Between 200 and 300 family, friends, students, athletes and alumni gathered at Rochester High School June 5 for the rededication of the baseball field in honor of Rochester teacher and coach Justin Rotter, who passed away last year.
Rotter, a math teacher, middle school football coach and assistant baseball coach, passed away unexpectedly at 44 years old from a heart condition on July 24, 2020.
The field, previously named Heinz Field in 2003 after longtime baseball coach Larry Heinz, is now renamed as Heinz-Rotter Field.
The renaming was Heinz’ idea, who was Rotter’s teacher and coach for four years. After Rotter graduated from WSU, he returned to Rochester to teach, and the two became colleagues.
“I was very close to Justin,” Heinz said. “I was pretty shocked when I heard of his passing. I didn’t know what to do.”
Heinz, who moved to Arizona five years ago, felt helpless after Rotter passed away and came up with the idea to rename the field to Heinz-Rotter Field.
He called the father of one of the senior baseball players, who was instrumental in the field being renamed in 2003, to get permission to rename it. Heinz then called current Rochester baseball coach Brad Quarnstrom and ran the idea by him, who was all for it.
Heinz then called Rotter’s father, Dan Rotter, and asked him, as well as Jill Rotter, Justin’s wife. Everybody was very receptive to the idea.
Quarnstrom and Rochester Athletic Director Jesse Elam then ran it by the superintendent and school board. Everybody was 100% on board.
Heinz just had one small request.
“All I said to (Quarnstrom) was, ‘I’d really appreciate that you pick a date to rededicate the field that I can be there,’” Heinz said.
Carmen Humphrey, one of Heinz’ stat keepers back in the day, put the event up on Facebook and it began gaining traction. Two hundred and forty people responded to the Facebook event and about that many showed up on June 5 for the ceremony.
“I would estimate the crowd that came was between 200 and 300 people,” Heinz said.
All the volunteers set up tailgate tents around the field, with a barbecue with hamburgers and hotdogs, and a wiffle ball game on the field for the kids.
“It turned into kind of a happening,” Heinz said. “I saw a lot of friendly faces from back in the day.”
It was a culmination of honoring Rotter for the life that he led, not only as a student but as an educator and coach.
“He was very intelligent, very humble and just very likeable,” Heinz said. “Somewhat quiet but at the same time he would reach out to people. Being a teacher, you kind of have to do that. Very organized.”
As a player, Rotter was head of the curve, which was fitting because he had a major league curveball, according to Centralia native and longtime MLB scout Bill Lohr.
Rotter helped the Warriors win the 1993 state title his junior year as the staff ace. He also helped the American Legion travel team win the state title in 1993 as their No. 1 pitcher. Heinz was the coach for both teams.
Rotter and his catcher at Rochester, Tony Haas, would face a hitter one time and then would work together to game plan how to pitch him the next at-bat.
“He was almost like another coach on the field,” Heinz said. “He was thinking two and three hitters ahead.”
When Heinz gave his speech at the field rededication, he was asked to think of a memorable game he coached of Rotters. The one memory that came up was the 1993 regional championship game against a powerhouse Montesano team.
Rochester’s Steve Taylor hit a home run in the bottom of the sixth inning to put the Warriors ahead. Rotter had to go out on the mound in the top of the seventh inning to face the top of the Bulldogs’ order to close out the game. He struck out the side for the victory.
“That was just a step-up clutch moment and we went on to the state tournament and won the state championship that year,” Heinz said.