WJU’s Fritts Is A Two-Sport Closer
WHEELING – Apparently they call Wheeling Jesuit’s Justin Fritts “Mr. Basketball” because they don’t want to step on Bob Uecker’s toes.
Turns out, the reigning West Virginia Conference Men’s Basketball Freshman of the Year is some kind of baseball pitcher, too.
”I had never seen him with a baseball in his hand,” WJU baseball coach Terry Edwards said. ”I had heard a few testimonials.”
While Fritts, a 6-foot-1 left-hander who throws in the low-90s (sometimes also known as a winning lottery ticket), figured his future was in basketball because he’d gotten so many college offers in high school, he really didn’t want to close the door on baseball.
Turns out, closing the door was his specialty.
After throwing multiple bullpen sessions to build up his arm, Fritts was used as a late-inning reliever where he made nine appearances for Edwards’ club and struck out 19 batters in 11.2 innings with a trio of saves with a 3.09 ERA. He surrendered only four hits.
”The ball just jumps out of his hands,” Edwards said.
Last summer, Fritts nearly gave up baseball. He wanted to concentrate on basketball, a sport where he earned Ohio’s most prestigious basketball honor – ”Mr. Basketball”- symbolic of the state’s top player.
But he made a deal with a friend that if he’d play in a summer baseball league, Fritts would too.
”I pitched and as I walked off the mound, my coach goes, ‘do you know how hard you were throwing? That pitch was 90 miles per hour.’ I had never really paid attention to those readings. That opened up a whole new world for me.”
He wanted to play both sports in college and he found a big fan from a somewhat unlikely source – WJU men’s basketball coach Dan Sancomb. Sancomb had landed one of the most ballyhooed recruits of his tenure, and he was facing the possibility of sharing him with the baseball team.
”Coach Sancomb has been the biggest supporter of me playing both sports,” Fritts said. ”He’s wishing you the best at whatever you do. There was no ‘don’t get hurt or don’t overdue it. Just go out and do the best you can.’ ”
That’s when Fritts knew he’d found a home with the Cardinals.
Once the basketball season started, Fritts’ legend grew. He had a mountain of expectations on his shoulders before the season’s first tip. All he did was average 16 points, hit every other shot he took, and half a hundred 3-pointers on his way to being named the best freshman in the league.
”That was the toughest part coming in,” Fritts said. ”I don’t like living up to people I simply can’t, like LeBron James (a three-time Ohio Mr. Basketball from 2001-03). I like being the best I can be but I don’t like to live up to people’s expectations that are unreachable.
”I’m a perfectionist. I love being the best at what I can do. I don’t like struggling.”
”As a basketball player, what’s unique is he’s 6-1 and how he scores,” he said. ”They’ll put bigger guards on him and he’ll still get his shot off. He can score in every way you can score in the game of basketball. He’s very unique scorer.”
For his part, Edwards was happy to see his school get a great basketball recruit, knowing little to nothing about Fritts’ baseball skills.
”Coach Sancomb recruited ‘Mr. Basketball,’ and I thought that was a pretty big deal,” Edwards said.
But as he said, the testimonials started to come in.
”I didn’t overreact,” Edwards said. ”I wanted to get a look for myself. I was kind of excited he was a pitcher. You can never have enough of those. And he was a left-hander and you really can’t get enough of those.
”But like I always say, ‘don’t tell me how good you are, show me.’ ”
After a magical basketball season ended in which the Cardinals went beyond expectations for a young team, Fritts built up that arm.
”He was rusty at first and he was all over the place,” Edwards recalled. ”The more he got on the mound, the more comfortable he got. (By the end of the season), he was filthy. He had an offspeed pitch that was really coming around.”
Edwards, who’d been around baseball his entire life, knew what he had on his hands.
”I gave him the old wink, wink,” Edwards said. ”You do realize what you are sitting on here, don’t you?”
Fritts, who claims he’s a better baseball player than basketball, has always dreamed of being drafted in the big leagues. But that will have to wait.
”I’m going to keep on playing both sports,” he said. ”I’m going to try to keep on getting as good as I can in both sports. There’s no way I’m giving up basketball. But I’m going to die trying to get to there.”
Sancomb doesn’t doubt him.
”He’s a special person, not just a special player,” Sancomb said, echoing something Edwards also mentioned. ”He’s been on the run (playing multiple sports) his whole life. Justin’s got his priorities straight. He’s very dedicated to our basketball program. He’s going to continue to do both as long as he wants to do both. He’s just dedicated. He’s a winner. He’s got that fire that burns, he loves to compete.”
That’s on the mound and at the free-throw line in a big game. You wouldn’t believe which one is more nerve-wracking.
”I’ve been in some pretty big basketball games,” Fritts said. ”But whenever I get on the mound, I’m much more nervous.”
Imagine how the hitters feel. Or a 1-on-1 defender. That’s real anxiety.