By STEVE RUMAN
Jim Pankovits said he was “at ease and at home” Tuesday morning as he stood on the infield grass at Eastwood Field, surrounded by cameramen and reporters.
“This is my home, this is kind of what I have always known,” Pankovits said as he pointed to the baseball diamond and to the cameras. “This has been a part of me for my entire life.”
Pankovits, hired as the manager of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers in January, was formally introduced to the area Wednesday during the Scrappers’ media day festivities.
The Scrappers open their season Friday with a three-game homestand against West Virginia.
“I grew up in a baseball lifestyle,” Pankovits said. “My dad played and coached at the professional level. My earliest memories revolve around learning everything I know about the game through him.”
Indeed, Pankovits was thrust into the baseball spotlight at early age, and the light has never dimmed.
The Richmond, Va., native was just 12 in 1968 when his baseball team won a national title and advanced to the Little League World Series, where they fell to Japan 1-0.
“It’s crazy, one day you’re playing in the backyard, and the next thing you know you’re at Williamsport playing on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports,” Pankovits said. “That was an exciting time for a young kid. Even today, 50 years later, I still get calls about that team and that experience.”
In all, Pankovits participated in four World Series events. Out of high school he played in the Senior League World Series and the American Legion World Series. While an All-American infielder at the University of South Carolina, he was part of the 1976 Gamecocks team which advanced to the College World Series.
Following his junior year at South Carolina, Pankovits was drafted by the Houston Astros. At the Major League level, he hit .250 in six seasons, appearing in 318 games with Houston and Boston.
“I think I remember every day, every play, everything that happened,” Pankovits replied, when asked about his Major League debut. “Just to be part of this game, at any level, is special. To reach the highest level, it’s the ultimate reward.”
For Pankovits, the transition from player to coach was instantaneous. He ended his playing career in the fall of 1991 in AAA Boston. Weeks later, the Red Sox offered him the managerial position at the AA level.
“I knew while I was a player that coaching was in my future, but I was taken aback when the Red Sox offered me the job as quickly as they did,” Pankovits said. “I couldn’t pass it up. I loved the experience, and I’ve been at it ever since.”
Following his stint with Bostotn, Pankovits spent 16 seasons as a coach and manager in the Houston Astros organization. In fact, he visited Eastwood Field in 2010 when he managed Tri-City in the New York-Penn League. That team went on to win the NYPL championship.
Pankovits spent the past seven years with the Seattle Mariners organization, serving as an infield coordinator and manager for High-A Modesto.
“There are a lot of ways to teach this game, especially at this level, and I don’t think anyone ever quite masters it,” Pankovits said. “A lot of these kids, they are coming right out of high school or college. It’s a challenge getting a big group of players to adapt to the rigors of everyday play, to get comfortable in their new surroundings, to get acclimated to this level of play.”
“Early on, you don’t want to over manage. You just want to let the guys show what they can do.”
While fundamentals are stressed at the Short Season Class A level, Pankovits said that a winning environment is important at all levels of the game.
“Part of learning the game is learning to win, building a winning foundation,” Pankovits said. “So from that aspect, winning can be a huge tool in the overall picture.”
“We have quite a few players on this roster that played here last year and was part of the (Pinckney Division) title, and they share with the other players about how that was a valuable learning experience.”
Friday’s opener marks the start of the 20th season for the Scrappers in the Mahoning Valley. First pitch is slated for 7:05.