Baseball Down East: Schiffner Heads North To The University Of Maine
By: Kat Szmit
Topics: Chatham , Cape Cod Baseball League
CHATHAM ─ John Schiffner might have moved on from his post as head coach of the Chatham Anglers, but that doesn't mean he's finished with baseball. Instead, he's taking his talents from the sandy shores of Cape Cod to the evergreen hills of Orono, Maine where he will serve as the assistant baseball coach for the UMaine Black Bears.
According to Schiffner, he will be working with hitters and infielders, serving as third base coach, as the liaison between athletics and academics, the community service coordinator, and as recruiter for the southern New England area.
Schiffner was brought into the Black Bear den by new head coach Nick Derba, who played for Schiffner in 2004, 2005, and 2006, and also coached with him for a summer in 2013.
“He's like a son,” said Schiffner, who added that Derba was made interim head coach when former head coach Steve Trimper accepted a position with Stetson in January. When Derba was named formally to the position he brought Schiffner on board, but with one requirement: Schiffner had to relinquish his job as head coach of the Anglers.
Why? His new job comes with a full-time contract under which he will be recruiting, and that includes players with the potential for playing in the Cape League.
“Can some Div. 1 coaches coach in the CCBL? Yes,” said Schiffner. “We can't afford to do that, mainly because we're not getting kids calling us saying, 'I want to come to Maine.'”
Schiffner said that UMaine's conference, America East, is very competitive, but that UMaine isn't as visible on the radar as other schools.
“We're not high profile so we're certainly not going to get your blue chip prospects,” Schiffner said. “So we've got to grind and we've got to find those kids that can fit at UMaine. It's a wonderful place to go to school, a wonderful academic school, but it's out there.”
The school itself is located roughly 14 miles from Bangor and is more than a five-hour drive from Cape Cod, which means Schiffner will be tasked not only with finding top notch student athletes, but also those who will acclimate well to the locale.
“You've got to sell your program, sell the school, sell the schedule, and sell the southern trips. That's a challenge in itself,” he said. “I don't think some of the big time programs are challenged. They just click their fingers and get most of the kids they want. We're in competition with dozens of mid-major Div. 1 schools in the Northeast.”
Schiffner said that if his team wins the conference, the coaches have done their jobs.
“And winning the conference is a challenge because the teams in that conference are very, very competitive,” he said. “They're all about the same academic level, the same size, so it's a challenge. You've got to get out there, gotta grind.”
That grind is as familiar to Schiffner as his own face in the mirror as he's lived it for more than a few decades. Schiffner got his start with the Cape League as a player for the Harwich Mariners. He then served as an assistant coach for the team in 1977 before venturing to Chatham where he was assistant coach from 1978 to 1982, returning to Chatham in 1990 once again as an assistant coach.
In 1993, Schiffner took over as head coach, leading the struggling team to a first-place finish that season. Since then he has coached more than 115 current and past Major League ballplayers and has seen the Anglers through a name change, two league championships, six division titles, and 16 playoff appearances, including the team's most recent. In 2015 he became the first CCBL coach to record a 500th career win and remains the winningest coach in league history.
“I'll always remember the Chatham A's. Everything about it, from the people I worked with going back into the '70s, the host families back then, and coming back in 1990 and there were still familiar faces,” Schiffner said. “And just the town of Chatham. The longer I've been here, the more you feel comfortable. It's great to go into a restaurant and, 'Hey Coach! How's the recruiting going?' That's been special, to become a part of the community.”
The fact that his wife Martha is a Chatham native further sweetened the experience.
“That was even better because you inherit her friends and her family,” he said. “It's been a wonderful experience.”
But Schiffner added that after 25 years at the helm, it was time to step down, though it was a difficult decision.
“You kind of just say, 'It's time,' and it worked out perfectly,” he said. “But it was tough. It was really, really tough. It will always be tough. But I needed to do it. It seemed to be a perfect time, and for a lot of reasons it's time to go.”
Since the Chatham Athletic Association, which oversees the Anglers, made the announcement about Schiffner's departure in July, the well-wishes and tributes have been pouring in. Not only was he fittingly honored at Veterans Field, but he was also given gifts by other Cape League teams, all of which has humbled Schiffner.
“I can't thank them enough for the wonderful day they put on,” said Schiffner of the Anglers. “And all the wonderful accolades I've been given. It's certainly not something I've expected. I don't think I deserve them. I've always told people that I'm just doing my job. I did it to the best of my ability, and isn't that what you're supposed to do? To receive these accolades has been overwhelming and humbling. It's been phenomenal.”
Baseball, said Schiffner, will always hold his heart.
“It's just a great game,” he said. “There's something about it. I guess it's a hobby to a certain extent. Or an addiction, I guess is the better term. I have loved baseball since the day I was able to start doing it. What's funny is that I was a very good player from day one. From that, I loved to listen about the game. I read about the game.”
Early Christmas requests included baseball books and subscriptions to magazines like Sports Illustrated.
“It's such a great game,” he said. “I think the most fascinating thing about it is that you're failing 70 percent of the time and you're considered one of the best in your game. That's pretty impressive when you think about it. If you're shooting baskets at 30 percent, you're not playing. If you're passing 30 percent in football, you're not playing. If you're hitting .300, or 30 percent, in baseball, you're going to play a lot. I think that grabs your attention.”
Since Schiffner will be able to work from his Harwich home during the summer months, he's hoping to make it to a Cape League game or two.
“That was part of the deal,” he said. “When Nick and I sat down and discussed my duties and he said, 'You're going to recruit,' and I said, 'Can I stay at the Cape in the summer and recruit from the Cape?' and he said, 'Absolutely.' Because if I'm up there in Orono, that's giving up a lot. I want to enjoy, for the first time in God knows how long, what a summer is like on Cape Cod.”
Schiffner said he was in high school when he first considered coaching, inspired by his own ability to absorb the nuances of the game. As his playing skills waned a bit, his instructional instincts sharpened.
“At a certain point my abilities started to slow down against everybody else, and I even further listened,” he said. “All of a sudden now I'm figuring things out. I said, 'I could do this as a living.'”
Ultimately he became a teacher and a coach, and the rest, as they say, is history. Though he's sticking with coaching for the foreseeable future, he's looking forward to having more time to pursue his various hobbies, which include golf, fishing, hunting, and repurposing wine bottles.
“I take wine bottles and I cut them down and turn them into drinking glasses,” he said.
His boat is aptly dubbed the “Summer Catch” and he appreciates reading the biographies of famous people while enjoying a sip or two of good bourbon. He's not much of a traveler, and is looking forward to enjoying the Cape in summertime, something not easily done when fielding phone calls from college coaches looking to place players with the Anglers.
“Coaching a Cape Cod League team is a 12-month job,” Schiffner said. “In some ways I like to call it almost an 18-month job because I had phone calls last year for 2019.”
His new job will allow Schiffner the chance to find balance between coaching and being a Cape Codder, while keeping his finger firmly on the pulse of college baseball.
“I'm not done with baseball just yet,” he said. “And I don't think I ever will be.”