Phil Pote should have been a boxer, not a baseball coach. At least then he would get paid for all the fighting he does.
Perhaps by now he’d be famous--and wealthy.
Pote is neither, but he is rich. It would be difficult, in fact, to find someone richer in heart. And he needs all the heart he can muster, because Pote, who coaches at Los Angeles City College, has spent the last 31 years fighting for the lives and dreams of young adults who live in the inner city.
Two years ago, when the Los Angeles Community College District threatened to close down the LACC baseball program, Pote, who has coached there for 12 years, went to war--and won.
Of the four junior colleges serving central Los Angeles, only LACC offers baseball. Programs at Southwest, Trade Tech, and West L.A. have all been canceled.
Pote said that baseball is offered at the city’s five other junior colleges, but their locations often present travel problems for inner city students. LACC is located on north Vermont Avenue, between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue.
“Oh, they can go to Los Angeles Valley College or Harbor JC, but we have kids who have problems getting here,” Pote said.
One of Pote’s “kids” who took a detour on his way to LACC is outfielder Reuben Smiley, who graduated from Dorsey High School at the same time LACC’s baseball program was facing extinction. Smiley’s high school baseball coach, Dale Chan, said that Smiley was a talented player, and that his grades were up to par, but that scouts had ignored him.
“Nobody was interested in me, and I really didn’t have a lot of choices,” Smiley said. “So I went to a junior college up north in Fairfield, where my sister lived.”
He performed well, but not so well that he wanted to stay. He came home. Smiley thought his dream of playing baseball was over. But Chan wouldn’t let him quit. He called Pote, and Smiley enrolled at LACC.
Within a year, Smiley got noticed. In fact, he became a major league prospect. The San Francisco Giants chose him in the third round of the amateur draft early this month.
“The funny thing is that earlier this season, in a game at L.A. Valley, Mr. (George) Genovese (San Francisco scout) came out to watch me,” Smiley said.
“I struggled that game. My first time up I popped out, then I grounded out and struck out. It was awful. Mr. Genovese called me over and said, ‘Smiley, keep your eye on the ball--follow through.’
“My next time up, I hit the second pitch for a home run, and ever since then I thought I would be playing for him.”
It was about 3 o’clock on a May afternoon when the LACC baseball team sat down on the grass for one of the season’s final team meetings. It had been a long day, but an exciting one for the 21 ballplayers.
Earlier, about 25 major league scouts and four-year college coaches and even a few major league farm directors had watched intently as Pote put his players through running, hitting and fielding drills. It’s a ritual Pote goes through every year to try to give his players some exposure.
“It’s good for scouts in a private workout because you get to see what everyone can do without waiting for it to happen in a game situation,” Baltimore Orioles scout Ed Crosby said. “But holding this workout is more than any other coach might do.
“Phil does a lot of work to help his players. But, we’re not here for Phil, we are here to see his players. He has some players with talent.”
He also knows the game. He played baseball at LACC, coached at Fremont High School and taught at Crenshaw. He was a minor league coach for the Houston Astros, a scout for the Oakland Athletics and currently is a part-time scout for the Dodgers.
What’s more, Pote’s players say, his program goes beyond playing a game. He emphasizes the individual.
“Most city college coaches want to progress, so they push the team to do well,” sophomore Bart Dalton said. “Here, they teach you. And they treat us with respect.”
It’s not impossible to get cut from the team, but players rarely are. Team tryouts are held in February, and if there is any chance an individual can play, he makes the team.
“Go-for-the-gold colleges may not have the time to take a talented individual and teach him, but that is our emphasis,” Pote said. “I want the players to win, to try to win and to compete, but not at the expense of overlooking or neglecting kids that might, if given the opportunity, refine their skills.
That may be one reason why LACC didn’t tear up the Southern California Athletic Conference last season. But Pote doesn’t measure success in victories. He doesn’t even know the team’s won-lost record.
“Oh, something like 3-18 in conference or something like that,” he said. “Really, I don’t know.”
Pote doesn’t have a sports information director at his side to provide the facts. There is no equipment manager, no trainer, no athletic director. Baseball is the only sport at the school that survived the cut two years ago.
LACC doesn’t have a baseball park so the team plays at the city-owned Crystal Springs field in Griffith Park. The city mows the outfield and the players maintain the infield, cutting the grass and dragging the skinned portion. Outfielders are responsible for gopher-hole safety checks. Pote calls it his gopher patrol.
The team has no batting cages or pitching machines, which Pote says lends to a lack of parity with other schools, most of which have such basic equipment.
“LACC is different from other established junior college programs,” said Ernie Rodriguez, assistant coach. “Most other schools have their own field, and the kids who attend come from good high school programs, both athletically and academically.
“But LACC gets kids from the inner city who may not have been lucky enough to come out of a good overall high school program like those who grew up in suburban areas.”
Players such as Smiley, who had the talent in high school, but still went unnoticed. Or Dalton, who played baseball at LACC not because he wants to play professionally, but in the hope of parlaying a 4.0 grade-point average and his baseball skills into a scholarship to a major university. At last count, Occidental is interested.
Pote doesn’t keep a tally on his players who have achieved wordly acclaim, as ballplayers or otherwise.
“My concern is that whatever talent an individual may have, that he has the opportunity to get better at whatever he is and does--a better student, better player, a better person.” Pote said.