted on Monday. “My coach, my mentor, my friend, my father-in-law. A winner who touched and positively influenced so many. Thanks for everything. We miss you but know you are with us. Love you, Shep. I will never lose my hustle. Blanky.”
Sheppard, Sr. was a heck of a ball player himself and few were better fitted for the position of catcher. He played in the late 1950s for the great and late Seton Hall University coach Owen T. Carroll. Carroll retired after the 1972 season and Sheppard, who had been coaching at Vailsburg High School in Newark, took the reins at Seton Hall University.
Sheppard fielded one strong team after another and boasted some of the best talent from New Jersey in nearby states. He nabbed future major leaguers Rick Cerone of Essex Catholic in Newark, Charlie Puleo of Bloomfield and Brooklyn’s Dan Morogiello.
He truly mined gold in a first recruiting class that included Cerone, righthander Marty Caffrey and infielder Rico Bellini. Blankmeyer was recruited next. Cerone and Bellini played on both the 1974 and ’75 CWS teams.
Shep’s first catcher was Cerone, a more gritty grinder and competitor he couldn’t have found anywhere else in the nation but Newark, N.J. Cerone would play parts of 18 major league seasons, seven with the Yankees and one with the Mets.
“Shep was my friend, my mentor and my inspiration,” said Cerone, reached by text on Tuesday morning. “He helped me become a man with his tough love.” Cerone was a quarterback in high school, too, and had scholarship offers in that sport as well.
Caffrey pitched in the 1974 College World Series with Shep and he boasted a national best 1.17 ERA in his junior season. He would play two seasons of Class-A ball with the Yankees.
“We were mostly a metropolitan baseball program back in the 70’s,” said Caffrey. “Then Shep came on board in ’73 and changed the thinking of not only the players but the school as well. He pushed us to think bigger, get bigger and to get better, as a player and as a person. Practices were transformed to accomplish all of that. We were disciplined. We learned the fundamentals.
“We were emotionally transformed as well by Shep immediately. We started to believe we were good as a team and as individuals. In ’74, we made our first spring trip to Miami and almost knocked off No. 1 ranked and undefeated Miami, losing in 10 innings. We went on to the College World Series that year and then the following year as well. The program was forever changed.”
Bellini was an outstanding infielder who went on to play four seasons in the Cleveland Indians chain, reaching Double-A ball.
“Shep gave me the tools to compete, become a good teammate and show, by example, what a leader father and friend is,” said Bellini. “After my parents, Shep shaped my adult life more than anyone. He’ll be missed by many.”
Shep’s 1980s stars who headed to the major leagues included Biggio, John Valentin, Moe Vaughn, Kevin Morton, Pat Pacillo, Rich Scheid, John Morris and Tony DeFrancesco. In the ‘90s, Mike Moriarty, Matt Morris and Jason Grilli all ascended to ‘The Show.’
Jim Duffy, a terrific hitting first baseman and four-year starter (1993-’96) at Seton Hall University, is another player who followed his mentor into coaching.
Triple-bypass surgery sidelined Sheppard for the entire 2001 season, during which Rob Sheppard took over as the interim head coach while Duffy served as an assistant. Shep would return for two more seasons before turning it all over to Rob for the long haul.
Duffy, now an assistant at Rutgers, coached seven years at Seton Hall before a successful tenure as the head coach at Manhattan in 2011-’17.
“More than a coach, Shep taught the game of life,” tweeted Duffy on Monday. “A man of faith, family and grit. His players were taught the value of hard work, honesty and integrity. He helped mold me into the husband, father and coach I am today. One of the most influential people in my life. RIP #17.”
Sheppard, Sr. was inducted into the Newark Athletics Hall of Fame in 1988, the Seton Hall University Hall of Fame in 1996 and had his No. 17 jersey retired by the school in 2004. The most prestigious honor, of course, was his induction into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2011. Nothing matches the admiration of your peers.
It is very possible that the old Marine retired into his best position of all, certainly one he embraced with gusto. He and Phyllis essentially were on tour the past 15 years, first following their boys’ coaching exploits, then chasing one grandchild after another, girls as well as boys, on the high school and college diamonds, fields and tracks of New Jersey and beyond.
“Being the oldest son, I was probably with him more as a kid, tagging along,” said Mike, Jr. “He certainly was a big influence. I thought maybe I could do what he was doing.” That seemed to be a theme running through his father’s entire coaching life.