Ex-Lakewood Baseball Coach Still Kicking Cans : CSULA a New Challenge for Prep Legend

Times Staff Writer

After the last strikeout, they sat in the dugout, too numb to spit out another expletive. One of them, a catcher who had caught the brunt of the coach's sarcasm, inspected the stitches on a baseball as sun, wind and defeat stung his face.

The coach, who until last year was a stranger to losing, unleashed no tirade. Nine innings of pleading, encouraging, ridiculing, teaching and harping had been enough for one day. He shoved bats, which had produced--to his disgust--nothing but fly balls, into a bag.

He would let the embarrassment of a 4-1 loss to little Southern California College sink in without further comment. His Cal State Los Angeles players, their spikes clattering on concrete, headed toward vans for the trip home.

"We're very, very, very young," the coach, John Herbold, had said before the game. There are 25 freshmen on his team.

A short man, Herbold was stuffed into a black and white uniform. His stomach was a mound the waistband of his pants couldn't quite climb. His black sunglasses did not reveal eyes. His hair was the gray-black of metal shavings. His tan face contrasted with cracked, silvery lips.

Herbold, who won 481 high school games, is in his second season at Cal State L.A., struggling with a 3-16 record after going 23-42 last year.

For 15 years, he turned Lakewood High School teams into champions and himself into a legend, a guy who would kick holes in trash cans, catch his pitchers barehanded to show how tough he was and leave his family on Christmas to hose down the infield.

Once, as a spectator at a Colt League game at Blair Field in Long Beach, Herbold, in street clothes, jumped over a railing to argue a call an umpire made against one of his future players. The umpire said, "You're out of the game," and Herbold said, "You can't throw me out of the game, I was never in the game."

"He's a maniac," said his son, Andy, a CSULA pitcher.

Now he was still the same, barking the language of baseball in a voice that cut sharply through the afternoon breeze, intent on keeping his team alive--even if it meant hurting a few feelings--until the day when it will no longer be too young to win.

"You can't put the ball in the air--balls in the air are outs," Herbold said after a pop fly.

'You're Useless'

Herbold's sign to steal a base was missed.

"I did it with my feet, I did it with my hands," Herbold said, gritting his teeth, pointing a finger and putting his face next to the guilty player's face. "You're useless, thanks a lot."

Pitcher Chris LaRiviere walked a batter.

"Damn, that kills," Herbold said, adding after a stolen base, "Your walk just doubled."

While coaching at third base, he yelled to a player in the dugout: "You need to talk less about carburetors and exhaust pipes and more about baseball."

Jim Lynch, the CSULA catcher, struck out. The next inning, he dropped two pitches on stolen bases.

"I struck out, now I'm gonna die," Herbold said loud enough for Lynch to hear.

Herbold rubbed it in when a run scored: "That one has your name on it, Mr. Lynch."

Several days and a couple of victories later, Herbold, hose in hand, was wetting the infield before practice at CSULA.

"What I'm trying to do all the time is teach, teach, teach," he said. "I try to get them to wake up and learn."

His players have always learned well. "I had more high school kids go to minor league ball than any other coach in the country," Herbold said. "And I had more kids get scholarships than any coach."

Sixty of the players he coached reached the major leagues.

"I'm Kingsfield on 'Paper Chase,' " he said. "I admire him. He's a son of a bitch but he's a good teacher."

Herbold, a former Marine, has always approached baseball like a drill instructor, the diamond his Camp Pendleton.

"We're teaching what they taught in the Marines, to stay alive," he said. "You can do a lot of teaching by screaming."

Some people cringe at his methods.

"I yelled at a guy one time, 'What's the matter, afraid to get your uniform dirty?' " Herbold said, "and the athletic director said, 'You're pretty hard on that guy.' About a week later he made a great catch. If I wasn't hard on him, he'd have never made that catch."

Being hard on his catcher paid off quickly.

Can Be Intimidating

"Lynch is a tough guy, he hasn't buckled, although he was probably ready to kill me," Herbold said. "Last night he caught one game and said, 'Let me catch the second game.' I said, 'Go ahead, catch it,' and he did a fine job."

CSULA pitcher Dan Bryan had played for Herbold on Connie Mack teams in Long Beach.

"He can be intimidating if you let him," Bryan said. "That's just the way he teaches. When he yells at you, it's not to say how stupid you are, but to tell you not to do it again. If you take it in a negative way, you've defeated his purpose."

"They probably get tired of hearing me," Herbold said. "But then they kind of tolerate me, and a lot of it sinks in."

A mistaken impression is that Herbold is all mouth.

"He's always around to help a player out," said Andy Herbold. "He never gives up on any of us unless we give up first.

"I'm not saying this because he's my father, but he has to be more knowledgeable than anyone around. He knows everything. No one can stump him on rules."

And he is not always a hard guy.

"In '76 we had lost two in a row, which was unheard of," said Chris Clark, who is in the Angels' farm system. "We figured we'd be in for a five-hour workout, but he came out with a case of Dr. Pepper like nothing ever happened, and we didn't lose again."

In the late 1940s, Herbold was what he called a terrible player at Hollywood High. One day the coach said, "Hey, Herbold, you know a lot about baseball, why don't you make out the lineup."

"So I made out the lineup and we won, 12-3," Herbold recalled.

He went to Stanford where he was still a lousy player.

"We had 28 guys and I was the 27th," he said. "I was the fourth-string catcher and the second-string first-base coach."

It was there that Herbold, who had aspirations of being a sportswriter, first thought that coaching could be his life's work.

"I was dissatisfied with the quality of coaching I saw," he said. "It was bad."

"Lakewood was getting to be routine," said Herbold, who won a CIF championship at Long Beach Poly in 1963. "It was something that had been done to the ultimate (in the '70s, Lakewood was consistently rated No. 1 in the nation) and it was time to do something else."

When he first came to Lakewood in 1969, after 13 years at Poly, the team played before seven people.

"I didn't want to play before seven people," Herbold said.

Former players said Herbold was the whole show and that fans came mainly to see him kick cans.

"Most of the time it was an act, just to wake 'em up," he said.

The act mostly awoke interest.

"We were in the black financially there and how many high school teams can say that?" Herbold said. "Our last game drew 1,300 people. We were the only high school team to ever have the San Diego Chicken."

'Shortage of Teaching'

Herbold is where he wants to be, but college baseball has left him a bit disillusioned.

"The big thing is to get as many runs as you can and get national ratings," he said. "I see a real shortage of teaching. I would never want to beat a team 18-4.

"And you get too many guys in the dugout acting silly and too many guys making fun of the other team. I tell my guys, 'Would Steve Garvey do that? Be Garvey.'

But he forgives his players because he says they are bright and they keep him young.

"They're classy kids," he said. "Fifteen have a grade point over 3.0."

And the fact that they are young eases the depression that comes with losing.

"I rode home with our kids from San Diego last weekend," Herbold said. "They're playing trivia games. I mean they are kids, and I mean that as a compliment. We're playing guys who are 21 and 22, who are just bigger and better than we are. But if you do all this teaching, eventually you should win, which I hope will be the case. Scouts say 1987 will be our year."

Herbold, who lives in Lakewood, is a man who never seems to go home. But his wife, Joanne, who doesn't know a shortstop from a quarterback, understands his passion for what he calls a beautiful game.

"I bought her a car today," he said. "I can't afford it but she deserves it. When you're down she picks you up.

"She's been to three games in almost 30 years. I'll come home and she'll say, 'You win?' and I'll say, 'Yeah,' and she walks off. She's a very strange lady."

Herbold, wearing brown slacks, was at the plate, teaching his players to hit a curve ball to the opposite field.

He lined one to right-center field and said to second baseman Joe Butler:

"Now if you do that, you're going to play. But you don't do that.

"If you can watch a guy 55 do that and then you pop it up, something's wrong with you."

Later, Butler came over to Herbold, who was standing on the other side of the backstop.

"Thanks," the player said, and stuck his fingers through the wire to touch Herbold's.

The teacher smiled.

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