By Steve Gunn

Coaching a high school varsity sport is challenging – particularly a spring sport like baseball.

Some of the players are three-season athletes, and experience a little burnout by the time the spring arrives. Some are seniors quickly approaching graduation, and it can be difficult to keep them focused on the games.

Shelby baseball coach Brian Wright. Photo/Leo Valdez

And then there’s the spring weather, which can bring rain, snow or sunshine at any given moment in Michigan.

But Brian Wright loves it all. So much, in fact, that he’s currently in his 36th season as coach of the Shelby varsity baseball team. And he recently experienced a career milestone.

His Shelby Tigers lost the first game of a West Michigan Conference doubleheader on April 11 to Montague. But they rallied in Game 2 and won 3-2, handing their coach a special gift in the process.

It was the 1,000th game of Wright’s career, and the comeback win was a nice way to mark the occasion.

Wright didn’t tell the players about his milestone before the game, but filled them in afterward.

“It was kind of special to get a win in that game,” said Wright, 58. “I had all the players sign a game ball the next day. I told them it probably doesn’t mean much to them right now, but in 10 years I will hold that ball and look back on that day and this group, and it will be pretty cool.”

Wright grew up in Ravenna, where he was a baseball standout. He was a senior pitcher and shortstop on the Bulldog squad that advanced to the 1976 Class C state finals, before losing in the title game.

He played four years of baseball at Grand Valley State University under legendary Coach Phil Regan, who went on to become a Major League Baseball manager.

After graduating he spent one year as a substitute teacher and coach at Ravenna, before the opportunity to take over the Shelby baseball program presented itself.

Wright gets ready to hit a grounder during infield practice before a game last week. Photo/Leo Valdez

Wright landed a full-time elementary teaching job at Shelby after three years of coaching, and he’s been following the same routine ever since – working with little kids by the day, and coaching teens in the spring.

Things started out slowly for Wright at Shelby.

“When I first came up here, we didn’t have a JV team – we went three to five years without that,” he said. “We didn’t have an outfield fence or dugouts, and there were some lean years. The first 10 years I don’t think we had a winning record. It’s hard without a JV team.”

Wright has had plenty of success since then, winning three West Michigan Conference championships, seven district championships and one regional title. He has a career record of 536-466, and in 2008 was inducted into the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.

When asked about his best seasons, Wright mentions two.

He recalls 2003, when Shelby won its first 25 games, set a new school record with 33 total wins and was ranked No. 1 in the state, only to lose to Morley-Stanwood in regionals. His son, Joshua Wright, played on that team.

He also mentions the 2010 season, when the Tigers won conference and district championships, as well as the only regional title in Shelby baseball history. That team set another school record with 34 wins.

Wright is still very hungry for victories and championships, but he’s also learned to appreciate baseball and his coaching career from a broader perspective.

“I would say the one highlight has been coaching a lot of special kids,” he said. “We’ve had so many great kids at Shelby who have loved baseball and bought into what we were trying to do. We haven’t won all the games or all the championships, but we’ve always prided ourselves on trying to do things the right way.”

Wright obviously left a positive impression with a lot of former players, because dozens come back every year to play in his annual alumni game, which is really two games – one for the older players, and one for more recent graduates.

“It’s one of my favorite days of the year,” said Wright, who says about 40 to 60 former players come back to participate every year. “The first year we had a guy drive all the way back from Cleveland. Just to be able to spend time with guys that I coached so long ago, and talk about old times, makes me feel good. Some of them still call me coach.”

Wright said he has no plans to quit coaching anytime soon. In fact, his baseball calendar has gotten even busier over the past three years, since he became the first base coach for the Muskegon Clippers, a summer collegiate team that plays at Marsh Field.

Now when the high school season wraps up in May, he heads straight to the Clippers to keep coaching all summer.

“This year I will coach 38 games with Shelby and 42 with the Clippers,” said Wright, who has been a close friend of Clippers manager Walt Gawkowski for years. “I just love it. It makes summer special. It’s in my blood.”