There’s a certain pageantry to the first game of a baseball season.
Whether it’s the extra people in the bleachers, or the patriotic bunting hung with care, or the brand new, clean uniforms sparkling under the spring sun, Opening Day feels like a holiday for baseball players and fans alike.
Jim Goodwin is no different. But when he walks out to the third base coaching box on Saturday at Delran High School, for the Bears first home game of 2019, the normal butterflies anyone gets with the start of the season will be a little more active in his stomach.
Goodwin, for one, is replacing a Delran sports icon. He’s also fulfilling a boyhood dream.
“I talked with my parents about this back in middle school,” said Goodwin, a 2009 Delran graduate. “I was still all amped up about being a professional baseball player like most kids are at that point. My dad convinced me to start thinking of another career just in case. I said, ‘How about I become a teacher and how cool would it be if I got back to Delran and took over the baseball program? You played there, I will play there.’ Me being bad at math at that point, I said, ‘Maybe I’ll be the second coach in school history.’”
Goodwin guesses he was 12- or 13-years-old at the time of that conversation. He’s now 27 and he’s also just what he said he would be: the second head baseball coach in the history of Delran High School.
Goodwin took over just before the start of preseason practice this winter when Rich Bender retired after 43 seasons at the helm.
“This is a dream come true,” Goodwin said. “A dream of mine since middle school.”
Goodwin, a former pitcher with Delran who also went to play collegiately at Burlington County College, Chestnut Hill College, and Rutgers-Camden, is a lifelong Delran resident. He understands the importance of the baseball program and he plans on keeping the Bears among the perennial contenders in South Jersey.
“Our family ties are here,” Goodwin said. “And that’s something I take pride in. My family has been in Delran. My grandparents still live in the same house they bought when they came to Delran. So it’s a tradition I look forward to keeping.”
Goodwin also knows he has some pretty big spikes to fill.
Bender retired at the end of January with a South Jersey-record 672 wins. His teams made the playoffs in 41 of his 43 seasons as head coach. Bender guided the Bears to five sectional titles and two state championships (1983 and 1995). The ‘95 Delran team finished No. 1 in the state and No. 9 in the country.
Bender’s career spanned five decades: the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s, and ‘10s. It would be unwise for anyone, anywhere to try to live up to that legacy.
But being aware of it may be just as important as Goodwin begins his own head coaching career with Delran.
“Obviously he was very successful,” said Goodwin, who coached under Bender in the last five seasons with Delran. “For anyone to stick around any job for that long (it’s impressive). He’s very respected and he’s someone I’ve looked up to. I’ve known him since I was 4 years old. My dad would have me out here watching games. We’d always talk to Coach Bender after the games. … It’s definitely tough. But I’m not coming out here trying to be Coach Bender, I’m starting my own path but keeping the same expectations of the program.”
Goodwin has something important to take with him into the 2019 season: the blessing of his coaching role model and predecessor.
“It’s his personality – he doesn’t seem to express his anger, which took me years to control,” Bender said with a laugh. “He seems to be even keel with the way things are going to go. … If they were going to decide on a very, very good choice, the perfect choice, it’d be Jim. He’s been in the program, he knows what it’s about, he knows all the kids, and he’s a good person. So I think Delran is moving in a good direction.”
The transition will be easier, as they are in any sport, if the team wins. Goodwin is bullish about the Bears’ chances for success this spring, despite losing two-thirds of the team’s pitching from last season. He’s leaning on senior veteran shortstop Alex Madera and junior pitcher and center fielder R.J. Moten for leadership and consistency.
“I’m expecting big things from both of them,” Goodwin said. “I think we have some guys that are going to step up. It’s a good opportunity for all of these guys that have been waiting for their shot on the mound. Here they are, they get a chance to prove it. Defensively, I think we’re going to be OK. And I think we’re going to hit a little bit better this year than last year.”
As any first-year head coach, Goodwin will try to put his own spin on the program while keeping hallmarks of the Bears program (hustling, a team-first mentality) in place. He is going to introduce some “technology stuff” into the program to keep up with the times and he wants to produce a relaxed atmosphere that’s conducive to young players getting the most out of their abilities and not ever feeling “uptight, tense, or afraid to make a mistake.”
But having the benefit of working directly under Bender, and being one of the 24 father-son combinations that played under the long-time Bears coach, Goodwin is also well aware of how a successful baseball program is run on a day-to-day basis. Now all he has to do is fill out his first lineup card, meet the umpires at home plate, and trot out to the third base coaching box.
“I’m trying not to lead it on and let these guys see it, but deep down, I still play, and I still get the butterflies when I take the mound,” he said. “I think that’s good. But when the butterflies are gone, that’s when I know that maybe it’s time to walk away.”