It's not often you see a World Series ring being worn at the local high school baseball field. But if you venture to a Pennsville Memorial (N.J.)
game this year, there's a chance you'll see one. Or at the very least, you'll see a player who owns one.
Pennsville varsity assistant coach Chris Widger won a World Series ring in 2005 as a backup catcher for the Chicago White Sox. It's a 14-karat gold ring with the Sox logo written in diamonds on a black onyx stone. The stone is encircled with two rows of diamonds. It's as stunning as it sounds and he wears it well.
But as impressive as the ring is both for how it looks and what it represents, there's another championship that has always eluded the former big-leaguer. It's a title that if he does win it, won't earn him a ring, a bonus, or even a personal trophy to put on his mantle.
Instead, it's one that will bring him an enormous amount of hometown pride.
Widger was a three-year starter behind the plate for Pennsville, a small-school baseball powerhouse in the Garden State that boasts six state championships and countless South Jersey and Tri-County Conference titles. But the Eagles never won a state championship during Widger's high school career.
"We had a pretty darn good year with a bunch of guys who just liked being together," Widger recalled of his senior year, when Pennsville won the South Jersey Group I crown. "But, of course, we wanted to win a state title."
Widger went on to have a stellar career at George Mason University and then spent 10 years in the Major Leagues playing for, in addition to the White Sox, Seattle, Montreal, New York Yankees, St. Louis and Baltimore.
In 2006, Widger retired from baseball and returned to his hometown, where he made a smooth transition from being a big-leaguer to … well, just being a dad.
"I came back and was just a dad," he said with a chuckle. "I had missed so much time with my family being on the road. I would leave in February and come home in October. So for the first two years after I was done playing, I just stayed home with the kids and enjoyed my time with them. It was my winding down period."
Since that two-year period ended, Widger has kept himself busy by giving batting lessons at a nearby facility and volunteering as a coach for the high school basketball team. He also details cars, owns a seasonal landscaping business, and is a "stay-at-home" dad to his three children.
So he wasn't necessarily looking for a paid baseball position. But at the end of last season, when the varsity assistant job at his alma mater opened up, Widger got the call.
"I felt it was an opportunity Chris should take because you never know when the chance to join the staff as an official coach is going to come up again," head coach Matt O'Brien explained. "I'm glad we got him in the door."
Widger has been coaching his 12-year-old son's Little League team for several years, but admitted that tackling the mindset of a high school player is an entirely different ball game.
"Younger kids are just starting to learn the game, so they aren't set in their ways," Widger explained. "High school kids have played for a while and played travel ball, so when you try and to teach them new ideas, it's tough. But we have a good group of kids who have all been open to suggestions and they've worked hard to get better. It's pretty cool when they come up after practice and want to take some extra batting practice."
O'Brien has seen immediate results from having Widger on his staff, but said he feels absolutely no pressure to win now that he has a former Major League player as his top assistant.
"I delegate a lot as a head coach and so we win and lose as a staff," said O'Brien, who played first base at Pennsville in the mid 1990s. "Chris brings a lot of experience and does a great job with the kids. Because of his vast experience, during games he picks up on all the small details that other coaches usually don't."
Widger is working closely with the pitchers and catchers, but he's also lending his expertise in the batting cages, where he stresses techniques he's learned from having worked with hitting instructors on six major and 15 minor league teams.
"I don't teach a system," Widger stressed. "I teach on a kid-to-kid basis. I look at what they have to work with and what has made them successful. We talk a lot about hitting the ball out in front and transferring weight. The popular ‘squash-the-bug' technique works against average pitching, but I want them to be able to step in the box and have the mindset and skills to be successful against whoever we face."
The Eagles have not won a state title since 2006, ironically, just a few months after Widger won his World Series ring. And although Widger said he didn't get into coaching just to win a state title, he admitted that doing so as a coach would have a special feeling to it.
"In some ways it would be more gratifying than doing it as a player because you know you had a hand in teaching someone else to play the correct way," Widger said. "And then to have them go out there and succeed and see the joy they have with that success … I would be extremely happy for them."
It would be a feeling that not even diamonds can buy. Jon Buzby is the sports columnist for the Newark Post, a freelance writer, and on the broadcast team for the 1290AM The Ticket High School Football and Basketball Games of the Week. You can reach him at email@example.com.