1,100 miles from home, Jeff Ditch fulfilling a lifelong dream
Jeff Ditch was born on a farm in rural North Dakota on May 6, 1966. There were no other kids within miles of his home, so he’d throw a baseball up against a garage wall, aspiring to become a pitcher for his beloved Minnesota Twins.
Approximately 1,100 miles away from home, Ditch is now the all-time winningest baseball manager in Indiana University of Pennsylvania Crimson Hawks history, looking to surpass the 200-win mark in his ninth season at the helm.
Pat Flaa, his mother, and Stuart Flaa, his stepfather, raised Ditch on a 180-acre farm where he and his younger half-brother Brad Flaa helped their parents deliver 16 pigs twice a year.
When Ditch was just 5 years old, his stepfather Stuart Flaa lost his eyesight in a car accident. Brad, his only sibling, had been born a year prior to the accident, so Ditch had to take on adult roles when he was just beginning grade school. According to his mother, he was driving a two-wheel tractor at the age of 7.
During his free time, Ditch would listen to Minnesota Twins games on the radio. According to his mother, the only time he’d miss a game is when he was being punished.
“That was the biggest punishment he could’ve gotten,” his mother said. “When he wasn’t helping on the farm, he was listening to the Twins game or throwing a baseball at the garage wall. He ended up wearing a hole in the wall.”
Delos Ditch, Jeff Ditch’s biological father, served in the Air Force as a warrant officer during the Vietnam War. He and Pat Flaa divorced while Jeff Ditch was an infant, so he only saw his son about once a month until Jeff Ditch earned his license as a teen.
Delos Ditch was struck by a B-40 rocket while taking off in a helicopter when his son was only 3 years old. He was wounded severely but survived after being rushed to a medical facility by the only passenger on board that wasn’t injured.
Despite the early hardships, Jeff Ditch went on to graduate from Richland High School in Colfax, N.D., in 1984 with a class size of a mere 19 students.
At Richland, Ditch played football and earned All-Region honors as a basketball player.
The school didn’t offer baseball due to the harsh spring weather, so Ditch chased his dreams of becoming an MLB player during the summer. He was a shortstop and pitcher for the Galchutt, N.D., Legion baseball team that won the regional championship in 1982.
Despite his extracurricular interests, Ditch was regularly on the honor roll, and he graduated near the top of his class academically.
“If you’re competitive and you have self-discipline, then you’re going to get good grades,” Ditch said. “Once I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional baseball player when I was 16 or 17 years old, I decided to pursue being a math teacher or coach.”
Instead of choosing between them, he did both. Ditch received his bachelor’s degree as a cum laude double major in mathematics and physical education with a minor in athletic coaching at Valley City State University in 1989.
He played second base for the 1987 VCSU baseball team that won the NAIA district championship. That team was eventually inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.
During his summer breaks, he went home to manage the Galchutt Legion baseball team that he played for before college. He also worked at his dad’s gas station and as a carpenter’s assistant.
Ditch’s hard work away from school allowed him to graduate from VCSU debt free.
He quickly landed a job in Agate, Colo., teaching high school-level math, and shortly after he was able to find a teaching job closer to home in Wahperton, N.D.
In 1991, just as Ditch’s career began to lift off, his father, Delos, died in a single-car accident.
During his time away from baseball, he realized that the sport was his main passion, so he put a halt to his teaching career to pursue a master’s degree in athletic administration from St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn.
At SCSU, he earned a job as a graduate assistant, coaching their Division II baseball team. That opportunity kicked the door wide open for him to pursue a career in the game he adored.
While serving as an assistant coach for the SCSU Huskies’ baseball team in 1993, he sent out nearly 50 resumes to USA Today’s list of top schools in the country.
One of two coaches that got back to him was Joe Hindelang, the baseball manager at Penn State University.
“I was just this farm kid from North Dakota,” Ditch said. “I’d barely ever been out of the state at that point.”
The two of them eventually discussed the job’s circumstances via phone. The Penn State skipper explained that his team needed extra help because the school was making the jump from the Atlantic 10 Conference to the Big 10, one of the most prolific conferences in all of college athletics.
Unfortunately, Hindelang also told Ditch that the school was only offering a $2,000 salary for another assistant baseball coach.
“I mean, no one is going to do anything for a couple thousand dollars,” Hindelang said. “I told Jeff he couldn’t come across country for this kind of money. That’d be crazy.”
In 1994, just a couple days after the initial conversation, Joe Hindelang gave Ditch a call on his landline. His mother answered and explained that her son had already packed his bags and was headed to Penn State University.
“Jeff always told me that his dad told him not to worry about money and that it might come later,” Hindelang said.
That advice proved correct. As soon as he arrived at PSU, he was able to bump his yearly salary up to $5,000. That amount reached $16,000 by the time he decided to move on.
Ditch worked as Hindelang’s right-hand man. He recruited, worked with all position players, and did the team’s computer work. He even started the “Dug Out Club” that had 300 members just a few years following its beginning.
“If there’s a supreme being, that person sent me Jeff Ditch. I can’t think of enough adjectives to describe him,” Hindelang said. “He didn’t leave any stone unturned trying to find the good recruits. He was a tireless recruiter.”
Although Ditch had already parted ways with PSU, Hindelang credits Ditch for recruiting the Penn State Nittany Lion team that reached the Austin, Texas, Super Regional finals in 2000.
Ditch left Penn State in 1999 for a full-time coaching job at the University of Cincinnati that would nearly double his salary.
He continued to climb the ladder, also making stops at West Virginia University and Young Harris College before landing his first managerial job at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Things did not go well for Ditch in his first year in charge of the Crimson Hawks baseball team in 2006. They won 10 of 51 games, finishing last in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference’s West Division.
His tireless recruiting efforts led to a 36-19 season for IUP in 2008. The 26-win improvement over the three years was the best of any NCAA Division I or Division II program in the country.
In 2010, Ditch coached the Crimson Hawks to a PSAC West regular-season title. That year, IUP finished 31-24 while breaking 27 school records.
Ditch still has the lineup card in his office from the game in which they beat Gannon University to clinch first place in the PSAC West.
That lineup card features Paul Bingham, who earned All-American honors as a shortstop that year and went on to be drafted in the 20th round of the MLB amateur draft by the San Diego Padres.
“I definitely wouldn’t be the person I am today without Coach Ditch,” Bingham said. “He got me in the right mindset. He taught me more than just baseball.
“He taught life.”
His impact extends beyond baseball for other students.
Ditch uses the slogan “win with class” to emphasize his belief that effort in the classroom is just as important as effort on the field. Since Ditch took over the IUP baseball team they’ve had 184 Dean’s List honors, 83 PSAC Scholar Athletes, two PSAC top-10 awards and two IUP Scholar Athlete’s of the Year – Ryan Mostyn and Jake Rougeaux.
During his time at IUP, Ditch has coached the Cotuit Kettleers of the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League where he’s developed several MLB draft picks.
In January of 2008, he traveled to the Dominican Republic to participate in the “Meeting God in Missions” baseball camp. In 2011, he went to Haiti with “Hearts For the Hungry” to assist Haitians on the Island of Tortuga.
In his 20-plus years of coaching, Ditch has developed 114 MLB draft picks, 13 of whom went on to play for a MLB club (Kevin Youkilis and Justin Maxwell to name a few).
“Bits and pieces of everywhere that I’ve been made me the coach I am today,” Ditch said. “You appreciate where you are. And I appreciate being at IUP.”