Class Is in Session, With No Complaints : Students at San Diego School of Baseball Aren’t Likely to Be Caught Playing Hooky
There were no runs, no hits and plenty of errors. But this was great baseball, the kind that players from Abner Doubleday to Zane Smith would have loved.
Nine-year-old Brent Delhamer of Coronado said he had a fantastic time, and he made just as many blunders as everyone else.
“I must have had fun,” Brent said, “because it only seemed like 30 minutes to me, and it was three hours.”
This was baseball the way it was meant to be learned. There were no games or teams this day--just drills stressing the fundamentals, with emphasis on fun. Those teaching were professors of the San Diego School of Baseball, which held one of its many camps this week at Grossmont College.
Brent came to the school to learn the proper and finer points of catching. “Sometimes a guy will throw a bat, and it will fly into my ribs. But other than that, I like being a catcher,” he said.
Brent might grow up to be the next Benito Santiago (his favorite player) or possibly a land developer like Jim Delhamer (his father).
But for now, Brent is doing a pretty good job of being 9, and he is the type of kid who might have spent a lot of time at Bob Cluck’s house in the late 1960s.
Cluck, a former San Diego High and San Diego State player, was then a minor league pitcher who had built a batting cage in his back yard. Soon, neighborhood kids were coming over for swings and instructions, and Cluck had a idea.
In 1970, the San Diego School of Baseball was founded, with Cluck providing lessons to the community youngsters. In ’73, Cluck added Bob Skinner and Roger Craig (both Padre coaches at the time), and the school had its first camp at San Diego City College.
Now in its 20th year, the nation’s first and only year-round baseball school offers a variety of camps ranging in price from $85 to $340, private instruction, two state-of-the-art indoor batting facilities and a head full of memories and joy for ballplayers (6-22 years old), coaches and parents.
“I came here to learn . . . and have some fun,” said 11-year-old Eddie Lugo, who along with his friend, Javier Antunez, also 11, came from El Centro to participate in the three-day camp.
Eddie accomplished a little of both early in the first three-hour session. He had signed up with Alexander to receive instructions as a pitcher, but just a few minutes later he wanted to know if he could switch to an infielders station.
Don Alexander, the school’s general manager, gave the OK and then inquired, “Are you Eddie Lugo?” After an affirmative reply, Alexander said, “It’s not a good sign if I know your name 10 minutes into the program.”
Eddie laughed and hustled off with the other infielders.
It is that kind of personal contact that makes these camps special for the kids and instructors, many of whom are former professional players and coaches.
In the off-season, many major leaguers offer their services. Over the years, the school has attracted Willie Stargell, Pete Rose, Maury Wills, Dave Winfield, Don Sutton, Mike Scott, George Brett and Sparky Anderson.
Tim Flannery, Eddie Williams, Mark McLemore and Matt Nokes are some of the local big leaguers who work extensively with the school.
“Just being around those guys was special,” recalled Alexander, who attended the school when he was a student at Hilltop High. “I remember how thrilled I was to be playing catch with Randy Jones the year after he won the Cy Young.”
Alexander, who went on to play at the University of San Diego, began working as an assistant at the school and eventually became general manager. He said that in a year there are about 1,000 students in the camps, including girls. There are about four or five year-round, full-time instructors and as many as 70 who help out.
“These (instructors) work hard at these camps,” Alexander said. “Sure it’s fun, but they’re out there 10, 12 hours a day for five days straight. Are they just going to show up, sign autographs and then leave? I get asked that all the time. That doesn’t happen. They work. But they enjoy working with the kids.”
In 1981, Skinner and Craig retired their shares in the company mostly because of time constraints, and Cluck offered partnerships to some of his other friends who were involved with the school.
The school is now owned by seven partners: Cluck (now a minor league roving coach and scout with the Houston Astros), the Padres’ Tony Gwynn, Houston’s Dave Smith, Detroit’s Alan Trammell, Houston scout Reggie Waller, Brent Strom, former Padre pitcher and now the Dodgers’ minor league pitching instructor, and Kansas City Royals coach Glenn Ezell (a former Padre minor league manager).
Smith (a former Poway High and San Diego State pitcher) and Trammell (a shortstop from Kearny High) were students at the school before becoming major league stars.
“We’re not the greatest businessmen in the world, but it’s fun,” Cluck said. “Maybe if we were (seven) guys who depended on it for mortgage checks, it might be different. But we’re not.
“The baseball school has been my baby from the beginning. I forget it’s a business sometimes. I like to think of it as youth therapy.”
When the school opened its first batting facility in 1984, Cluck said it was the beginning of “Phase II” for the company, which has been growing steadily each year.
“The batting cage is not a great business, it tends to be very seasonal. But it gives us a home base. It also made us expand to a year-round operation. We now had rent and other bills to pay.”
Cluck said that a few people or groups have wanted to buy franchises for other parts of the country. Jack Perconte, a former Dodger infielder, asked the San Diego School of Baseball for help getting him started with a similar program in Chicago.
Others, including a group from the Midwest, wanted to buy the San Diego School, but Cluck and the other owners refused to sell. Said Cluck, “I told Tony (Gwynn) and he said, ‘No way. Where would I hit?’ The man’s possessed.
“We’re afraid that if we get too big too fast, we’ll spoil everything. We don’t want people thinking that the camps are a bunch of spoiled little rich kids out for a picture and autographs. We want to provide the best instructional baseball for a reasonable charge. Guys who have million-dollar contracts, you couldn’t pay these guys enough money to come out if they didn’t want to. But they come out and work 12 hours a day.”
Cluck said he would like to add a few more batting cages and continue with the camps. Alexander said he wants to implement a certification program for the various youth leagues coaches around the county.
He said there are often negative aspects to youth baseball. “We want to show them that baseball is fun. A lot of it is just improving (a player’s) confidence. With some of them, just getting a glove on the ball is an improvement.”
Alexander added that “some of them want us to teach them to become major league players. That’s not what we’re here for, either. But we’re going to point them in the right direction.”
Some day you might hear of a Jair Sanchez from Sinaloa, Mexico, in the major leagues. He attended this week’s camp at Grossmont, as did Guillermo Macalpin, Ruffino Montoya and six of their teammates from the Mexicali Cachoros (Cubs).
Guillermo, 10, a talented left-handed pitcher, might just make it to the majors. He already knows how to deal with reporters.
Guillermo, did you have fun today?
Did you learn anything today? “Yes.”
Do you want to someday play in the major leagues?
He was short on words, but the smile on his face spoke volumes. And the message was clear: This was baseball, not a game, but the game .
And this was learning baseball the way it was meant to be learned.