By Alexander Cole
During the entire 21-year history of the Concordia Stingers baseball team, the club has only had one coach, and that man is Howie Schwartz. In 1995, Schwartz went from coaching his children to coaching university baseball and he hasn’t looked back since.
“In 1995, I was at a social function and met one of the players that was playing for Queen’s [University] and he told me they were looking for a coach for Concordia,” Schwartz said. “He put me into contact with the guy who was putting the team together and after a few interviews, I found out I was the coach.”
“I’m surprised they haven’t smartened up and got rid of me,” Schwartz added jokingly.
Schwartz’s love of baseball began even before the Montreal Expos came into existence in 1969. Schwartz said watching baseball with his brothers got him engrossed in the sport and he eventually took up playing it.
While playing in little league, Schwartz would lie about his age so that he could play in multiple leagues at the same time, he said. When his junior career was over, Schwartz played softball for a few years until his children were born, and that’s when he started to coach. Including his time with the Stingers, Schwartz has been coaching baseball for 30 years.
Schwartz, who is also a sports psychologist who worked with the Montreal Expos, said that the first few years with the Stingers involved a rough adjustment period.
“Oh, it was brutal. To go from coaching teenagers to adults who have a history of playing elite baseball made me feel completely out of my element,” Schwartz said. “Despite how much I knew about the game, I was totally intimidated by their skills and knowledge of the game. I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared going into something.”
Once getting into a rhythm with the team, Schwartz said he quickly realized that his fears and anxieties were unfounded and that he should have had more faith in himself. When he would reflect after each game, he felt that he was doing his best and did in fact belong as manager of the team.
In terms of his approach to coaching, Schwartz sees himself as a players coach.
“I don’t like to run the team with an iron fist or in a militaristic kind of way,” Schwartz said. “I like to get a lot of input from the players and I give them a lot of leeway. I just believe that that is how people respond best to being managed.”
In his 21-year career with the Stingers, Schwartz has two moments he is most proud of. The first being the team’s national championship win in 2009, and the other being the 2014 national championship finals, where the team lost 1-0 to the McGill Redmen.
For Schwartz, the 2009 national championship team was a special team that carried themselves well, both on and off the field. He said he had a feeling they would go all the way that year and felt it was one of the most talented teams he had ever coached. Meanwhile, Schwartz said that he was proud of the 2014 team because of how much heart they played with, especially in the end at nationals.
Schwartz added that throughout his two decades of coaching the team, the Stingers program and the league itself have evolved immensely.
“At first the school told us that we could use the Stingers name but they said not to embarrass [the school] and they wouldn’t give us a nickel,” Schwartz said. “It’s gone from that to being a varsity club team where we have tremendous financial and moral support. We’re part of ‘Stingers United’ now, and we definitely feel like we are a part of the athletics department.”
However, Schwartz also said that when it comes to baseball, there is a huge difference between the skill level of Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) players and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) players.
For Schwartz, this is because the NCAA teams in Division 1 have more finances to recruit great players, and that the leagues are more known. Schwartz said if the Stingers were in the NCAA, they could probably compete at the Division 3 or Division 2 level.
“We make do with what we have, but there is no way we can compete against the Americans,” Schwartz said.
When speaking about recruitment, Schwartz said he has brought players in from British Columbia and Ontario to play for the team. However, baseball isn’t what he sells his players on.
“Concordia has established itself as a bonafide university with quality programs to offer to compete with McGill,” Schwartz said. “Nobody is going to come to Concordia to play baseball, and I really try to stress that they will come to continue their studies in a strong program while getting to play baseball at the same time. I’m selling the university, not the baseball program.”
In the last few years, the Stingers baseball team has found success with six appearances at nationals in the last nine years, including a championship in 2009 and a national final in 2014. Despite that, last year was a rebuilding year for the team with many veterans graduating and new players coming in to fill those shoes.
Last season, the team finished with a record of 12-4, however, they were forced out of the playoffs in the semi-finals after losing their best-of-three series against Carleton University 2-1.
Schwartz explained that when a team gets a high influx of new and young players, it can be quite a challenge to integrate everyone into the system.
“What I’ve found historically is that if you only have a handful of new guys every year with a strong returning team, it’s easier to meld everyone in and get their feet wet,” Schwartz said. “When you have a large number of new players in one shot the challenge is much more [evident].”
“Last year we got upset in the playoffs because we couldn’t handle the pressure and didn’t have the maturity to play up to that level,” Schwartz added. “This year we have a lot of returning guys and they seem intent on making this a productive year. We’re seeing a lot of leadership this year.”
Schwartz said that going into this season, the expectation is to do better than last year in terms of wins. He said the new players are already integrating well and that the team has the potential to go far.
Schwartz added that there are no standout superstars on the team, but the talented and balanced roster bodes well for the upcoming season.
In order to win a national championship, Schwartz said that playing smart and playing great defense is how they are going to get there.
“Pitching is the key and it looks like we have a lot of talent there. I like what we have up the middle [outfield], and in terms of offense, we need to stick to the fundamentals. We have a lot of speed on the team,” he said.
“It’s such a short season so we can’t afford to get into a slump,” Schwartz added. “We have to be on top of the game at all times.”