A “wall” has stood on the Mt. Carmel baseball field the past few years.
It’s nothing like the one in Fenway, or the great one in China. This is less tangible, though no less meaningful to Mt. Carmel shortstop John Tejcek and pitcher Byron Klemaske.
“It’s that feeling where you know each one of your teammates is going to do something good,” Tejcek said. “When I’m playing shortstop, I can see Byron striking people out.”
And Klemaske, who has a 9-1 record for the No. 1-rated Sundevils, can see his teammates making great plays behind him.
“The wall is set up behind me,” he said. “All I have to do is throw strikes.”
The architect is 41-year-old Sam Blalock, an ex-outfielder at San Dieguito and Palomar College.
"(The wall) is the feeling of oneness in the group,” said Blalock, who was introduced to the Japanese theory in a magazine article. “It’s the feeling that everybody is pulling for each other--their thoughts are with you. They can see you being successful as well as you seeing yourself being successful.”
Blalock began construction in 1975, when he accepted the job as baseball coach of the brand new school in a fairly exclusive Rancho Penasquitos area.
Blalock’s first season was uneventful. The school fielded only junior varsity and freshman teams. His next two years weren’t much better--6-16 and 11-13.
After a 17-7 season in 1978, Blalock guided the Sundevils to the Palomar League title in ’79. But just when construction appeared to be complete, cracks began to appear.
With Billy Beane, who now plays for Oakland Athletics, leading the way, Mt. Carmel finished fourth in the Palomar.
“That was the turning point in our program,” said Blalock, who also has coached basketball at the junior varsity and freshman levels. “We have a first-round draft pick (Beane), and we finish fourth in league. I knew I had to do something. I didn’t do a very good job the first four or five years. I was dealing with baseball as an individual sport, but not as a team sport.
“I figured as long as the shortstop was doing his job, we were OK. Now I know it’s just as important to know what the guy on the bench is doing or the fourth pitcher. The main thing was that there was no team feeling.”
Now there is.
“This team is really close,” Klemaske said. “Everybody is pulling for each other.”
Although he still drills his players hard on fundamentals, Blalock lately has resembled a people’s manager such as Sparky Anderson rather than a master tactician such as Gene Mauch.
“My file cabinet has gotten smaller on baseball and bigger on psychology,” Blalock said. “At the age group we deal with, you’ve got to know when to push, when to back off. Now there are some games where I don’t say a word to the kids the entire game.”
The laissez-faire attitude has obviously worked. Since ’80, the Sundevils have won the Palomar League every year except in 1987 (Orange Glen). But Mt. Carmel came on to win the section title that season, as they did in ’81 and ’82. In fact, beginning in ’81, Mt. Carmel has either won the section or lost in the playoffs to the eventual winner.
Since ’80, Blalock said, he has altered his philosophy on winning and losing.
“If you’re coaching just to win and lose, I don’t think you’ll be in the business very long,” Blalock said. “Losing can be a positive thing, though. It’s confirmation for you to change your course.”
But losing is something Blalock has rarely experienced. In 15 years, he has compiled an astounding 252-98 record. The mainstay of each of Blalock’s teams in the ‘80s teams probably has been pitching, and that is no coincidence.
“Pitching is the game and then hitting,” Blalock said. “If a kid can make it on the mound, that’s his emphasis and then hitting.”
The man behind the arms has been Blalock’s best friend and longtime assistant, Ed O’Connor. A former catcher for Cal Poly Pamona, O’Connor tests every player in the program for his pitching ability.
“All you have to have is a good arm and the desire to pitch,” said O’Connor, who has been with Blalock 14 years.
Byron Klemaske is a typical O’Connor student. He came to Mt. Carmel from Texas with a knuckle-curve in its beginning stages. Four years later, O’Connor calls it, “a Division I pitch,” and it is the major reason Klemaske has amassed 57 strikeouts this season in 63 innings, including seven in his recent one-hitter against second-place Vista.
O’Connor and Blalock have not only developed this year’s team into a winner--so far the Sundevils are 18-2, 7-0 in the Palomar League--but they are already planning Mt. Carmel’s teams for the next decade.
“We have a great bunch of 10- and 11 year-old kids in our Little League program,” said Blalock of the Rancho Penasquitos program that he calls the largest in the nation. “Whether they’ll come to Mt. Carmel or whether I’ll be here then, I don’t know.”
Chances are they’ll come to Mt. Carmel.
Klemaske’s father specifically sent his his son to Mt. Carmel instead of University High.
“Everybody knows Coach Blalock has the best program,” Klemaske said. “This was the best place for me to come if I want to go on further in baseball.”
It was also the best place for Mt. Carmel senior second baseman Ed Cornblum, who’s hitting close to .400, and junior pitcher Geoff Blake. Cornblum transferred from Poway and Blake from San Dieguito--both in the Palomar League.
“Mt. Carmel has a good coaching staff with Sam and Ed, the best facilities and they recruit well,” said Fallbrook Coach Dave Heid, who has lost to Blalock 19 of 21 times. “You can’t compare anyone else’s program to them. Kids know that they have to play their best to beat them.”
Blalock admits his program is run like a junior college or major college program but flatly denies he recruited Cornblum or Blake.
“I don’t think they came here because of me,” Blalock said. “They’re just members of our team.”
San Dieguito Coach Darold Nogle said other Palomar coaches are not happy with the school switching but added “there’s not much they can do.”
“I don’t think Sam’s going out and recruiting players,” Nogle said. “But the parents want their kids to succeed, and they’re the ones who who create the problem.”
Poway baseball coach Rudy Casciato, who coached junior varsity for eight years at Mt. Carmel with Blalock, agrees with Nogle, even though he lost Cornblum, a first-team all-leaguer.
“I think it’s the policy and not Mt. Carmel that’s at fault,” Casciato said. “It’s disappointing in our case, because we were a first place team last year (Poway tied with Mt. Carmel). But I know full well it’s the reputation of the program that draws the athlete.”
That reputation has been enhanced by people like Beane, Dan Rumsey (an All-American at Arizona State), UNLV outfielder Kevin Lofthus and Loyola Marymount catcher Miah Bradbury.
Just in the last decade, Blalock said he has sent close to 25 players on to Division I major college and had another eight drafted.
Yet Blalock refuses to take sole credit for his enormous success.
“It’s not my program,” he said. “Every coach contributes to the program. And no one is bigger than the program. Everybody is replaceable--even me. Somebody could come in here tomorrow and do the same thing I’m doing.”