Las Vegas Sun

April 20, 2019

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51s skipper Shoemaker passed on hoops career

Hounded by a trio of scrappers from Miami of Ohio after securing a rebound, Marquette center Jerome Whitehead lifted his free foot and shifted his body weight to shed his foes.

The defending national-champion Warriors had been cruising in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 1978, in Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, when a steaming Whitehead swung around and landed a left forearm that floored John Shoemaker.

"I was knocked down, not out," said Shoemaker, the new manager of the Las Vegas 51s and former shooting guard for Miami. "He was ejected, and that gave us a little rally."

Miami trailed by 10 points with 3 minutes, 38 seconds remaining. Market Square was rapidly filling with thousands of fans who were eager to see Michigan State freshman sensation Earvin Johnson, against Providence, in the next game.

Buoyed by the instant support, as the underdog that seemingly had just gotten punked by the bully, Miami tied the game by the end of regulation and then won it in overtime.

A three-year starter and captain of the basketball team as a senior, Shoemaker isn't sheepish about revealing that his most memorable sporting moment involves neither baseball nor even a dramatic shot or exceptional hoops game.

The following week's issue of Sports Illustrated, famous for its cover shot of baseball wonder boy (and current Colorado manager) Clint Hurdle, showed Whitehead's tattooing of Shoemaker in a three-stage photographic layout.

"There's a shot of me laying flat on my back," Shoemaker said. "That would be something that you would be known for, but it looked more vicious than it actually turned out to be. I believe the referees viewed it as flagrant, but it wasn't really a flagrant hit.

"I was lucky in that aspect, because I didn't get the full force. He was trying to shake people off of him, and I was behind him. I had just had a (layup) blocked, and I don't think he knew I was there. I tried to tip the ball, he took another little half pivot and caught me, not with an elbow but with his forearm."

Shoemaker played 44 minutes, finishing with 20 points on 10-for-15 shooting, giving out six assists and grabbing four rebounds. He only went 2-for-8 from the field in a 22-point defeat to Kentucky, which went on to win the title, in a Mideast semifinal five days later.

Three days after that, Shoemaker reported to his second spring training in Vero Beach, Fla. A couple of months later, the Chicago Bulls picked him in the sixth round of the 1978 NBA draft.

Reggie Theus of UNLV was selected by the Bulls in that first round, and he was the lone draftee who stuck with Chicago out of its training camp.

"It was a big honor," Shoemaker said. "We had won our conference championship, and knocking off the defending national champion gave our team some notoriety. Three players off that team were drafted, but I didn't really have much of a chance.

"Not that I wasn't given a chance. It's just, I wasn't the prototypical NBA player. Being drafted in the sixth round is something to talk about, but I didn't have to make a (career) choice."

By the time the Bulls took a look at Shoemaker, his playing career was half over. As an infielder, no aspect of his game sparkled. In 1981, the Dodgers overhauled their minor-league staffs and asked Shoemaker to become the hitting coach at Vero Beach.

He accepted.

Walter Alston, like Shoemaker a native of Ohio, had been consulting the team since he retired from managing the parent club in 1978 and was instrumental in launching Shoemaker's bench career.

"I credit him for backing me, telling the organization that, 'This would be a good guy to put into the coaching system,' " Shoemaker said. "I always wanted to get into coaching. If I had asked for my release, not accepting the coaching position in Vero Beach, I felt I'd be out of baseball in a couple of years.

"It turned out to be a great decision. I've been very happy for the last 26 years."

Shoemaker, 46, served as a roving defensive instructor for the Dodgers in 2002, his first season since 1977 in which he wasn't a player, coach or manager in the team's system.

It was a challenging transition. He'd get to whichever park, work with infielders, talk with players and then retreat to the stands, where he watched and made evaluations.

"I felt like I wasn't really doing very much for the organization," Shoemaker said of his first few weeks in the roving capacity.

The importance of his job, making the rounds at different levels of the Dodgers' organization and helping young players improve, wasn't lost on him. Yet, Shoemaker missed the day-to-day interaction of working with his own team.

The Southern League manager of the year in 2001, when he ran Double A Jacksonville, Shoemaker rediscovered that passion this winter when he guided San Francisco de Macoris to the Dominican Republic's round-robin playoffs.

While Shoemaker was in the Caribbean, Brad Mills left the 51s' managerial post to become the bench coach for the Montreal Expos. In 2002, the 51s went 85-59, winning the Pacific Coast League's South Division.

Dodgers director of player development Bill Bavasi and minor league field coordinator Terry Collins called Shoemaker to gauge his interest in Las Vegas. He spoke with other key figures in the Dodgers' system, quickly relishing the opportunity.

Shoemaker accepted Bavasi's offer on Jan. 9. His wife, Jackie, and their two daughters will remain at the family's home in Vero Beach.

The 51s begin the 2003 season April 3 with eight consecutive home games, four against Salt Lake City and four vs. Edmonton.

Outfielder Bubba Crosby, first baseman Chin-Feng Chen, second baseman Joe Thurston and third baseman Rick Bell played for Shoemaker in Jacksonville. So did right fielder Luke Allen, but the Dodgers dealt him to Colorado for the versatile Jason Romano this week.

Shoemaker will form his strategy according to the 51s' opening-day roster. He knows the ball carries well at Cashman Field, but singles and steals might be the order if Thurston, Crosby and/or outfielder Wilkin Ruan, all speedsters, are regulars this season.

"I'm looking forward to the season in Las Vegas, knowing they had a tremendous season last year," Shoemaker said. "Hopefully, we can duplicate that season."

Popular 51s hitting coach Ron Jackson also bolted, for a similar position with the Boston Red Sox. The 51s have replaced him with George Hendrick, a Las Vegas resident who logged 18 years in the major leagues.

Shoemaker prides himself on patience, communication skills and work ethic. He will do anything, he said, to make each player better, so he favors spending more time on the diamond than in the clubhouse.

"I don't like to go to the ball park, sit in the office, look at a lot of stats, make out four or five lineups and figure out which is the best for that night," Shoemaker said. "I like to be on the field, working."

Conserving outs in the heat of Cashman, he also knows, will be vital. Two visits to Las Vegas last season, and other trips to Nashville and New Orleans, prepped him for the weather that awaits him this summer.

"I'm well aware," Shoemaker said, "of what I'm getting into."

Seems he knew that 26 years ago.