Prep Baseball

Fight with cancer forces Beckman baseball to start season without Tom Jenk Jr.

Longtime Blazers coach determined to return to diamond this season despite brain tumor

Dyersville Beckman's Tom Jenk Jr fist bumps pitcher Connor McDermott (16) in a Class 2A quarterfinal against Pleasantville at the 2016 state baseball tournament at Principal Park in Des Moines. (The Gazette)
Dyersville Beckman's Tom Jenk Jr fist bumps pitcher Connor McDermott (16) in a Class 2A quarterfinal against Pleasantville at the 2016 state baseball tournament at Principal Park in Des Moines. (The Gazette)
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DYERSVILLE — Few coaches become synonymous with the programs they serve.

In the case of Tom Jenk Jr., he has been the backbone, face and spirit of the Dyersville Beckman baseball tradition, making the state tournament and vying for state titles an expectation more than a goal.

The Blazers’ home field at Commercial Club Park is named after him. The only thing more associated with baseball in this town is Ray Kinsella’s famous cornfield baseball diamond.

This season will begin different from the last 41 years. The Blazers will be without their venerable leader as Jenk battles Stage 4 glioblastoma brain cancer.

“It’s been tough,” said Beckman Coach Fred Martin, who is taking the reins after assisting Jenk for the last 20 seasons. “It’s hard to even talk about. The guy is such a legend up here. He’s been here since 1975.”

The players have missed his presence in the preseason. Jenk’s passion for baseball and the enthusiasm he brought to coaching can’t easily be duplicated.

“We talked about how it is different not having his energy and liveliness at practices to get us going,” Beckman senior Riley Legrand said. “We can tell he’s not there.”

The Blazers plan to use the blueprint the Hall of Fame coach devised that led to 16 of Beckman’s state tournament berths and most of the 12 state finals appearances, which ties for second all-time.

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“We’re trying to keep things the same,” Martin said. “It’s going to be strange. I’ve always been at first base and I’m not even going to take third base. My assistants will take first and third. I don’t want to take that position.“

Jenk, 64, became suddenly ill over Christmas break, suffering strokelike symptoms. Doctors found the brain tumor, but were only able to remove part of it. He underwent surgery and has received rigorous treatment. Jenk had to step away from his teaching and coaching posts.

When you say Beckman, the first thing you think about is Tom Jenk.

- Fred Martin

Beckman baseball coach

 
Legrand and other players learned about the situation before the New Year.

“It was very unexpected,” Legrand said. “We were all done with school. We had seen him the last day of tests. We had said goodbye. It was a shock to us when we heard the news.”

Martin said players continue to visit and ask about Jenk.

“They’re handling it well,” Martin said. “They love Coach Jenk. They kind of want to play for him this year. Do everything they can. The kids are really working hard.”

Jenk has returned to his home, being recently released from a skilled-care unit of Mercy Medical Center in Dyersville. The longtime Chicago Cubs fan remains passionate about baseball. He is determined to make Commercial Club Park for a Blazers game.

“He’ll still talk baseball,” Martin said. “He’ll talk your ears off about baseball.

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“He’s always positive. He says, ‘I’m going to be back up there. I’ll be back up there. I just have to get through this.’ I tell him I’ll get him up there. I’ll strap him in the Gator and we’ll get to the game. Baseball is his drive. He wants to get back out there.”

The results speak for themselves, beginning soon after the Drake alumnus was hired. Jenk won 1,056 games for Beckman. Beckman won four state titles (1986, 2000, 2012 and 2013) and made 11 finals appearances during his tenure. He was a big part of Beckman’s 27-11 overall state tournament record, coaching all but two of those wins. Only Hall of Famer Gene Schultz of Lansing Kee has coached in more state tournaments.

“When you say Beckman, the first thing you think about is Tom Jenk,” said Martin, who had three sons play for Jenk. “He’s a legend here. Everybody knows him. I’m getting calls from ballplayers back from the 1970s and 1980s. They want to make sure everything stays the same. It’s amazing the number of guys that keep calling.”

Basketball players wore warmups that said #TeamJenk on the back during the winter. More support came from the Someday Foundation. The organization will host the 17th Annual Swing For A Cure golf tournament at Timberline Golf Course in Peosta on June 24, honoring Jenk.

 
One of the former Blazers who answered the call to help was former all-stater Conner Klostermann, who played at DMACC this spring. He arranged to come back to help as an assistant when he heard the news. He was back less than a week before working on the high school diamond, where Jenk dedicated much of his time making improvements to batting cages, practice mounds and the field in general.

“Jenk is everything,” Klostermann said. “He’s a great guy. He’s a great role model. When it comes down to it, he’s irreplaceable. A guy like that only comes around once in a lifetime.”

Jenk earned loyalty, devotion and respect from his players. His straightforward approach and positive attitude to kids was a big reason. Martin said he had a knack of explaining what each player needed to work on to improve and contribute. He took care of kids and was fair with discipline, if a player got in trouble.

“T.J.,” as he was known to players, seemed to know what buttons to push, according to Klostermann.

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“He was a great motivator,” said Klostermann, who was the pitcher of record for Jenk’s 1,000th victory. “He seemed to do a little bit of everything. He was there for you when you needed a boost of confidence. He’d also give you a kick in the butt and say you need to get your stuff together.”

Even with Jenk not on the field, he still is making an impact on the Blazers, who return their top four pitchers from last year’s 24-18 team that made the Class 2A state quarterfinals. They see him continue to fight and he remains a source of motivation to those donning Beckman’s green-and-gold.

“He’s very optimistic,” Legrand said. “I know he wants to be out there on the field.

"He told us in January he was going to do all that he could to try to get back there, at least to the dugout with us. I don’t know if it’s going to happen but he’s doing everything he can to try to get back with us, so that’s very encouraging to us.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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