JOLIET – His fellow teachers are spending the summer back in the classroom or in the front passenger''s seat of a driver''s ed car. They''re cutting lawns or landscaping properties. Some paint houses. Others put new roofs on them.
He plays professional baseball. Just as he has for the previous 13 summers.
And to hear the former Illinois pitcher tell it, it''s a great gig if you can get it.
"With me, this is a perfect summer job," Hyde said this week. "You can''t beat it."
For nine months a year, Hyde teaches physical education at Westview Elementary School in Champaign. For the other three, the right-handed starter takes the mound every five days for the Joliet Jackhammers.
That, in itself, is a testament to the Champaign native''s remarkable staying power in a young man''s game. At 35, he''s the Northern League''s version of Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson: an All-Star still burning brightly in the twilight of his career.
"He''s one of those ageless vets," Joliet manager Jeff Isom said. "He''s getting better with time."
In this, his 10th season in the independent league and 14th overall in pro ball, Hyde is 7-2 and showing no sign of slowing down his mowing down of batters. Through Tuesday, the Centennial High graduate was tied for the league lead in victories and ranked among the leaders in ERA (2.92) and innings pitched (74).
"He''s throwing the ball extremely well," said Isom, a former pitcher at Purdue and in the minor leagues. "What Rich has going for him is he knows how to pitch, and he has a good fastball at his age.
"You know he''s going to be around the plate and give you quality innings and give you the opportunity to win a game."
So far, he''s won 80 of them since entering the Northern League in 1994 for the first of two stints in the league.
"I''ve been healthy, and I haven''t had any arm problems," Hyde said of his staying power. "As a pitcher, I think I''ve matured later. It''s a little surprising that I''m 35 and still getting guys out. But I''m pleased with the success I''ve had."
If the comparisons with Clem-ens and Johnson are appropriate, then perhaps another would be, too. Those 80 victories are a league record, making Hyde the Cy Young of the Northern League.
The Northern League''s oldest player has been called plenty of other things, too, by his teammates. Hyde''s age and longevity make him an easy target for sometimes biting – but always good-natured – jibes by the whippersnappers in the clubhouse.
"I''m ''Grandpa'' or ''The old guy,'' " Hyde said.
Perhaps the most clever dig he''s heard about his age oc-curred when the Jackhammers'' marketing department put Hyde''s visage on a bobblehead doll. When teammates caught wind of the promotional freebie, they let Hyde have it.
"They talked about it having a gray beard and a cane," he said. "It''s all in fun. I take it in stride."
Put me in, Coach
Good thing, too; otherwise the youngish pitchers on the Jackhammer staff would be well advised to bite their tongue when Hyde''s age is the topic.
That''s because "Grandpa" also is Joliet''s pitching coach, duties he took on for the first time this season.
It''s a move that offers short- and long-term benefits for Hyde. As a player with five or more years of service in the Northern League, he''d hit the ceiling of the league''s pay scale, so the additional job was a way to boost an otherwise stagnated paycheck.
More important to Hyde, being a player-coach puts him on track to remain in the game after his playing days are done.
"I''ve seen it done with other pitchers in this league, so I thought I''d give it a try," he said. "I still want to play, but I''m not going to play forever. I love the game, and I want to stay involved in it."
Besides a wealth of pitching experience, Hyde brings some practical experience to the job. From 1999 to 2002, he spent his springs as a high school pitching coach – first at Mahomet-Seymour and then at his alma mater. He also was the head coach at Unity in 1998.
Under Hyde''s guidance, the Jackhammer staff ranks fourth in the 10-team league in ERA.
"It''s gone pretty good," he said. "You have less down time (as a pitching coach). I can''t just watch (during a game) and take it easy. And you have to make sure the guys are getting their work in. But with our pitching staff, they''ve made it pretty easy for me. They work hard, and you don''t have to stay on them."
Closer to home
For Hyde, a far more important change in his baseball career took place in 2002. Until then, he''d spent all of his first seven seasons in the Northern League with Sioux Falls, S.D.
It was a fruitful relationship for both. The Canaries – not once, but twice – had a job waiting for Hyde after he''d been cut loose from San Francisco''s minor league system.
In turn, the former Illini reciprocated with years of quality pitching, ultimately winning a franchise-record 53 games.
But the logistics of combining baseball with a family life from such a distance proved increasingly difficult. Toward the end of his stay in Sioux Falls, Hyde and wife Traci had started a family that now includes Jack (6), Will (4) and Grace (2).
After the 2001 season, Hyde asked Canaries management to trade him to a team closer to their Mahomet home. The next February, Sioux Falls struck a deal to send the right-hander to Joliet.
Since then, Hyde has seen much more of his family during summers.
"It''s a good situation, being closer to home," Hyde said.
The move also has meant less disruption with his teaching duties. The Jackhammers'' 90-game schedule overlaps with the beginning and end of the school year. However, living close to Joliet allows Hyde to commute to Jackhammers home games when school is in session. He''s also been allowed to miss occasional games when he''s not scheduled to pitch.
"The team has been very good about it," Hyde said. "I might take a day off from school, but also I could teach all day and drive up and pitch that night. If we''re on the road, then it becomes a little bit more of a complication. So far, it seems to have worked out."
Knowing his place
It''s been more than eight years since Hyde last pitched in the affiliated minor leagues. A 30th-round draft pick of San Francisco in 1991, the former Illini was released by the Giants on June 25, 1996, and never again caught on with a major league organization.
During his time in the Northern League, Hyde has seen dozens of players sign with big league systems, a few of them even reaching the majors. Despite putting up numbers as good or better than most pitchers who received such a shot, Hyde remained offerless during even the best of times.
"There was a time back in ''98, ''99, when I really had good years, and I thought, ''What do I have to do to get out of this league?'' " he said. "It was frustrating."
These days, Hyde appears to have come to terms with his place in the game. Not that he wouldn''t love another shot at the bigs. But if that shot came without guarantee of a full season''s employment in the high minors, he''d say no. And he realizes, at age 35, such guarantees aren''t likely.
"At this point in my career, if it happens, it happens," Hyde said. "If it doesn''t, I''m at peace with it.
"I''m not bitter about anything. I''m not discouraged. I''m just enjoying playing baseball and getting paid for it."
Hyde and seek
A look at Rich Hyde''s 14 seasons in professional baseball:
– Signed minor league contract on June 8, 1991, with San Francisco Giants, who selected him in the 30th round of the amateur draft.
– Pitched all or parts of five seasons in affiliated minor leagues – all in the Giants'' system – rising to as high as Class AA in 1993, ''95 and ''96.
– After pitching in independent Northern League in 1994 with Sioux Falls (S.D.), went to spring training in 1995 with Giants as replacement player during players'' strike. Assigned to minor leagues when strike was settled before start of season.
– Returned to Northern League in 1996 with Sioux Falls. Acquired by Joliet on Feb. 4, 2002, for cash and future considerations.
– Entered 2004 as Northern League career leader in wins (73), complete games (19), games started (160), - innings pitched (1,085 1/3) and strikeouts (736).
– In 2002 with Joliet, finished with 11 wins, first time in pro career to reach at least 10 wins with one team in a season. In 1996, also earned 10 wins – one with Class AA Shreveport and nine with Sioux Falls.
– Selected to Northern League All-Star Game in 1999, 2001, ''03 and ''04.
– In 2003, pitched 33 1/3 consecutive innings without allowing a walk.
You can reach Jeff Huth at (217) 351-5384 or via e-mail at email@example.com.