Todd Fitz-Gerald was named the 2021 ABCA/ATEC High School Division I National Coach of the Year and the Florida Dairy Farmers State Coach of the Year after leading Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (FL) to a 28-2 record and a state title. The Eagles also finished the season as the top-ranked prep team in the country (Perfect Game) for the second time in the past six years. MSD has seen much, much more than its share of hard times, just a few years removed from the 2018 school shooting that took the lives of 17 students and staff members. The half dozen seniors on the 2021 team, who were freshmen at the time of the tragedy, have helped the school and the community continue to recover by continuing to raise the bar at one of the elite programs in the country.
Inside Pitch: What have you learned these past few years about yourself as a coach, and how has that helped you guide your players through tough times?
I've learned patience, and that there are many greater things in this world than a high school baseball game. I have learned to communicate with my players better over the last four or five years. I've really taken mental health into consideration a lot more. I used to be an old-school coach: whatever I thought, that’s what would come out of my mouth. I’ve gotten better at really thinking about what I say to a kid before I say it. I don't ever want a player to leave the field with a negative thought in their mind. If that happens, then I’m not doing a very good job as a coach.
IP: Has there been anything tangible that has helped your group out with the mental game?
Anything I can do to give our kids an understanding of life outside of baseball helps, in my opinion. I'll bring in an army veteran to come speak to our kids. I'll bring in the local police. I had a former player that just got out of prison. They speak about opportunities, about consequences, about life and about family. I want our players to understand that we coach because we care and we're always going to be here. Once you're in this family, you're always in this family. We're never going to turn our back on these kids, no matter what.
IP: Is there anything new in the ‘playbook’ that helped get you to this point?
A lot of our success can be attributed to the stability of our coaching staff. We all coach the junior varsity as well, so the terminology and everything the kids are getting down there is the same when they get up to varsity––we don't have to install or reteach anything. It's really important for the head coach to put their eyes on those JV kids as well, because that’s the foundation of the program.
IP: You've got tradition and you've got talent, but what are some other factors that you think has kept your staff together for so long?
As the head coach, you have to let your assistants coach, you have to trust them to get your players ready to play. I'm not one of those guys that stands over my coaches. If you're the positional coach, I expect you to get that unit prepared and ready to play. Then when we go into our team stuff; it all ties together.
IP: Have you always had that ability to let your assistants do their thing? Or is that something that you had to learn over time as a coach?
I've learned it over time. I used to be a control freak––I'd coach the defense, the offense, the pitching––all of it. But you get to a point where you recognize that it’s too much. My assistants and I all put our heads together and try to do our best to make our team successful. It's not a one-man show, you know?
IP: How do you handle your dual guys?
I give them two years on the JV level to figure out if they're going to be a PO or if they're going to be able to hit. And then when they get to the varsity level, I don't really let our pitchers hit, with some rare exceptions.
IP: Does that evolution of the ‘PO’ bother you? Do you think the game will ever go back to more dual guys?
I don't know that it'll ever go back just because of the way things are now with recruiting. If you look at college baseball, there aren’t a whole lot of two-way guys. So as a high school or travel coach, you want to do what's best for each kid and their futures. For example, one of the best outfielders we have is my number one guy on the mound––he’s one of those exceptions. The last thing I want to do is put him right back out there the day after he pitches. It's hard because you want to win, but you need to protect those guys. Now if your only shortstop is your second-best pitcher, that’s something you must figure out as a coach. But there are no perfect solutions when it comes to those dual guys. We just try to evaluate the best we can and do what we think is going to be best for their futures.
IP: Speaking of protecting your players, how do you handle the summer coaching circuit?
There are certain travel teams that I really respect, and others that I don't want my kids playing for. At the end of the day, I'm not going to tell my kids what they can and can't do; they have to make those decisions on their own. I do coach travel ball myself, and a handful of my [MSD] guys do play for me. Some of our higher profile guys go elsewhere, and the coaches they play for do a really good job with them.
IP: What are your relationships like with parents?
I have a great booster club with a great president, so if there are any issues, that can usually be handled with those folks. And if they feel like I need to deal with it, that’s what we do. I have an open-door policy when it comes to parents or players who want to talk about recruiting, but I won’t talk to a parent about playing time. That's between the player and the coach. If your kid isn’t playing, they should let you know why, and what they need to do to get better. But our parents are really good here. I’m sure there are some who want their kids to play more than others, but they know that you don't have to be a starter in our program to be able to go play college baseball.
IP: What kind of advice do you give your players in general when it comes to the next level of recruiting and getting your name out there?
The summer's where it's at because all the college guys are out; you have to remember they are playing games in the spring just like everyone else. I try to give our players an idea of where they are regarding development and where I think they can play. I tell them to narrow it down to schools that you really are interested in, that have your major, so God forbid something goes wrong with baseball, you’re already at a place where you can stay and continue your education.
When I talk to coaches at the next level, I’m going to tell the truth, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. But at the same time, you have to promote your players as a coach––that’s as important as anything you do.
IP: You've got good baseball at all levels in Florida, particularly at the junior college level. Do you think it's safe to say that JUCO could be a good option for almost anybody?
I think junior college is a great option for everybody…let me tell you why. My oldest son, Hunter, was the Player of the Year here in 2019. He was a late bloomer, and he was drafted, but he was a one-year starter on the varsity level here. He went to NCAA Div. II Florida Southern and then COVID hit, so they get a couple guys who came back that they thought were going to graduate. He was going to have to sit another year behind those guys so he decided to transfer. He went to junior college and it was just a great experience for him. At that level, you’re going to get 120 at-bats in the fall and another 150 in the spring. And I think junior college is great from a pitching standpoint too. If a guy's just not quite ready, he can go throw a bunch of innings in junior college and two years from now…you never know.
IP: How did the dash in your last name come about?
I think that my father told me a long time ago that our family wanted to distinguish the Fitz-Gerald name in a different way than most, because I guess they felt like we were royalty or something. So, they just put the dash in the name to separate from everybody else. I've never seen it spelled that way before. I've seen Fitzgerald as one word, Fitz Gerald with a capital G, FitzGerald together, but I've never seen Fitz-Gerald. So I always tell everybody it's because we're royalty.