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Disabato: Lewis to retire the number of legendary baseball coach ‘Irish’ O’Reilly

Lewis retiring number former baseball coach Irish O'Reilly. | Supplied photo

Lewis retiring the number of former baseball coach Irish O'Reilly. | Supplied photo

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Updated: April 28, 2014 10:09AM



If Irish O’Reilly had his way, he’d allow other baseball players and coaches at Lewis the opportunity to wear the No. 14 he proudly donned for 29 years as the university’s baseball coach.

It’s a number that is near and dear to O’Reilly’s heart. He wore it since he was 8 years old until he retired at age 63 in 2007 as Lewis coach.

“I was fascinated by a ballplayer by the name of Ernie Banks,” O’Reilly said of “Mr. Cub,” who wore No. 14. “I emulated his batting style; my bat placement was a lot like his. It was important for me to wear No. 14, and I always found a way to negotiate getting that number. I would have gotten enjoyment out of seeing other players and coaches wear it at Lewis and get enjoyment out of it like I did.”

As of Saturday, that no longer will be an option. Lewis is retiring O’Reilly’s No. 14 at 11:30 a.m., 30 minutes prior to a scheduled doubleheader against Saint Joseph’s. His number will join that of former coach Gordie Gillespie (36) and one of O’Reilly’s former players, Chris Priest (8), on the outfield wall of Brennan Field.

It’s a nice gesture, but one that’s long overdue and doesn’t measure up to the contributions and impact O’Reilly, 69, made to the university and baseball program.

With all due respect to the two men who guided the program before O’Reilly — Gillespie and Tom Dedin — and the man in charge these days — Tim McDonough — when you think of Lewis baseball, one name comes to mind: Henry “Irish” O’Reilly.

In name alone, Irish O’Reilly ranks among college baseball royalty. However, his accomplishments at Lewis earned him entry into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame — though, Lewis hasn’t inducted him into its Hall of Fame and should be ashamed.

He won 982 games — most in program history — and boasts a .560 winning percentage at Lewis. He led five teams to the Division II national championships, produced 41 All-Americans and had 51 players sign pro contracts. He was Great Lakes Valley Conference Coach of the Year six times and guided the Flyers to three third-place NCAA Division II championship finishes.

The closest he ever came to winning a national championship was in 1980, Lewis’ final season competing in the NAIA. The Flyers finished second.

What’s he remember most about that season?

“We were 61-24, played from the second week of February till the first week of June and we never got rained out,” O’Reilly said with a big laugh. “There were no regulations back then on how many games you could play. It was a different time.”

I played for O’Reilly in the mid-1980s, and let me tell you, he took great pride in playing a full schedule. There were times during brutally cold afternoons when we had mini-charcoal fire pits set up in the dugout during games. I kid you not.

From the uniforms to the jackets to the bat bags to pregame infield to pristine field conditions, O’Reilly ran a first-class program. He took great pride in that. Did I mention that two of our spring trips were to Hawaii? For 21 days apiece? How we would kick the snot out of Notre Dame — I think I saw Touchdown Jesus weeping — and some Big Ten teams? Well, the tiny Division II baseball program out of Romeoville did.

O’Reilly recruited a 5-foot-11, 160-pound left-hander out of Eisenhower. For that, I can’t thank him enough. My years at Lewis remain some of the most memorable of my life.

On Saturday, he’ll return to Brennan Field, along with his wife, Pat, his three daughters and six grandchildren, and have his No. 14 retired.

“I’m very appreciative of it,” said O’Reilly, who thanked his pitching coach of 25 years, Dan DeCaprio. “I spent almost half of my life there. I still bleed, red, while and blue.”

Always will.



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