How did you get involved with baseball? With coaching?
I grew up in a baseball family- my dad and older brothers were totally into baseball- and I come from a baseball area, a city called Lakewood, which is on the outskirts of Long Beach. That area has a long lineage of baseball people. I got to play in high school for a guy named John Herbold. John was a guy that was beyond his days, he’s spoken at the ABCA Convention many times, he coached 28 years at the high school level [Long Beach Polytechnic and Lakewood High] and at Cal State L.A. for 21 years.
Where I lived was huge [for coaching development], literally. The coaches were guys that cared about baseball and taught the game. It was a little different because you had to learn at a young age if you wanted to play; that was before they had rules that said everybody gets to play. You had to have an idea how to play back in those days.
From there, I had a choice. I could go to Long Beach City College and play for Joe Hicks, who is an ABCA Hall of Famer, or go to Cerritos College and play for Gordie Douglas. It worked out for me at Cerritos; Wally Kincaid had just retired and Coach [George] Horton was there at the time. I had a good mix of those three personalities to learn from.
My first year I didn’t get to play, I was the first base coach, but I figured out how to pick pitches and be a pinch hitter, I paid attention and learned. The next year, Coach Snow went to Cal State Fullerton and I went to Long Beach State, because my brother had gone there. Then one day, Coach Snow said ‘why don’t you come [to Cal State Fullerton]?’ and I said sure, with no idea what I was getting into! I was at Fullerton with Coach Snow and Chris Smith- who is now a scout with the Dodgers- and Bill Hughes, who’s a national cross checker with the Indians. I continued to pay attention and started coaching in the summer with my brother, and I got to know everybody.
The next year we won the national championship and Coach Snow ended up taking the job at Loyola Marymount, and he took Chris Smith with him. Back then, they didn’t have the rules and limitations with coaching, if you wanted to work and not make much money you could do it, and that’s what I did. I was just in the right place at the right time.
I got to be surrounded by a ton of good people, I just got lucky and paid attention. Coaching is plagiarism, you take what works and use everything in your own way. And recruiting was not a difficult thing in those days. It was all west coast guys and you didn’t have 100 showcases. All you had to do was go to games and find guys that were pretty good.
Is it true you took a ‘Baseball Coaching’ class taught by Wally Kincaid at Cerritos?
I took that class, and so did Bill Mosiello, Dave Serrano and George Horton. Coach Kincaid was a man of few words. He would say something and would never raise his voice, but he expected you to remember what he said, so aptitude was a big deal. We learned the whole baseball field: how far it was from the mound to home plate, where you measure it from, how far from home to second base… that question never gets answered right the first time!
It was a little bit of everything on how you do it. Every baseball player that played at Cerritos took that class. Every guy. We have classes today that coaches don’t teach; teachers teach them. Coaching and teaching are two different things. In baseball, we have some guys that can teach the game but can’t coach as well, and vice versa. When you get the rare combination of guys that can do both, that’s who I’ve been blessed to learn from and work with and ‘plagiarize’ from.
John Herbold, my high school coach, was nuts. Nuts! But guys at Lakewood High could always catch and throw. It was important, and he knew it. He was a genius in high school baseball because he would hold summer camps at every park in the city, and we had a lot of parks. He set it up through the city of Lakewood where the camp was free and his players could work it for about $7 an hour. So by the time these kids got to high school, they knew what to expect, they had learned those things, and they advanced faster and farther than other guys. It led to highly competitive baseball in a city that only had about 70,000 people at the time.
How have you maintained such a consistent culture of winning at Fullerton?
It’s not easy. If you can keep something going with culture for three or four years, you’re doing an amazing job. You have different kids and different teams every year. One thing we make sure we do is educate our guys on who has been here before them. We hold a little ‘Baseball 101’ class that takes up some of our individual time. We do it on a weekly basis, just so our players know who guys like Eddie Delzer are. Eddie is a 5-foot-7 lefthander who beat Greg Swindell at Texas in the 1984 national championship. Or who Dan Boone is, who is the first big leaguer we ever had.
It’s easy to know names like Justin Turner, Phil Nevin, Mark Kotsay and Matt Chapman, but it’s not as easy to know who did the grunt work. It’s about what all of those other guys did that has enabled us to have what we have right now; those guys were vagabonds.
Our current players still have to develop their own culture, but it’s important to have that foundation. If you build a house you have to have a good foundation, you don’t build the whole house yourself. You hire a plumber, an electrician, drywallers- that’s who all those other guys were. It’s complicated at times, but you have to count on your players, who are able to control it.
How have you developed your communication style as a coach?
That’s been the biggest adjustment for me, because I can be grumpy. I tend to emphasize things we don’t do right more than the things we do execute correctly, and I’m trying to do better at that. I’ll never get away from the accountability part, our guys have to be fully accountable for what they do. When we don’t do something right physically it’s okay, but I really stress the mental part of it.
Play the game. Whoever plays baseball the best usually wins, and baseball in its simplest form is ‘play catch, put the ball in play, and throw strikes.’ If you do two out of three you’re probably going to win about 70 percent of the time, if you do all three right you’ll win 90 percent of the time.
How do you quantify success?
Do what you plan on doing on a daily basis. You can’t win every part of practice, for example. What is your focus? We introduce first and thirds every Fall and I tell our guys it’s going to be a challenge, and it’s just about playing catch and letting what supposed to happen dictate what you’re going to do. And it’s always awful! I just say ‘okay, you’re eliminated, you’re eliminated, you sit out and watch for a little while.’
The drill is hard, but at the end of the day we know what we want to do, we fight through it and stick with each other. Besides, you don’t want to be at the top of your game at the beginning of the year. It’s a marathon, you don’t want to try to get five miles ahead in the first ten miles, just take it one step at a time.
Success at an individual level is however satisfied you are when you go home. You can’t judge on wins and losses or hits or errors. I’m good friends with Steve Springer, who talks about quality at bats. My son had a game the other day and when he walked in the door, his mom asked him how many hits he got and I jumped in and said, ‘dude, did you guys win or lose? You won? Okay.’ Then I asked him if he hit the ball hard or not!
What is your advice on practice organization?
You have to keep it simple. Don’t do too many things in a day. We do things by week, day by day, and we learn things part by part and eventually put everything into effect. I have a fall checklist that I use that I plagiarized probably from Coach Kincaid or Coach Horton.
We have two bunt defenses. For pickoffs, we pick to have a good move to give the catcher a chance to throw the guy off. I go to a high school game and a kid walks a guy, tries to pick him off and throws it away, the runner gets to third, and now he’s trying not to give up the run instead of saying ‘okay, have one run, let’s push the reset button and start over.’
Those are the things we want our guys to understand. You’re going to give up runs- minimize the damage. The more you minimize the damage, the more you’ll get lucky on getting a pop up and a jam job and nobody scores. It’s pure luck, but you create it yourself by not creating situations that go backwards.
photos courtesy Cal State Fullerton athletics