The long run home: Stalwart Spartan volunteer coach retires after 30 years of baseball

Give a cheer for Hammerin’ Hank, and worship the Sultan of Swat.

Recall Americana incarnate in Joltin’ Joe, and save a space for Seattle’s own Big Unit.

The yesteryears of America’s favorite game are peppered with larger-than-life legends, their equally iconic monikers, and a near-religious reverence for the men behind them.

Around the dugouts, pitcher’s mounds and outfields of Bainbridge Island, though, nobody is quite so beloved as the man called Mez.

For 31 total years — from T-ball to C-team to the varsity squad — Gregg “Mez” Mesmer has been a volunteer assistant coach for Bainbridge baseball. The island-based glass artist (one half, along with Diane Bonciolini, of the dynamic duo behind Mesolini Glass Studio) has watched his proteges grow into coaches, and seen Bainbridge, the country and the sport he loves go through a generation’s worth of change in his time in the game.

This year, as the Spartans marched once more into postseason play, chasing a shot at the state title, Mesmer confirmed the whispered rumors regarding his intended retirement.

It was, he said, time at last to hit the showers.

“I would never have dreamed of having had the success and the fun throughout it,” Mesmer said. “This is a huge part of my life.”

A fateful finale

A number of factors, Mesmer said, solidified his decision: a desire to refocus on his art and business, and also the chance to support Bonciolini in her increasing involvement in the new Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network, as well as what he characterized as an often lackadaisical level of support for baseball on the part the school’s administration. The Spartan home field was literally unplayable for the entire past season, the scoreboard only just recently repaired after being broken for several years.

“A big part of the decision is to let Diane have the BARN,” he said. “This could be her baseball, if you will, because she’s so involved with it — and rightly so. She’s good at it. She’s good with people and people like working with her and she’s a good ambassador for the glass world, always has been.

“A slice of the pie is administration and maintenance,” he added. “The lack of communication between the two, and the lack of demand of the administration to get maintenance to do it, to come through. Everyone’s getting paid, a good job, they’re getting health benefits and they get paid vacation. That’s one thing Mesolini’s never had. And yet I’m not judging anyone. This is my choice. I’m totally at piece with what I do.”

To say Mesmer was a great influence on the players and his fellow coaches is woefully inadequate, said BHS teacher and former baseball team Head Coach Simon Pollack, a longtime friend and former student of the most stalwart Spartan.

“Gregg has been part of my baseball life for as long as I can remember baseball,” Pollack said. “When I was drafted onto the A’s, of Bainbridge Little League’s Majors Division, he was my coach. And ever since then he has been in my corner, supporting me personally and professionally.”

There was an indefinable comfort, a reassurance, to Mesmer’s dependable presence, Pollack said. And it was felt by coaches and players alike.

“Gregg’s knowledge of baseball is amazing,” he said. “And I’m not sure you could find a more reflective, insightful, supportive or professional high school assistant coach anywhere. He is both heartfelt and old-school tough. His love of the game and his mentorship has meant the world to hundreds of young men on the field, and young minds in the classroom with his presence in the island’s art community.”

Casting a long shadow

Mesmer’s influence was wide-reaching, his example drawing admiration from everyone who knew him — and that’s no small club. He was the instantly recognizable face of the program, known to coaches and officials alike around the state.

He can, with jaw-dropping ease, recall plays from games many years past, and, with a quick glance around a crowded field, tell a curious fan the future prospects and up-and-comers to watch on any Metro team.

Mesmer knew everyone, and everyone knew him.

“[Mesmer] remembers every boy that’s ever played for him,” current BHS baseball Co-Head Coach Doug McCombs said in the wake of this year’s final game. His absence from the field, the coach said, would undoubtedly be a blow to the program moving forward.

“He has so much to offer,” McCombs said. “I talk to the boys about passion? That guy has all the passion in the world and he brings it every day, and what he has to add is immeasurable. His passion, his love for the boys — he truly loves these guys and wants them to go off and do great things. And he thinks that baseball is a perfect avenue to do that.”

BHS athletic trainer Amanda Sageser said she’d also miss Mesmer and his indomitable optimism.

“When I think of all the interactions I’ve had with Gregg over the past four years, it just makes me feel so great,” she said. “He is a guy that I am always happy to see, and he makes me feel like he’s just as happy to see me.

“He brings an ease and brightness to the coaching staff, and I’m so incredibly sad to see him go. I know that he put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the BHS baseball program, and he will be truly missed.”

BHS Athletic Director Kaycee Taylor said though island student athletes of all sports benefit from the involvement of many quality coaches and volunteers, that even among such excellent company Mesmer was in a league of his own.

“He always impressed me as someone who loved the game and the players in equal amounts,” Taylor said. “There are few people who are willing to work the long hours, ride the bus, spend every afternoon, and some weekends, doing what Gregg did for so long on a volunteer basis.”

For Mesmer, though, being an unpaid volunteer only added to the sanctity of the experience.

“We’re real fortunate, real blessed to be here doing what we’re doing,” Mesmer said. “Practice what you preach, and my thing has always been volunteering. I’m here if you need me. If somebody wants to cut you a check, I guess they can cut you a check. But, more than anything, our community has always been one of volunteering. It’ll be 40 years this September [since] we moved here, and we wouldn’t be where we’re at without community support.”

It’s another lesson he has strived to impart on the players.

“Like I tell them, that which you need to succeed in life you can’t buy at Costco,” Mesmer said. “Costco’s fun and all, but respect? And courtesy and kindness and mutual fair play?”

Style, substance

Mesmer said his own style of coaching was effective because he was constantly searching for ways to imply the bigger picture. The game is so very rarely, he said, about the score itself.

“Coaching baseball’s a fun thing … but the best part of it is it’s really paralleling to real life,” he said. “I think that’s the real message: Sure, ‘Pitch by pitch,’ or, ‘Inning by inning,’ but, just like life, it’s day by day. And every day you get another at bat. If you make an error you should get a shot at redeeming yourself. I think that’s the beauty of the game itself. All the other things tend to be distractions.”

He imparts such advice in a soft-spoken casual manner — often with a quick smirk or a wink — even in the heat of the moment, a style that’s long resonated with the players.

“I’m not one for in your face,” Mesmer said. “Where, nowadays, in your face works — unfortunately — that’s just not the way I do things. Even when it was vogue to be in your face — we kind of go through that pendulum and cycle through society and time — I’ve never been that one. I’ve never seen positive results out of being in somebody’s face. I’ve never seen anything come out of it that’s beneficial for the situation.”

In a culture where it’s easier than ever to choose to disengage, Pollack said Mesmer’s brand of selfless dedication is a truly priceless example for the players who have worn Bainbridge colors through the decades.

“I think many people underestimate the knowledge, intensity, loyalty and friendship he has — which is too bad for them,” Pollack said.

Perhaps the greatest thing about baseball, though, is that no player is truly an island. The greats must do well both alone at the plate and together in the field to win. In that, Mesmer again proved a sterling example, as he had another very special teammate behind him off the field, Pollack said. One whom he was always ready to brag about.

“He could not do what he does for others if he didn’t have such a wonderful person in his corner,” Pollack said. “His wife Diane has been a friend of mine, as well, for many years.”

“I certainly couldn’t do it by myself,” Mesmer agreed. “I’m really grateful for the support and the help that I’ve got throughout the years.”

Team effort

By parents, players, former player and other coaches, too, Mesmer said, he’s always felt encouraged and supported on Bainbridge — which has made passing that feeling on to the players all the easier.

“I’m a person that really likes to compliment a situation,” he said. “I’m not comfortable with attention toward me.

“I love being the guy on the sidelines, ready to jump in and support.”

Mesmer adamantly credits the community, and the players it has produced, for allowing him the opportunity to succeed in his favorite sport for so long.

“The kids are usually dynamite because they come from dynamite families,” he said. “It’s our community.

“Is the glass half full or half empty? Neither. It’s bubbling over.”

The long run home: Stalwart Spartan volunteer coach retires after 30 years of baseball