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John Blanchette: Well-traveled Jim Fitzgerald takes over Sasquatch during hairy times

Jim Fitzgerald poses for a photo on Wednesday, November 27, 2013 at Eastern's campus in Cheney, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Jim Fitzgerald poses for a photo on Wednesday, November 27, 2013 at Eastern's campus in Cheney, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

It is simply not the case that Jim Fitzgerald has either attended or worked for every college and sports franchise between here and Seattle.

He missed Whitworth and Washington State, for instance, and never drew pay from the Seahawks or the Shock.

But he has gear from nearly every place else.

“The old it-takes-a-village saying?” he said. “It took a lot of villages to get me to this point.”

This point being yet another wardrobe makeover. Come July, Fitzgerald takes over as the new athletic director at the Community Colleges of Spokane. So it’s in with Sasquatch polos, while the threads from his most recent employer, Eastern Washington University, go into mothballs with the stuff he picked up at Gonzaga, U-Dub, the Spokane Indians and Chiefs and the Seattle Mariners.

Yes, the man gets around. All with the idea of more or less staying put.

And now he has his own store, so to speak – even if it’s not open at the moment in a time of staggering challenges.

“A great mentor of mine told me, ‘Your honeymoon might last about two hours because of COVID,’ ” Fitzgerald acknowledged. “There’s so much uncertainty, and every school is going through budget upheaval. Chancellor (Christine) Johnson said, ‘You’re going to have to make some tough decisions and right away.’ And I’m ready for that.

“But for all that, we’ve got one job: taking care of the kids.”

Which they’ve been doing pretty well at for 56 years. Over that time, Spokane has won 155 Northwest Athletic Conference championships and turned out the odd Super Bowl champion and Olympic gold medalist. But as much to the point, the unrecruited teenage midfielder and the 24-year-old pole vaulting waitress who came back to school got their A.A.s, the embrace of a team and one last thrill of competition.

The new AD couldn’t be more mindful of that. He’s already spent eight years at EWU in charge of the athletic department’s mission for “student success” – a catch-all that encompasses academic advising and life skills development. And, of course, there was his own college athletic experience 30 years ago as a baseball player at Gonzaga, where his uncle Dan was famously a force as basketball coach and athletic director.

Jim Fitzgerald turned his skills into a degree and went looking for a job.

“Bobby Brett took me to lunch at Chapter Eleven,” Fitzgerald remembered. “I wanted to work for the Indians and he said, ‘If you want to get into the business, you have to learn it from the ground up.”

And he was handed a rake and a line chalker.

In time, he worked his way up from groundskeeper to director of operations, until a former GU teammate, Rich Miailovich, gave him a heads up that the Mariners needed bodies to sell tickets after the breakthrough of 1995. He would stay for 13 years and, as with the Indians, wear any number of hats – account executive, marketing, regional scout. He even pinch hit as traveling secretary for a few weeks, during which his second-biggest claim to fame was giving the go signal for the team bus to head to the airport for a trip to Anaheim – with manager Lou Piniella still in the shower.

His biggest claim to fame? He beat the rap in the M’s kangaroo court while Lou got fined $10 for being late.

But the sweet spot of his stay was working under Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick.

“Pat was awesome to work for,” Fitzgerald said. “I was just an operations assistant, but I felt like I had a voice and some ownership. He’d ask for your opinion on a free agent or a Triple-A call-up, and he rarely gave his because he didn’t want to tilt it.”

Not that Gillick wouldn’t hedge with his bosses.

“We’re in spring training in 2001 and sat with the ownership group,” Fitzgerald recalled, “and Pat told them this might be a .500 team. We had Ichiro in his first year and didn’t really know what to expect. Aaron Sele had failed a physical in Baltimore. We’d lost three Hall of Famers and didn’t know where we’d get enough offense.

“So we’re (20-5) after a month and (minority owner) Chris Larson comes into the GM’s suite and says, ‘Why are we paying guys? You thought we’d be .500.’ ”

But Fitzgerald knew that moving up in pro ball would require moving away – to an assistant GM’s job in another organization. Returning to Spokane, in the end, held a greater appeal for him and his wife, Wendy.

Now he’s armed for a new gig with lots of lessons and maxims from his many bosses – and, no doubt, some from his uncle, too.

“I like to think I have a few of his characteristics – great energy, I want people to do well, I want to be thankful and humble and be as prepared as he was,” Fitzgerald said.

Even during a time for which no one could have prepared.

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