Everybody is acting like tonight's City Section final will be the last baseball game Doug MacKenzie ever coaches. It's the ultimate send-off: 61-year-old Canoga Park High coach of 37 years finally rises above the mediocrity of a lifetime .500 record with his 300th victory and first City title.
Wrap it, slap on a bow, hand it to MacKenzie and send him home with a handshake and Hunter-green tie clasp. Thanks for the memories, Mac.
Time out! Any fan knows it ain't over until the last out is recorded and MacKenzie, forever feisty and forever looking forward, wants extra innings.
Sure, he retired from teaching on April 28, but Mac is insisting that so long as some school, somewhere, will have him as a coach, he is not saying so long. The outcome of tonight's game will make no difference.
"I'd dearly love to coach at Canoga next year," MacKenzie said. "If they don't want me as a walk-on, I'll try to hook on at another school."
Degrading as it may be to the only coach Canoga Park has ever had, MacKenzie's application is just one in a tall stack to be considered by Canoga Park Principal Charles Molina.
"People here have been waiting in line for the job," Molina said. "We would prefer not to use a walk-on coach, but of course, Mac would not be the usual walk-on. He's been here and has experience. My goodness, 37 years."
Canoga Park is MacKenzie's preference for more reasons than the three talented pitchers who return next season. It's got to do with the habits and habitat of a lifetime.
Since 1951 he's packed up equipment in a series of beat-up locker-rooms-on-wheels (the latest model is a rusted 1970 Cutlass) and driven to practice at Lanark Park, where sounds of ice-cream trucks and motorcycle engines mingle with MacKenzie's instructions.
Since 1951 he's been a model of moderation to the youth of Canoga Park, employing a vanilla vocabulary and personal habits as wholesome as milk. MacKenzie says he has never sworn, smoked or taken a drink of alcohol. Former players swear it's true.
Since 1951 he's worn sports shirts and slacks to practices and games, has never been a base coach, never had an assistant coach and has always kept his own score book while crouched in front of the dugout.
And since 1951 Doug MacKenzie has enjoyed a robust practice exercise he calls "Three-Team Game" as much as real competition. All the players in Three-Team Game wear Canoga Park colors, and most fun of all, MacKenzie gets to pitch the whole time. He divides the squad into three teams and pitches to one while the other two take the field.
"My arm has held up pretty well," said MacKenzie, who is 5-9 and 145 pounds. "I throw with my son before Christmas to get in shape. I started using a protective screen two years ago because my reflexes aren't what they used to be."
Watching this sexagenarian pitch an assortment of curves and sliders for two hours, it is easy to believe him when he insists he is fulfilled despite having won only four league championships in nearly four decades. MacKenzie has no champion chip on his shoulder.
During a Three-Team Game last week, MacKenzie busts an 0-2 pitch on the hands of first baseman Aaron Marks, who makes a half-swing that looks like a bunt attempt.
"You just made me feel so good," MacKenzie shouts before cackling. "Two strikes and you tried to bunt because you know I'm too tough!"
The coach turns to the outfield, thrusts his hands in the air and screams: "He knows! He knows!" Players chuckle and shake their heads. They are convinced once again that on a baseball field, Doug, not Spuds, MacKenzie is the true party animal.
Before Three-Team Game, the team sits on the outfield grass in a circle around MacKenzie, who mixes humor with instruction while carefully reviewing the previous day's game from notes scribbled on both sides of a sheet of notebook paper. MacKenzie enunciates words slowly and firmly, as if he's coaching kindergartners on the fine points of finger painting.
"Our Nos. 2, 3 and 4 bat-ters hit seven lazy flyballs," he says, shaking his head. "But I loved the direction of Scott's and Adam's hits. They were up the mid-dle. And nice baserunning on third from Ur-man. Watching outfielders arms in warm-ups proved valuable, didn't it?"
After chiding Adrian Garcia for a baserunning blunder, MacKenzie turns over the notebook page. "Boy, didn't you have interesting plays at first base, Aa - ron," he says. "And you made them all."
A gust of wind flips the page back to the first side, causing MacKenzie to quip: "I keep coming back to the Adrian stuff on this side." He and Garcia trade smiles--the criticism of moments earlier is softened.
A tall, silver-haired man approached MacKenzie after Canoga Park defeated Sylmar, 5-1, Tuesday to advance to the final and introduced himself as Bill Parkinson, Class of '55. MacKenzie's eyes brightened.
"You had that beautiful no-hitter going for three innings at El Segundo before the rains came," MacKenzie said. "Remember the bus ride home? That new kid was driving and you guys were being thrown from window to window while we sped through Topanga Canyon."
Parkinson smiled broadly at MacKenzie's vivid recall. Before departing, Parkinson added that his son, Brent, was doing well as a football player at USC.
An onlooker marveled at the coach's ability to remember a player--and an anecdote--from three decades earlier. "Yes, that probably makes a kid feel good," said MacKenzie, who then realized what he'd said. " Kid? He's probably 50."
Twenty or so other former players pressed against the chain-link fence at Cal State Northridge, where the semifinal game had taken place. MacKenzie exchanged pleasantries with each before turning to address the team.
"Mac helped so many kids learn to love a game," said Rudy Lugo, who played for MacKenzie from 1963-65 and is now the Canoga Park football coach. "As a reward for sharing that love, he is loved in return."
MacKenzie's career, just about dead even at 299 wins and 298 losses, is alive with memories and friendships.
"Other coaches have always told me, 'You get too close to these guys, MacKenzie,' " he said. "But I couldn't do it any other way. I get a lot of pleasure seeing my former players at games. So many of them are really doing well."
Three former players, all 30ish and dressed in suits and ties, stood together along the third-base line at Lanark Park during last week's quarterfinal between Canoga Park and Granada Hills. Between innings, the coach had welcomed them, calling each by name.
None, it appeared, had seen the others in years and they were eager to show off their transformation from Hunters to yuppies. Days spent frolicking through sessions of Three-Team Game have been replaced by careers in marketing, banking and computer sales.
Said one: "My secretary said I didn't have much this afternoon. So, I thought I'd drop by and see Mac."
Several former players from Parkinson's generation also remain in contact with MacKenzie. Bob Beltramo, an all-league first baseman who graduated in 1956, recalls a more demanding coach.
"The young MacKenzie was more rough and gruff," Beltramo said. "He got married the year after I graduated and that mellowed him."
Doug and Anita MacKenzie have been married 31 years and have two sons, Douglas, 27, and Colin, 24, both of whom are Caltech graduates with a moderate interest in baseball. Anita, a retired teacher and school administrator, has shared Doug's love for the game, scoring Dodger games in the 1960s when the family had season tickets and, more recently, scoring Canoga Park games.
Before graduating in 1950 from Occidental College, where he was an all-conference shortstop for two years, MacKenzie had a stint in the Army and three short stops playing shortstop for independent minor league teams.
"I graduated from Eagle Rock High on a Thursday night and reported to the manager of the Porterville Packers on Friday," MacKenzie recalled. "I walked four times and was released."
MacKenzie drove to Yuma the next season and happened to arrive on a night the manager was upset with his shortstop. MacKenzie was signed and played the entire year. The next summer he drove to El Centro and, as luck would again have it, arrived the night the shortstop broke a leg.
For an idea of how long ago MacKenzie played, realize that the most money he made was $275 a month.
For an idea of how long ago MacKenzie began coaching, realize that in his first game, Sparky Anderson played second base for Dorsey, the opposing team. Billy Consolo and Marcel Lachemann, coaches with years of service in the major leagues, were also on the Dorsey team.
Canoga Park, which had opened the previous fall, was playing the first game in school history. Dorsey won, 12-0.
"I wondered what kind of profession I was getting into," MacKenzie recalled. "Les Hasero, the No. 1 coach in the City, was hired at Canoga Park but he couldn't stand the farm atmosphere and went back to Fremont. I would drive from Eagle Rock down Victory or Vanowen boulevards and pick up kids hitchhiking to Canoga Park High. There were no high schools between Van Nuys and Canoga Park."
The farm boys had some trouble adjusting to MacKenzie, according to Ed Withers, an assistant baseball coach at Cal Lutheran University who played at Canoga Park from 1956-59.
"I have a warm feeling for the guy although I never understood him when I played for him," Withers said. "We were just country kids, baling hay and cutting corn all summer. In my family, we were always told what to do. Then I'd have baseball practice and Mac would come up with these psychological things I couldn't understand."
MacKenzie's methods would have qualified as downright wacky to even the most seasoned city kids.
When upset with an umpire or the opposing coach, he would change pitchers for every batter, causing severe delays.
When upset with his team's performance during pregame drills, he would drop his fungo bat and leave the team standing on the field. If he didn't think a particular player was a good two-strike batter, he would replace him with a pinch-hitter every time the count reached two strikes.
"I had to walk up there cold with two strikes against me on several occasions," Withers said.
If a left-handed Canoga Park batter drew a walk, MacKenzie had all his right-handed batters take a strike while standing in the left-handed batters' box. "Some guys just can't pitch to lefties," MacKenzie said. "The first time we did it, a pitcher from Reseda walked seven straight."
MacKenzie's singular tactics continued into the late 1960s, when diminutive second baseman Mike Scyphers (now coach at Simi Valley High) would lead off under orders to take one strike. When the pitcher threw a strike, Scyphers was replaced with a better batter. On another occasion, Scyphers was ordered to take with a 3-2 count.
"I surprised them all by hitting a single up the middle," Scyphers recalled.
MacKenzie is a meticulous statistician whose records, indeed, show that as a junior in 1969, Scyphers had one hit in eight at-bats.
Also on the 1969 Hunters was Biff Pocoroba, who went on to catch for the Atlanta Braves from 1975-84. Vern Fuller, who played infield for the Cleveland Indians from 1964-70, is the only other Canoga Park player to make the major leagues.
Of course, Canoga Park played against nearly every great player who has come out of the Valley.
"The first time I saw 20 to 25 scouts at games was while Robin Yount played at Taft," MacKenzie said. "Larry Dierker, also of Taft, was untouchable. He had a major league curve while in high school.
"Don Drysdale was a great pitcher at Van Nuys, but he was the No. 2 pitcher on the staff. A boy named Jim Heffer was on the same team and he had as good an arm as I've seen in the Valley. Bret Saberhagen never beat us in three years. He hated Lanark Park."
Saberhagen isn't alone. The moundless, grassless infield and low-brow ambiance of Lanark Park makes it a place only MacKenzie--and his players--can love. Even other Canoga Park coaches hate it.
"I don't know how any man could take that stupid park for 37 years," said Horace Consolo, who coaches the Canoga Park junior varsity.
Originally called Orcutt Park, the City changed the name to Lanark in the early 1960s. Maybe it should be changed again--to MacKenzie Park.
MacKenzie insists his approach to the game has not changed much. He still transforms into Mac the Knife when he believes an umpire blows a call. A close call at first went against Canoga Park in Tuesday's semifinal and MacKenzie sprang off the bench instantly, yelling at the umpire and waving his hands in dismay.
"I had a pretty bad rap for getting on umpires," MacKenzie said. "People say I've mellowed but I can't see that. My energy level is just as high as always. And I'm gonna get on any umpire if he butchers something."
Still, MacKenzie claims never to have been ejected, saying: "My vocabulary does not include profanity, so I have an advantage."
Players past and present cannot recall an instance of the coach swearing. "It was always, 'Gosh darnit,' or something like that," Withers said. "Never a cuss word."
Said Kasey Fink, an outfielder on this season's team: "He gets upset but never swears. I can't really imagine him swearing."
MacKenzie admitted, however, that he's had to do some fast talking.
"Once in the '50s I got a phone call from a parent just before practice telling me that another parent would be there with a gun," he said. "His son wasn't pitching enough. He was sitting in the top row when I got there. I grabbed a fungo bat--I don't know why--walked up to him and sat down. We talked for about 45 minutes and that was that."
While notorious for using psychological ploys to get the most out of players, MacKenzie is not Nietzsche--he isn't prone to philosophizing. His advice is, above all, pragmatic, geared to helping players survive practice and beyond.
"The team is living a society of its own for three hours a day," he said. "You have to be a good citizen to be part of the society. I lecture on drugs and alcohol, boy-girl relationships, distractions and eligibility."
MacKenzie's claim that every player he has coached earned a diploma is supported by Lugo, who said the coach was concerned for the academic welfare of players long before the "no-fail" eligibility rule was implemented.
"Mac found out I was close to failing physics during the fall of my senior year," Lugo said. "He summoned me out of football practice and let me have it. He was very angry and it made a strong impression. I pulled the grade up to a C."
MacKenzie won't philosophize about his mediocre won-lost record, either. He just points to the fact that Canoga Park High has split like an amoeba over the years. When Birmingham, Reseda, Cleveland, Taft, Chatsworth and El Camino Real highs were formed, they took students from Canoga Park.
"It's hurt our athletic programs over the years," MacKenzie said. "The split with Reseda in 1956 hurt the worst because they had superior playground leagues."
He also believes that coaching is overrated.
"I tell players that I didn't go out there and get those runs," he said. "They are the ones who made the plays. Coaching has so little to do with it. A friend of mine felt he was a lousy coach because his team started losing. I told him that was ridiculous.
"I had to laugh at a situation in our recent win over Chatsworth. Mike Urman tripled and I put in Juan Soriano to run so Urman could get two minutes rest and put on his catching equipment. Soriano came home with the winning run on a wild pitch and people said what a stroke of genius coaching that was."
Losses don't stick in MacKenzie's craw. He lets wins linger, however.
"I sleep after losses," he said. "The times I don't is when we win an exciting game. The adrenalin flows like a stimulant drug, and I'll be up until 3 a.m."
And the next day, win or lose, MacKenzie and the team are at Lanark Park, reviewing details from the game and playing Three-Team Game.
"I'd like to see Mac come back," said junior Mike Kerber, who along with Adam Schulhofer and Mike Roberts gives Canoga Park a formidable pitching staff next season. "Mac's enthusiasm rubs off on all of us."
It's always been that way. Doug MacKenzie, it seems, found the fountain of youth at Lanark Park.
"Mac makes baseball fun and that's how it should be," Lugo said. "We'd play and play and play that Three-Team Game until 6:30, 7 p.m."
And if MacKenzie has his way, he'll be doing the pitching for a 38th season.