FRUITLAND — After a staggering 32 years of coaching baseball at multiple levels, Russ Wright walked off the Fruitland baseball field as the Grizzlies’ head coach for the final time on Thursday evening.
The Grizzlies fell to Weiser in a 10-inning thriller in the Snake River Valley’s second-place game, missing out on a trip to the state tournament.
Wright has been coaching at Fruitland High School since 2006 and has led the Grizzlies to eight state championships, including four straight from 2014 to 2017, and 12 Snake River Valley titles. On April 19, Wright submitted his letter of resignation to the school. He said he still plans to keep teaching biology at Fruitland High School.
“I want to give time to my family,” Wright said. “I owe that to my family. I definitely owe that to my wife. For all these years, our family schedule was all dependent on if I had a game or not.”
From player to coach
Wright’s baseball career started when he was growing up in Rupert, Idaho. He played football and baseball for Minico High School, and was a catcher on the Spartan’s state championship team. Wright went on to play at New Mexico State University.
After college, Wright started coaching at Canyon Springs High School in California. He later became an assistant coach at the University of California, Riverside.
Wright moved to Ontario and was an assistant at Treasure Valley Community College for one year before taking the head coaching job at Payette High School. In 1992, Wright took over at his alma mater, leading Minico to eight state tournament runs in 10 years.
In 2002, Wright took over the TVCC coaching job, a position he would hold for three years before moving to Fruitland High School.
Wright was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2012. He is one of 13 high school coaches to receive the designation.
Outside of high school baseball, Wright directed the High Desert Baseball Camp for 15 years and served as the president of the Idaho Baseball Coaches Association. He has also coached American Legion summer teams at various levels in his tenure.
A lucky man
When reminiscing on his coaching career, Wright gave all the credit of his success to the players he’s had.
“Let’s just say that I was probably luckier than I should have been,” Wright said. “Now some people call me a hard-ass and I was tough on them. But the players, hopefully, knew that I love them. And I had a good relationship with my players. But really, I was lucky to have thirty-two years of good players. Because really, ninety-five percent of this is having good players.”
During senior night this year, the Grizzlies held a little ceremony for Wright’s retirement. The ceremony included many former players coming back to give Wright a big hug and a signed baseball bat. Wright said he was touched to see so many players still feel strongly about him, some Wright said he hadn’t seen in 10 years.
Wright also said the environment he was put in was also really helpful for his program.
“I would like to thank Fruitland High School and the players and especially the parents,” Wright said. “The parents have always been awesome. Because, nobody does this stuff alone.”
When asked if he had any real standout moments over his career, Wright said picking his favorite moment over the past three decades is akin to picking a favorite son.
“Now I was really lucky to have a lot of success. But it’s not really that,” Wright said. “Now, winning state titles with my sons, I never thought I’d be lucky enough to do that. And that was special.”
Wright said his favorite moments over his coaching career usually centered on players who expressed moments of personal growth.
“But it’s the moments within those games where you saw the fruit of what you were trying to teach really come forward.”
One moment that Wright thought of was a state game where Nick Varriale was pitching in the heat, and started to get tired. When Zack Fabricius came up to the mound to close the game, Wright said he saw a beautiful moment of sportsmanship and brotherhood, which he tries to teach his players.
“Nick put the ball in Zack’s glove and told him he loved him and he knew the game was in safe hands,” Wright said.
“There I saw greatness. You see those lessons that they learn when they play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. The real meaning behind what we are trying to teach. And that I will miss. There’s nothing better than that as a coach. When it all comes together for them.”
The right way
When Wright talks about baseball, he often brings up the concept of playing the game “the right way.” That sentiment is echoed by many of his former players and peers.
“That’s pretty important,” Wright said. “There’s probably multiple ‘right ways’ to play the game. But that’s our style. We try to be really gritty, and play with a lot of hustle. And those are the things you’ll find with any good team. And we teach our players to have humility and respect for the game.”
While the Fruitland/Payette rivalry runs strong in the valley, there has always been a deep kinship between the Payette and Fruitland baseball teams that runs back to the early ’90s. Payette baseball coach Tracy Bratcher, who has been leading the Pirates since 2000, was coached by Wright in high school.
“He really paved the way for me,” Bratcher said. “He teaches just going hard and respecting the game. He really was a pivotal part of my life and my career in baseball. A lot of that goes to him.”
Bratcher said many of Wright’s coaching philosophies have come into his own tenure with the Pirates.
“He’s an amazing leader, and he’s passionate about the game and his players,” Bratcher said. “I hope that I’ve carried over that passion for the game, and the philosophy of doing it the right way and developing the players into young men.”
Every season, Bratcher said his favorite games are the ones against Fruitland, since he knows he’s in for a coaching battle against his old coach.
“I told him before every game, I love him to death, but for seven innings I want to beat him,” Bratcher said, laughing.
Trying to think back through a catalogue of 27 years worth of memories, Bratcher said he has nothing of great memories with Wright.
“For us, it goes all the way back to 1992. I was a freshman that thought he knew everything about baseball,” Bratcher said. “There’s too many moments with Russ, and every single moment brings a smile to my face.”
A lineage that runs deep
Minico’s head baseball coach, Jared Price, also used to play for Wright. The Spartans were the No. 1 ranked team in Idaho 4A in the latest coaches poll.
Having a big coaching tree is something Wright said he is very happy about. For Wright, that mentor was former TVCC coach Rick Baumann.
“Rick Baumann impacted me in that way,” he said. “I’m a baseball coach today becuase of Rick Baumann.”
According to Wright, he was studying geological engineering and was one class away from graduating when he went to coach American Legion summer ball and caught the bug.
“I called my mom and said, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do,’” Wright said.
Many years later, Wright’s son, Ryan, was a premed student and was set to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) when he decided he wanted to be an assistant baseball coach at Montana State University Billings (whose head coach, Aaron Sutton, also played for Wright).
Wright said his wife, Andrea, just looked at him and said, “That’s your fault.”
“But really, to think that I had that impact? That’s awesome,” he said.
Casey Rodriguez, a sophomore pitcher at Treasure Valley Community College, was a key member of the Grizzlies as they won four-straight state championships between 2014 and 2017.
According to Rodriguez, discipline was a big part of Wright’s coaching philosophy that stuck with him.
“He really makes the kids disciplined. And he teaches them the right way to play the game and the right way to be a person outside of the field,” Rodriguez said. “That just leads to the success on the field.”
This summer, Rodriguez will be an assistant coach for the Treasure Valley Stars American Legion AA team.
According to Connor Benear, a redshirt sophomore at TVCC who played for Wright between 2013 and 2016 and won three state championships, Wright taught them more than about the game.
“[Teaching us to be] a bigger person off the field, that also really helped us,” Benear said. “And he worked with everyone. You know, he puts in the same work with every kid. He’s giving you that same opportunity and he’ll never give up on you. And that’s just what led to our success over the years and why he’s such a great coach.”
While Benear and Rodriguez never had Wright as a head coach in summer baseball, he was always around to give them tips and pointers during the offseason.
“He’s always there,” they both said, laughing.
Both players agreed that Wright’s dedication to his players was a major part of his success as a coach.
“He’s someone that I always know that I can go to if I need help with anything,” Rodriguez said. “And honestly, that’s such a huge part of being a head coach.”
“He’s helped me out a ton. He helped me work every single day,” Benear said. “He’s helped me become a better ball player.”
Rodriguez said the number one thing he learned from Wright is to always stay positive during a game.
“You’re never out of a game,” Rodriguez said. ”He always believed in us that we were able to win a game.”
This mindset came in handy during Rodriguez’s last high school game, as the Grizzlies trailed Bonners Ferry 9-0 after two innings in the 2017 state championship game. Fruitland would come back to win the game 19-16 in a game that Wright described as one of the best he’s ever seen.