Men of Steele Find Comfort, Triumph in Eye of the Storm : Montclair Prep: Under fourth-year coach, Mounties shrug off adversity in quest for a final title before school serves suspension.

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If laughter is the best medicine, Montclair Prep baseball Coach Walt Steele deserves an honorary stethoscope for guiding the 1991 Mountie baseball team into the Southern Section 1-A Division championship game against Orange Lutheran tonight at 7:30 at Blair Field in Long Beach.

In a year laden with adversity, Steele has combined baseball acumen with a light-hearted manner to bring Montclair Prep to the brink of back-to-back titles.

Make no mistake: Steele is serious about his team. Witness his unhesitating one-game suspension of three starters before Montclair Prep’s semifinal Tuesday against San Jacinto.


But 1991 was a season that called for a little perspective--and maybe a dose of laughter.

It was a year in which the Mounties were told by the Southern Section that they would be ineligible to compete in the playoffs next season.

It was a year in which the Mounties were told at midseason that they no longer would be able to use their practice field.

And it was a year in which the Mounties lost starting right fielder and .440 hitter Jared Baumblatt for the entire playoffs because of an injury.

In the face of it all, the players learned to laugh to avoid crying.

Now, of course, the last laugh could be theirs. The Mounties (20-3), winners of 17 consecutive games, have won Alpha League championships in each of Steele’s four years as coach.

“I think my program is an easy program to play in,” Steele said.

So do the players. Steele set the tone when he brought a large radio into the weight room and performed impromptu song-and-dance routines while the team worked out.

“He would do his special Milli Vanilli dance,” said junior Steve Cain, tonight’s starting pitcher.


Steele also made a practice of betting his regulars a hamburger that each time a reserve got an at-bat, he would get a hit. Steele owes his starters about two dozen hamburgers.

“He’s trying to get out of it now,” Cain said, laughing. “He said it’s too expensive and wants to take us to (a buffet) instead.”

The players, in turn, can poke fun at the coach Cain describes as “a great one to play for.” When Steele’s wife Robin was overdue with the couple’s baby in March, Steele carried a pager at all times. Every time the beeper activated, Steele would reach for it frantically.

“We called him Quick Draw McGraw,” Cain said. “So some of the players, at the end of practice, they set off theirs and Coach would get all nervous, reaching for his. Then he’d look at us all nervous and we’d just laugh.”

The laughs again turned to anguish when, as a result of Montclair Prep admitting to improprieties in the football program, all of the school’s athletic teams learned they would be ineligible for the playoffs next school year.

So tonight will represent the final chance for the Mounties to win a title until 1993. But Steele maintains a perspective as steady as his name suggests.


“It doesn’t bother me that we won’t have a chance at maybe three titles in a row,” he said. “As long as we can field a team and play the game of baseball . . . that’s what’s important.”

Putting together a practice was difficult enough for Montclair Prep this year. The team used the Encino Colt Field after school for practice until one day in midseason when the team pulled up to the gates of the field and found them literally closing in their face.

A homeowner had complained of balls being hit into her yard and had persuaded the recreation department that administers the fields to prohibit Montclair Prep from practicing there. Steele was forced to take his team to Balboa Park for practices over the spring break but then worked out a compromise: The team would not take batting practice at Encino but would work on fielding and situations from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily at the field.

After taking batting practice in one batting cage on campus from 2 until 3 p.m., the team would drive to Encino for another hour of practice. As Steele says, the arrangement was less than ideal.

“We’d divide it up into four stations for hitting and kids would get about 15 minutes of live (batting practice) a day as it turned out,” he said. “Considering all that, it’s amazing where we’re at. This ballclub has handled the whole thing just absolutely, unbelievably well.”

Last year’s championship team had little in the way of hardship. Shortstop Keyaan Cook was one of the area’s best players and the team entered the season with established starting pitchers and relievers.


This year, only junior Russell Ortiz was a proven pitcher and the team’s 3-3 start worried Steele. He orchestrated wholesale changes in his lineup, including moving All-Southern Section catcher Brent Polacheck to right field and, with the help of pitching coach Tim Montez, molded Cain (7-0) into a starter and Osman Kahn into a closer who has a team-high four saves.

It might be the best coaching job yet for a local boy who has made good.

Steele, 34, was born in Encino and attended Crespi High and Pierce College before playing on the 1979 Pepperdine team that finished third in the College World Series. He then signed a professional contract with the Milwaukee Brewers as a catcher. He languished in the minor leagues where he described himself as a “jack-of-all-trades and master of none.”

Steele eventually went back to Pepperdine to earn his B.A. and in 1983 landed a job at Montclair Prep teaching math and coaching junior varsity football and girls’ basketball. Baseball coach Jeff Pressman left the program in Steele’s hands after the 1987 season, and Steele has responded with a career record of 73-23-1 and a winning percentage of .752.

Crespi Coach Scott Muckey, an assistant at Pepperdine when Steele played there, is not surprised by Steele’s success.

“He always was a student of the game, asking: ‘What would you do in that situation?’ and things like that,” Muckey said. “I think he’s a very good teacher for one thing and he has a very good rapport with his kids.”

Steele credits Dave Gorrie, his coach at Pepperdine, for the good vibrations with his players. “Dave taught me to always have a positive attitude with the kids,” he said. “Always dwell on the positive, never the negative.”


It shows. One recent day in practice, Montclair Prep’s pitchers had finished their running and were sitting on the grass waiting for the position players to finish. Given the opportunity to entertain, Steele broke out the familiar boom box and tuned in an oldies station. He spent the rest of practice crooning along with the oldies, much to the delight of his players.

“He just loves his singing,” Cain said.

Tonight, Steele and the Mounties will try for a swell-sounding swan song.