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updated: 6/18/2013 4:38 PM

Tearjerker of an ending for Simon at Lake Zurich

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  • Lake Zurich head baseball coach Gary Simon, shown here congratulating Sean Eder after a home run in 2011, will not return for a 14th season with the Bears.

      Lake Zurich head baseball coach Gary Simon, shown here congratulating Sean Eder after a home run in 2011, will not return for a 14th season with the Bears.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer


The ending made a grown man, a baseball romantic, spill a tear.

It happens over and over.

Gary Simon watches "Field of Dreams," twice a week he says, and can't help himself when Kevin Costner's character has a catch with his long deceased dad.

"I cry all the time at the end," said Simon, chuckling.

Simon's love of the game has always been transparent -- and audible. Next spring, Lake Zurich's third base coach's box will be a little quieter, sadly. After 13 seasons as head coach of LZ's Bears, Simon was told his contract would not be renewed. You can dismiss the man who rapidly utters, "C'monC'monBigCat" as rhythmically as "Swingbatta'batta'Swing" and break his heart, but you can't take away what he accomplished on Lake Zurich's ballfield, the relationships he fostered with both players and parents, and his spirit.

"It's really my faith that keeps me on keel," Simon said. "I really believe God's got a plan for all our lives, for whatever reason. I might have already seen a few reasons. I've spent time with my daughter and my grandkids that I wouldn't have spent before. I see some things that I haven't done in the past that now I can do. Which is a good thing."

Before the Tanner Witts arrived, Lake Zurich's Bears were the "Bad News Bears" with Tanner Boyles. Then LZ summonded Simon.

He had coached at Wauconda for 10 years, transitioned to indoor baseball at Grand Slam USA for 11 years, then went back to Wauconda for five seasons as the sophomore coach. In 2000, he replaced Rick Splitt, who resigned to go to Palatine. Simon became Lake Zurich's fourth head coach in four years, taking over a program that was winning only a handful of games each season.

"The program was in shambles," Simon said. "Good players no longer played baseball.

"When I came in the first day with the group, I said, 'How many of you guys have aspirations of playing college baseball?' Nobody raised their hand."

The Bears cracked double-digit wins in Simon's first season, and it would get only better. Lake Zurich won a pair of North Suburban Conference championships and captured the NSC Lake Division three years in a row. The Bears played in five regional finals, winning two. They lost by a run to Stevenson in a sectional final. Twice, they advanced to the Elite Eight in the summer tournament.

Simon's teams won 20 or more games seven times. Despite a slow start this past season, which was saw several key players out of the lineup for various reasons, the Bears finished 15-17.

As the program grew, more and more Bears had aspirations of playing college baseball.

Jordin Hood was "the first to break the mold," Simon said of the slugger who signed with Northern Illinois. Then along came Joey DeBernardis, who played four varsity seasons, signed with Penn State and was drafted by the Marlins his senior year.

This year, the Bears boasted a team-record eight players, including catcher Anthony Drago (Illinois) and pitcher Austin Foote (Indiana), who signed to play college ball before the first pitch of the season was thrown. Last year's college-bound Bears included pitcher Mike Lutz (Purdue) and Sean Eder (Ball State). Former Bears succeeding at the next level include the versatile Tanner Witt, who this spring helped Kansas State win the Big 12 title for the first time in 80 years, and hard-throwing pitcher Ben Gullo, who helped Eastern Kentucky win its conference last year.

"To me," Simon said of the many Bears who've gone on to play in college, "that's an indication of how good your program is."

It wasn't enough to save his job, however. On the last day of school, Lake Zurich athletic director Rolly Vazquez informed Simon that the program was going in a different direction and he wouldn't be steering it.

"I was stunned," said Simon, who just a year earlier led his team to a 24-11 season.

Players and parents were equally shaken. The news that he wasn't coming back as head coach had leaked two days before the team awards night. A night that's always emotional became especially so.

The coach appreciated the sympathy.

"That was the gratifying thing," Simon said. "I had the choice of when to tell (the players), and I had to tell them at least by the end of the awards night. At the end, I said, 'My contract wasn't renewed. I'm not going to go into the whys and wherefores.' I didn't want the kids to think I was leaving on them."

Simon wasn't going to bail on his kids, despite him and the rest of the baseball coaches receiving a drastic pay cut after last year. He wanted to still run his summer camps but was told that wasn't going to happen either.

So after spending 13 years building a baseball program into what it is today -- one of the best in Lake County -- the skipper is out.

"I'm proud of what I did," Simon said.

He should be. Just look around.

"The facilities have totally changed," Simon said, noting Lake Zurich's improved dugouts, bullpen area and scoreboard.

His priority was always the kids. He'll miss having a catch, like Costner's Ray Kinsella at the end.

"Pretty much every boy came up to me at the awards night," Simon said. "They were standing in line to give me a hug and shake my hand, and the varsity guys were all in tears. A lot of the parents were, too. I took me two days to answer emails and text messages from alumni players."

A Bear has been silenced. But rest assured, we haven't heard the last of him.

Somewhere, a coach's box is screaming for him.

"I just can't play the game and not be enthusiastic about it," Simon said.

Message heard loud and clear, Coach.

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