It took a catcher with skin thicker than his coach’s nose was hard for the Kansas University baseball team to go to a place where it never had been and hasn’t gone since.
KU reached the College World Series in 1993 in large part because coach Dave Bingham, an intensely demanding coach, quickly identified the right guy to bring out the best in teammates and rode him hard.
Jeff Niemeier, the catcher from Kansas City, and several teammates joined Bingham at Lawrence Country Club on Friday for the start of a 20-year reunion weekend. The team will be honored before today’s game against Kansas State at Hoglund Ballpark.
“He was a guy who took an amazing amount of abuse from Bingham for three years at KU because Bingham saw what the potential was,” said left-hander Tom Stewart, who employs Niemeier as the sales manager of his company, Apollo Surgical Group. “Bingham was great to pull it out of him, and he got it out of him. It was some of the most embarrassing stuff I’ve ever seen, in terms of the way a coach treated a player, and I didn’t understand it at the time. But I understood it after. He knew he was the leader, and he knew he could build a team around him.”
Niemeier said Bingham never wavered from saying he was going to build something special at Kansas.
“I remember him making the statement there has been baseball for 100 years, and we have a thousand wins, which sounds like a lot, until you realize that’s 10 wins a year,” Niemeier said. “When he was recruiting me, it wasn’t, ‘I hope Kansas gets a little better while you’re here.’ It was, ‘If you’re tough enough and want to win and win big, you should come here.’ He wanted to play for the highest stakes. And he really had no reason to believe that could happen, but he believed it.”
Bingham recalled Niemeier showing strong leadership right off the bat.
“I’ll never forget this,” he said. “It’s what made the whole thing happen in ’93. We were in fall ball, I was ranting and raving and pushing, and we had some older kids who were really disturbed and couldn’t manage it. Jeff took the five other freshmen into Oliver Hall and sat ’em down and said, ‘I know this is really tough right now. I don’t understand exactly what is going on, but I believed in this guy when I came here to go to school. And I think you should, and you should and you should and you should and you should.’ That’s leadership.”
Bingham is convinced Niemeier planted the seeds for the 1993 College World Series in the fall of 1989.
“He’s absolutely a powerful, dynamic leader, way mature beyond his years to stand up in a situation like that, when everything around you is not right,” Bingham said. “The kids can’t get it. This guy is bickering. That guy is bickering. They are worried about how this guy is reacting. To take a freshman who stood up and said, ‘I’m in, and I think you guys should be in with me,’ he took those guys through the whole way.”
Niemeier doesn’t claim to be so tough as to not have needed help keeping his spirits up. He credits assistant coaches Brad Hill, now Kansas State head coach, and Wilson Kilmer for supporting him.
“(Bingham) could really rip you, and you could go to those guys and they could make you feel better, but they’d deliver the same message,” Niemeier said. “It was, ‘Listen to what he says, not how he’s saying it,’ but the message was reinforced across the whole staff all the time.”
The loyalty of the assistants to Bingham was a key, Niemeier said, as was the veterans helping the young players to get through it.
“When you’re a young guy and you come into Bingham’s program, there’s a shock factor to it,” Niemeier said. “It’s like, ‘What’s going on?’ The guy could be crazy. If you have that loyalty all through it, it gets really unstoppable. And then what’s really crazy, the head coach doesn’t have to go nuts anymore. Our senior year, very rarely was he mad and lighting people up. And then what you come to realize was he was ripping us for two or three years because we were wrong.”
Bingham thought so highly of Niemeier he had him call all the pitches his junior and senior seasons.
During the final practice in Lawrence before the team left for the NCAA Tournament regional in Knoxville, Tenn., Niemeier heard something pop in his foot while taking batting practice. It began to ache on the flight, and a Tennessee physician diagnosed him with a fracture. He was in a cast and on crutches for the duration of the regional, a severe blow to the team considering the dropoff in experience and talent between Niemeier and his backup.
“He walks out on the field in crutches, and we’re all like, ‘We’re doomed. We’ve lost the heart and soul of our team. What do we do? How are we going to rebound from this?’” Stewart said.
Niemeier helped to answer that question.
“Jeff was basically the leader from the dugout to nurse Jack Wilmot through that time,” Bingham said. “Any other kid could have pouted. This is the biggest thing that ever happened in his life, the regional championship and the possibility to go to Omaha, and he was completely unselfish about it.”
Leaders tend to get right to the point.
“I remember I went to his hotel room, knocked on the door and said, ‘‘You’re not very good, but you’re going to have to be good this weekend because I’m not going to be the reason that this thing goes south.’ What he had to do for that team was be good, and he really was,” Niemeier said. “He blocked pitches that he couldn’t block. He threw a guy out at second base, and they didn’t try to steal on him the rest of the weekend. He got two or three bunts down.”
Wilmot wasn’t alone in playing well. Second baseman Jeff Berblinger, a September call-up in 1997 for the St. Louis Cardinals, got hot with the bat. Jimmy Walker, whose three-inning saves became routine, started the regional championship game, went 10 innings and defeated Fresno State. (Berblinger, Niemeier and Walker were All-Americans). Freshman Jamie Splittorff pitched like a veteran. Stewart retired Tennessee’s Todd Helton.
By the time Niemeier left Knoxville, the pain in his foot had vanished. The Kansas team doctor had a different diagnosis than the one made in Tennessee, and the catcher was cleared to play. Things didn’t go as well for the Jayhawks once they reached Omaha, which is why most of the talk during the weekend no doubt will center more on Knoxville.
Even when he couldn’t play, Niemeier was there for the ’93 Kansas baseball team. On Friday, teammates made sure they were there for him, showing him a good time on the golf course on a day that started with him hearing tough news. His grandmother died at the age of 95.
“For 52 years of marriage, she made my grandfather (a cattle farmer in Marceline, Mo.) pancakes from scratch every single morning,” Niemeier said proudly.
He inherited the consistency gene.
“He’s a born leader,” Stewart said. “He’s that way in our organization as well. He’s our sales manager. He understands what it takes to win and doesn’t compromise morals to win. He does it right. He understands you can win if you do things right.”
Bingham understood that, too. The coach and the catcher never stopped making each other better.