For the 20th consecutive spring, Tom Bergeron is ignoring the roar and rumble from the Artesia Freeway just beyond the right-field fence of Gahr High School’s wind-whipped baseball field.
“I never hear that traffic, but it may bother our opponents,” said Bergeron, who blocks out everything but the fundamentals that he tries to teach to his players.
He has done this well, as his 377-158 coaching record at the Cerritos school attests. But as he arrived for practice Monday afternoon, a day before a game with intracity rival Cerritos High, he knew that further emphasis on the basics would be needed.
Gahr had won its first eight games of the season before losing to Irvine, 5-2, last week. And it was the way the Gladiators had lost--they struck out 12 times--that disturbed Bergeron.
There would be a discussion on proper hitting technique before practice was over, he said.
But for the moment, Bergeron enjoyed the daily moment of solitude before the players arrive.
“It’s peaceful out here,” he said. “We could be having terrible weather, but the longer you’re out here, the better it gets. It always gets warmer, and the wind calms down. It’s kind of soothing.”
Beneath a blue cap with a gold “G,” Bergeron’s face, perpetually tanned but not weather-beaten, took on the 2 p.m. sun. The former UCLA infielder wears his 52 years well; his life is satisfying.
His son, Greg, was the most valuable player at Gahr three years ago and now plays third base for Cerritos College; his daughters, Renee and Sheri, are on the softball team at Los Alamitos High. His wife, Cathy, teaches at Gahr, and has the Gladiators’ star pitcher, Bobby Post, in one of her classes.
“What’s the name of that class, bachelor living?” Bergeron asked Post, who was shoveling away mounds of dirt that a gopher had dug up near third base.
“Adult lifestyles,” said Post.
“They teach you how to buy homes and choose names for babies,” Bergeron said.
Bergeron teaches world history, economics and civics, but it is as baseball coach that he has made his mark, establishing one of the area’s most respected programs. He has won nine San Gabriel Valley or Suburban League titles, though none since 1987.
“The high point has been coaching guys who really, really want to play baseball,” Bergeron said.
Only a CIF championship has eluded Bergeron, who came closest to one in 1983, when Gahr lost to Loara in the finals.
“You’ve got to be lucky,” he said. “I think I may never win one; some teams seem destined not to win one. But if I did, I might not try as hard.”
No Gladiator is more aware of Gahr’s tradition than Post, a senior right-hander with a 6-2 record. Post and his family moved from Cerritos to Victor Valley last summer, but he wanted so badly to finish his career under Bergeron that he commutes from his new home, rising at 6 for the 1 1/2-hour drive.
Asked to define the tradition, Post said, “Shane Mack, Brett Barberie, all those guys.”
Mack, a center fielder who hit .326 for Minnesota last season, graduated from Gahr in 1983 and is one of four of Bergeron’s former players who have reached the major leagues.
The others are pitcher Al Osuna, who is with the Houston Astros; Dan Boone, who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles at the end of last season, and catcher Tom Nieto, who has been with the Cardinals, Twins and Phillies, and is now with Buffalo, the Triple-A farm club of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Barberie, who won a place in Bergeron’s heart with his desire, is a minor-league shortstop in the Montreal Expos’ organization. In the mid-1980s, he would pull his aqua van into the parking lot next to the Gahr field, change into his uniform and hop the fence.
While about a dozen Gladiators have become pros, many more have gone on to play in college.
“The most satisfying thing is when you have an alumni game and see kids who have gone into coaching or into professional fields, and see that they still like baseball,” Bergeron said. “I’ve had more ballplayers come back and talk to me than students who I had only as a teacher.”
As a JV coach years ago at Warren High in Downey, Bergeron learned from Buck Taylor, who still coaches there. Later, Bergeron was a volunteer coach at Cerritos College under another respected coach, Wally Kincaid.
To that early knowledge he has added information gathered from years of attending clinics and watching games.
“Almost everything you learn in baseball is copied from somebody else,” he said.
Bergeron has a philosophy that, if carried out by his team, usually leads to victory:
* Get five or more hits a game.
* Don’t strike out more than six times.
* Never make more than two errors.
* Make no mental mistakes.
The 12 strikeouts against Irvine bothered him. “You have to make contact (with the ball) in high school and make the other team make the plays on you,” he said. “If you do that, you’ve always got a chance.”
Bergeron, who is assisted by Rey Sanchez and Kurt Ruth, does not tolerate mental mistakes.
Against Irvine, he told outfielder Darius Cunnigan to be sure to wear sunglasses. Cunnigan, who didn’t take the advice, shied away from a fly ball that dropped for a double.
So the player had to run what Bergeron calls a “rock head” after the next practice--sprinting from home plate to first base and jogging back; then sprinting to second and jogging back; then to third and back, and finally running around the bases.
“You can yell and talk a guy’s ear off and you don’t get a response,” Bergeron said. “But when a player has to run, he doesn’t like it. The rock head has been effective for me.”
After the players loosened up Monday afternoon, Bergeron told them in a soft voice that could barely be heard above the wind and freeway roar: “When I talk, I’m telling you right now, you listen.”
He added, “If you guys want to go on and play college ball, you have to be mentally tough.”
Hitting lessons came next as Bergeron gripped a bat.
“You can hit big-league pitchers if you apply the fundamentals,” he said. “Do not lunge. Look for the fastball and be ready for it.”
He stepped into imaginary pitches and swung, trying to get his players to realize that big-league stars George Brett and Don Mattingly are great hitters because their swings are fundamentally perfect.
“Rhythm . . . boom! . . . follow through with your head down,” Bergeron said.
The coach then stood a few feet from his players and tossed balls for them to hit into the backstop screen.
Left fielder Eric Rosales, designated hitter Jermaine Fuller, catcher Gil Beltran and shortstop Hugo Gomez--all with averages above .320--kept whacking the old brown balls until their red stitchings came loose.
But the next afternoon at Cerritos, there was no whacking as the Gladiators lost, 2-0. Post pitched well, but gave up a long two-run homer.
“They’re a bunch of scrappy little guys,” Bergeron said of Cerritos as his players quietly gathered their equipment. “And we’re not good scrappers. Our guys don’t want to get dirty like the old kids we used to have.”
He was thinking of Barberie, who was always covered with dirt after a game.
Clean-up hitter Rosales, with a runner on, struck out on a curve ball in the seventh inning to end the game. On the previous pitch, he took a fastball he wasn’t ready for.
Bergeron thought about that, sadly shook his head and walked toward the bus.