SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – The Ivy Hill Park softball field was christened the Mike Sheppard Sr. Field in honor of the former Seton Hall baseball coach on Thursday.
Most often used by the Seton Hall softball team, the Mike Sheppard Sr. Field was rebuilt in 2005.
“I’m honored, humbled and happy to have this field named for me by the Essex County Freeholders and Executive Joseph DiVincenzo,” Sheppard said. “I first came here in 1946. I began playing organized ball here with Sacred Heart-Vailsburg in 1950.”
Growing up in Newark’s Vailburg area, Sheppard learned the game of baseball in the area surrounding the park. The field also was named after him because of his work as chairman of the Essex County American Legion Baseball Program since 1983.
“The Sheppard family, through of course the father and the entire family – you know what they have done, as a family,” DiVincenzo said. “The lives that they have changed in this county, not only through athletics but also being a mentor to many, many kids, some that have made it and some that have not.”
Sheppard is mostly known as the head coach of the Seton Hall baseball program for 31 seasons. During his tenure, Sheppard won 998 games while advancing to the College World Series in 1974 and 1975, and winning the 1987 Big East Championship. He also had more than 80 of his former players sign professional contracts.
In 2011, he was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Seton Hall Athletic Hall of Fame in 1996. His number, 17, was retired in 2004.
“When it comes to Seton Hall and Newark, he is Seton Hall, he is Newark, he is Essex County. He’s had an influence on so many different people not only as a player but in life,” former player and New York Yankee Rick Cerone said. “Nobody deserves it more than he does.”
Sheppard was also instrumental in helping Essex County Freeholder Rufus Johnson create a Little League in Vailsburg park. He gave Johnson and the fellow coaches in the league free lessons, and the most important message Johnson said Sheppard gave them was, “If you are going to be running that darn league, you better make sure that you’re teaching these kids the integrity that they need to move forward.”
Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura noted that the best way to honor Sheppard besides naming the field after him was to turn the park into a sanctuary.
“It’s not a sanctuary if people can’t come here and play without looking over their shoulders; it’s not going to work,” he said. “We will do our very best to maintain this place as a sanctuary, a peaceful place, that people can come and play anytime. “
Sheppard, surrounded by family and friends, noted, “I have been blessed with great players at every level, but it all started here with Sacred Heart-Vailburg baseball.” He concluded by saying, “If you are proud of where you came from, you will always know where you are going and take pride in everything you do.”
Steve Valenti is participating in a hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts designed to give students real-world experience.