Dave Rodgers leaves a legacy in the central Illinois baseball community that never will be forgotten.
The longtime baseball coach and mentor died Saturday morning at Accolade Healthcare in East Peoria, according to his family. He was 77. Rodgers battled illness for years, but not until this season did his health struggles to keep him off the baseball diamond.
“He was a good role model for just about everybody who came across him,” said his brother, Richard Rodgers. “He coached for 50 years, that was his true passion and his true love. He wanted to coach this year, but it just wasn’t possible, health-wise.”
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Dedicated to baseball
Rodgers led the East Peoria youth baseball program for nearly four decades and through last year worked as an assistant for the Normal Parkside junior high and Normal West high school teams.
In 2001, Rodgers retired from East Peoria High, where he won four regional titles in 15 seasons. At the same time, he also stepped down as seventh-grade math teacher and coach at Central Junior High in East Peoria. In 33 years as an assistant and head coach there, the Wildcats won 10 IESA state championships.
The former Galesburg and Western Illinois player also spent six years as a volunteer assistant at Bradley and two years as an assistant at Eureka College.
EP's home baseball field at EastSide Centre is named after him.
“He coached all of his adult life except this year (due to his health),” Jan Rodgers, Dave’s sister-in-law said. “He didn’t have his own family, so the kids that he coached were his family.”
Rodgers was inducted into the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2013, and he was instrumental in organizing the McDonald’s All-Star baseball games, which are hosted each season at Dozer Park in Peoria. The Greater Peoria Baseball Coaches Association says it will honor Rodgers at the games June 21.
Alex Ross, a former Bradley student and family friend said he was astonished by how well-known Rodgers was in the central Illinois baseball community.
“I was with Dave at a baseball tournament in East Peoria, and I was just amazed for two straight days how every 30 seconds somebody new would come up to him and talk with him,” said Ross. “It was like a meet-and-greet with Dave Rodgers. People constantly came through, and it was pretty cool.”
Rodgers' coaching style was a mix of the old-fashioned and the quirky, according to a Journal Star article from 2001. Rodgers didn't want his players swimming before practices and games. He also once sent a batter to the plate without a bat to cure his tentativeness. It got results.
"Dave Rodgers has been East Peoria baseball," said Paul Whittington, then-athletic director at the high school when Rodgers retired in 2001. "It hurts. To me, you're not only losing a great coach, you're losing a great person."
Relationship with Joe Girardi
Current Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi was coached by Rodgers during his time as a youth in East Peoria.
In 2001, Girardi — then a catcher with the Chicago Cubs — credited Rodgers with teaching him strategy and the team concept. Girardi, who played at Spalding, remembered being chewed out for hitting a home run on a 3-0 pitch, when he had been given a take sign.
"He taught me as much about baseball as anyone's ever taught me," Girardi said in 2001. "To me, he's the greatest Little League coach on the face of the Earth.
"He taught the game, team concept, took an interest in you, taught you discipline and how to take care of your body. He taught me things as a kid that I still do today."
Richard Rodgers said the friendship between Dave Rodgers and Girardi was special. Even with the distance, the two still found a way to communicate.
“A lot of Dave’s acquaintances and friends would ask him if he would do a favor with Joe Girardi, and he wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t betray Joe’s trust,” Rodgers said. “He and Joe were pretty close considering the distance between manager and coach. He honored Joe quite a bit, and vice versa.”
Leaving a legacy
East Peoria baseball coach Matt Plummer and Normal West baseball coach Chris Hawkins both were saddened by the news. Both saw Rodgers not only as a mentor, but as a father figure. They said Rodgers was dedicated to coaching baseball and serving the community — no matter what obstacles life presented.
“Dave Rodgers, I met him when I was a 21-year-old student teacher in 1994," Plummer said. "He took me under his wing and let me volunteer during my student teaching years. He took me to every clinic that I could go to. The man didn’t have a family; baseball was his family. His commitment to this town early on was unmatched.”
Hawkins coached alongside Rodgers from 2007-2021 at Normal West, where Hawkins mentioned that Rodgers would commute from his home in East Peoria to Normal every day because he was dedicated to helping the team.
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Plummer remembers speaking on the day when the EP home baseball field at EastSide Centre was dedicated in Rodgers' honor.
"I had tears in my eyes, and read a very heartfelt dedication to him. I said you don’t have to be a father to be a father," Plummer said. "He was a father to a lot of kids, and he cared about our youth.
"He lived and breathed baseball, and I was very saddened to hear the news; It is a great loss for East Peoria and baseball in the area.”
Dave Rodgers funeral service
A visitation will be held from 4:30-7 p.m. on Friday, June 3 at The Wilton Mortuary and from 2-2:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4 at First United Methodist Church. A funeral service will follow at 2:30 p.m. at the church.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Salvation Army Peoria Chapter or Dream Center Peoria.
John Komosa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jkom91. Includes information from the Journal Star archives.
This article originally appeared on Journal Star: Dave Rodgers, longtime baseball coach and mentor dies at age 77