Essex County's father of baseball now has a field to call his own in Ivy Hill Park, where the beloved Seton Hall University coach flourished as a young athlete.
The dedication of the Pirates' home field to Mike Sheppard Sr. was presented Thursday afternoon by Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. and the Board of Chosen Freeholders, along with a crowd of SHU athletes and members of the Sheppard clan.
Sheppard, whose eponymous baseball and softball field sits at the southeast end of the college campus, was lauded by officials – and a former Major League Baseball catcher – as a role model who has shaped countless youths into fine athletes.
Under Sheppard's 31-year tenure as head coach of SHU baseball, more than 80 players have gone on to sign professional contracts, with 30 earning a spot in the major leagues. He is a three-time Big East Coach of the Year who led the Pirates to 28 winning seasons and 27 post season berths.
"He was tough, he was very tough on us," said Rick Cerone, an SHU alumnus and former New York Yankee. "But in the long run, he made you a better person."
Though initially committed to playing football, Cerone was recruited by Sheppard in August 1972 to play baseball for the South Orange school and eventually went on to be drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 1975. Now retired, Cerone referred to "Coach Shep" as a father figure that even his own daughters look to for advice.
"It was more fun playing Seton Hall University baseball than I played for 18 years in the big leagues," said Cerone.
For Sheppard, a Vailsburg native, Ivy Hill Park holds fond memories of playing for Essex County American Legion Baseball, of which he is now the chairman, and meeting his wife Phyllis. He reflected Thursday on the young athletes he's encountered throughout the years as a coach at St. Benedict's Prep, Barringer High School, Vailsburg High School and Valley High School before landing at SHU.
"I've been blessed with great players at every level," said Sheppard, who now resides in West Orange with his wife.
Sheppard spawned a lineage of baseball buffs; sons Rob and Mike are head baseball coaches at SHU and Seton Hall Prep, respectively, while other son, John, is the top baseball skipper at Morristown-Beard High School. Sheppard's son-in-law, Ed Blankmeyer, is the head coach of St. John's University baseball. All five of the Sheppard children are SHU graduates.
"We measure our journey by the hundreds of friends we have here in Essex County," said Sheppard. "If you're proud of where you come from, you'll always know where you're going and take pride in everything you do."