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MATADOR MAESTRO : Commitment Strikes a Chord in Bill Kernen’s Attempt to Orchestrate Winner at CSUN

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A note of caution to baseball players who think they would like to hit or pitch for a living and are considering Cal State Northridge as the place to launch their careers.

Should Bill Kernen, CSUN’s third-year coach, drop by the house for a chat, carefully consider any mention of plans that might include multiyear, multimillion-dollar professional contracts. He will have an assignment for you.

You’re a center fielder? Great. Mr. Kernen would like you to complete a survey on the 26 center fielders playing in the big leagues. What do they look like? What are their skills? Are they left-handed or right-handed, power hitters or leadoff types?

He will give you a list. Check it twice. Complete it, bring it back, and don’t expect the ensuing speech to be all that nice.

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Are you 6-foot-5? Do you run 60 yards in 6.6 seconds?

No? “Then,” Kernen will say as politely as possible, “what the . . . are you talking about?”

“I try to teach them to be careful about what it is they say they really want,” the 42-year-old coach said, “because whatever it is, I’m going to try to help them get it. And sometimes it’s not going to be much fun.”

Northridge players don’t all aspire to professional baseball careers, but they do have at least one common thread: They are willing to make a commitment to working 12 to 14 hours a day on the field and in the classroom during the school year.

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“Commitment is something everybody talks about but only one percent of the people really have,” Kernen said. “What it ends up being is something that borders on an obsession with a particular objective or set of objectives you have as an individual or as a team.”

All Northridge players carry “goal cards"--usually inside their cap or in the back pocket of their uniform--listing the same top priority: winning the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. To that end, their mornings begin with a 6 o’clock weight-training session, followed by classes and then practice from 12:30 p.m. until dark (which is not to be confused with dusk). Each weekday concludes with mandatory study hall until 9 p.m.

“When you commit to be a part of this team,” said Craig Clayton, a Division II All-American last season, “you basically put your life on hold.”

Kernen tests the resolve of his players both physically and mentally so that “they get so far out on a limb with the commitment and the sacrifices they have made that they have only two choices. They can either validate what they’ve been doing by reaching their goals, or have a real disappointment on their hands if they don’t.”

Kernen’s personal goal is simple. “To have all the players in my program leave it with whatever it was they came in to get,” he said.

He employs some unusual techniques to help them along the way.

Few and far between are those who discuss such topics as the Juilliard School between pauses to expectorate tobacco juice, but Kernen is one of them.

It comes as no surprise to Northridge players that their coach graduated cum laude from the University of Redlands with a degree in psychology.

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Drafted out of Redlands as a relief pitcher by the Baltimore Orioles in 1970, Kernen spent two years bouncing around the minor leagues before putting his psychology background into practice as baseball coach in 1975 at San Gorgonio High, his alma mater.

After two seasons there, he was hired as pitching coach at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa where he stayed for one season before moving on to Cal State Fullerton. Kernen was assistant to Coach Augie Garrido for five seasons, during which the Titans won the national championship in 1979 and advanced to the World Series for a second time three years later.

It was after Fullerton’s second World Series trip that Kernen resigned to pursue business interests. For four seasons he was out of baseball, handling real estate investments and managing apartment buildings. He returned to Fullerton as an assistant in 1987.

During his time away from coaching, he attended numerous professional baseball games, traveled and began what has become an endless study of successful people. Kernen credits Garrido for teaching him the basics but said, “I didn’t really learn about coaching until I got off baseball.”

Kernen said he learned those lessons from attending such events as concerts, Broadway musicals and Wimbledon. “I read a lot, but I also try to experience as many different types of situations like that as possible,” he said. “I look at the ingredients that go into these people to get them to the top.”

Northridge players report that their coach successfully provides examples that anyone can relate to.

“He gives us examples all the time about how it’s run at the top of each profession,” said Clayton, who batted .397 last season.

Kernen said his goal is to encourage Northridge players to “follow the example of highly skilled people who are committed.”

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Tennis player Ivan Lendl became the subject of a Kernen lesson because of the resolve he showed after a surprisingly tough early round match at Wimbledon.

Kernen, who attended consecutive Wimbledons from 1984-86, said he watched Lendl struggle to win a five-hour match against an unseeded player. About a half-hour later, while he was watching another match, Kernen saw Lendl again, coach in tow, heading for a practice court where he worked on the subtleties of his game for an additional two hours.

“There must have been something in his game that wasn’t quite right,” Kernen said.

For another example of practice makes perfect, Kernen cites the New York Strings Orchestra, which he saw perform at Carnegie Hall in a midnight concert five years ago. High school and college students from 17 to 20 years old make up the orchestra. Each year they are brought together for three weeks in order to practice for their concert appearance.

“They practice three weeks, 110 hours, to play three pieces of music,” Kernen said, “and they’re all real talented to begin with.”

Kernen had to go backstage. “How did you get here?” he asked.

“You get, ‘I’ve been playing the violin eight hours a day since I was six,’ ” Kernen said. “It’s more detailed than that, but you find that it’s really all the same whatever the profession.

“It’s a different discipline, different tools and a different subject, but it’s all pretty much the same in terms of commitment.”

What Kernen cannot experience firsthand he reads about.

He uses astronaut John Glenn as an example of a person who toiled for decades to reach a single goal.

“Before he orbited the Earth, he prepared for 20 years,” Kernen said. “He started off as a Marine fighter pilot, worked his way through NASA, and the last few years before his (space flight) he moved out of his house. He lived at NASA 24 hours a day and went home on weekends. And he had a wife, kids and everything else. There wasn’t a white picket fence and he’s taking the kids to Disneyland. It just didn’t happen like that.”

And so, the moral goes, how committed are you?

“That’s why I watch those guys, for examples.” Kernen said. “Like in the theater. It’s unbelievable what they do. A lot of those people are unknowns, but I also saw Jack Lemmon on Broadway.

“Now what does he have to do that for? He’s not getting paid anything like what he’d get for a movie, but they do it because they’re always trying to sharpen their skills.”

Kernen, who says he has attended some 70 plays on Broadway and in London the past five years, saw Lemmon perform Tennessee Williams’ “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

“He becomes this character. He’s not just some guy playing the role,” Kernen said. “He’s the guy. And at the end of the thing he’s not running out there like they do after some of those fun ones when they’re all taking bows and laughing. He’s out there sweating and he’s been crying. He’s just a mess. And they do it eight times a week. Some of those people have been doing the same role for months and months. Sometimes years. And when you walk in there and you’ve paid your $50, you don’t care what he did yesterday or how long he’s been doing it. It’s, ‘Here I am, let’s see what you can do.’ ”

In Kernen’s view, the same thing is true of the Northridge baseball team, which is ranked among the nation’s top 25 Division I teams by the two major polls.

“When we come out here, it doesn’t matter what we did yesterday or what we think we’re going to do tomorrow or what our rating is,” Kernen said. “You are whoever you are today.”

It should be noted, then, that Zubin Mehta, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, is one of Kernen’s favorite personalities. He saw Mehta in concert at Lincoln Center last New Year’s Eve.

“I don’t know crap about music but here’s a guy who walks in, and you have all these men and women who are world-class musicians and they all have egos and are all stars in their own right, and he walks up to the podium and they all just--boom!--are right with him,” Kernen said. “He doesn’t screw around at all. He comes in, takes his little bow, turns around and just goes .

“I write six, seven months in advance so I get in the front row.”

From an observer’s perspective, the view from the Northridge dugout one day early this week is not as intimate, but it is obvious that Kernen commands similar respect as he talks to the 20 Matador players seated on the ground surrounding him. He is, by most accounts, Mehta of the Matadors.

“It sounds funny, but I always look forward to those talks,” said Scott Sharts, CSUN’s power-hitting first baseman and top pitcher. “It’s amazing how he always ends up tying things back to baseball.

“Just last week he was telling us about John Glenn and how he trained 20 years for what he got to do in four hours. And when he said ‘four hours’ he said, ‘How long is that championship game going to be . . ?’ ”

Excuse us, Scott. We’ve heard the rest of the story.


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