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GURU IN A Small Town : Pitching Coach Gershberg Works His Miracles at Class-A Lake Elsinore

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Howie said this and Howie did that. You can’t get these pitchers to shut up. Nothing gets them so worked up like a question about Howie Gershberg.

“He’s like a magician,” said Pete Janicki, a right-hander for the Angels’ triple-A affiliate at Vancouver.

Howie, Howie, Howie. Is this puppy love or what? He is, after all, only a pitching coach. An Angel minor league pitching coach at that. What’s the big deal?

Then you watch Gershberg--the object of their affection--at work.

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Gershberg, a Lake Elsinore Storm coach the last three seasons, stood close as one of his pitchers tossed a baseball against a wall. There was no radar gun, no video tape, no catcher. Just a guy and his pitching coach working on the throwing motion, step by step.

In 10 minutes, the pitcher had a smooth delivery and a big grin. Gershberg had waved his wand again.

It has been this way for years. Gershberg talks, and talks some more, and pitchers listen. It can’t be that easy, but pitchers--from a veteran such as the New York Mets’ John Franco to a second-year pro such as Angel prospect Jarrod Washburn at Vancouver--swear by him.

“He’s a guru,” Shreveport pitcher Shawn Purdy said.

A transplanted Brooklynite who left the city long ago but kept the accent, Gershberg has been with the Angel organization since 1985. He has bounced from one Class-A team to another--Bend, Ore., Salem, Ore., Boise, Idaho, Palm Springs, Lake Elsinore.

But Gershberg, 60, has become almost a cult figure and pitchers from all levels have sought his advice.

Franco, whom Gershberg coached at St. John’s University, doesn’t go to spring training without letting Gershberg work the kinks out first. These days, Franco calls ahead. Other pitchers have been beating a path to Gershberg’s door in Long Island during the off-season. They must first get permission from the Angels, then fly to New York, but the effort isn’t wasted.

The list has included two Cy Young award winners, Bret Saberhagen and Frank Viola.

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“Some coaches get too mechanical with their thought process,” Franco said. “They throw too many things right at you. Howie keeps it simple and to the point and, if it’s not broke, Howie doesn’t try to fix it.”

Franco was one of the first to latch onto the Gershberg mystique. He and Viola played at St. John’s, where Gershberg was the pitching coach from 1974-84.

“Howie is like the San Diego Chicken,” Boise Manager Tom Kotchman said. “You know that skit the Chicken does, where the little chickens follow him across the field? That’s Howie. I’d see him walk across the field and his pitching staff, his little chickens, would follow him around.”

Gershberg has taken a number of pitchers under his wing. He remains at the Class-A level because the Angels prefer he work with younger pitchers.

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Huntington Beach’s Brandon Steele, a fourth-round pick in June, said the Angels want to send him to Lake Elsinore because, “they have this pitching genius out there.”

“Howie knows what he’s doing, but a lot of guys know what they’re doing,” Angel General Manager Bill Bavasi said. “But not everyone has the patience. That’s a good combination for working with young players. Howie has the patience.”

Al Goldis, then an Angel scout, recommended that Gershberg be hired in 1985. Gershberg was given a one-year trial at Class-A Salem. The Salem staff included Chuck Finley and Roberto Hernandez, now the Chicago White Sox closer. The next season, the Angels insisted Gershberg stay with the organization.

Gershberg would not turn down an assignment in the major leagues and has had offers. But he is committed to the Angels, who helped him get through a 1986 back injury. So he goes where they send him and they like to keep him close, where he can also work with major league pitchers rehabilitating injuries.

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Bryan Harvey, who is trying to come back from elbow surgery, has spent several days in Lake Elsinore this season.

“Howie has this voice like your father,” Finley said. “I think the young players latch on to that and listen to him.”

His credentials help as well. How many minor league pitching coaches have written books (“Championship Baseball”) and produced instructional films, one for ESPN and another for the NCAA library?

One season the USA baseball team rolled through Boise on tour. Gershberg was asked to talk with one of the team’s pitchers. A five-minute chat turned into a half-day clinic for the entire staff, which was taped for future reference.

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“The guy just knows a ton about baseball and pitching,” Washburn said.

Gershberg grew up in Brooklyn, across the street from Boys High School (now Boys and Girls High School). Even then it was one of the poorest sections in the city.

"[My parents] met over here. My father worked in the fur industry, but the dyes poisoned his hands,” he said. “He had to quit and became a taxi driver.

“They didn’t want me to play baseball. They never had anything and they didn’t want to see me follow in their footsteps. It was the old story, ‘My son has to do better than I did.’ I think the only reason they even let me play baseball was because I had asthma as a kid. The doctor told my mom to let me play because the exercise was good for me.”

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Gershberg’s high school coach, Harry Kane, was Lou Gehrig’s coach at the New York School of Commerce. As a kid, Gershberg shagged flies for the Boys High team. One day Kane came over and told him, “Son, you come to Boys High and you can play for me.” Gershberg started four years at shortstop.

Two years behind Gershberg on the baseball team was Tommy Davis, who won two batting titles with the Dodgers.

“Howie was the top player,” Davis said. “Everyone expected him to make it to the major leagues.”

The closest Gershberg came was pitching batting practice for the New York Giants.

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Gershberg signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955 after graduating from Boys High. The next year he was picked up by the Giants, who converted him to a pitcher. It was a short career, ending when Gershberg was hit on the head by a pitch.

His vision has never been the same. Today, he has a bifocal attached to sunglasses--a little secret he keeps from the players--because of night blindness.

The injury opened up a career. While recovering, Gershberg was brought in to pitch batting practice. No one paid much attention to him, but he devoured every scrap of knowledge.

“I would listen to [pitching coach] Frank Shellenbeck,” Gershberg said. “He never really talked to me. But I listened when he talked to the pitchers. I started getting the idea about the pitching delivery and what it takes in order for the arm to work correctly.”

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He left baseball and returned to school full time in 1959; he has two master’s degrees--in physical education from Brooklyn College and in special education from Adelphi.

Gershberg spent 32 years as a teacher and baseball coach at East Islip High. He continued teaching at East Islip even after he went to St. John’s as a coach. He still melds ideas in kinesiology and physiology into his pitching lessons.

“Each pitcher is an individual and you have to treat them that way,” Gershberg said. “These guys have to believe in what you’re teaching them. I’ve seen guys who did things just because they have to play for a coach. I want them to have a whole-hearted commitment to themselves, not to me.”

Janicki became a true believer--in himself and Gershberg. Janicki, a first round draft pick in 1992, missed two seasons with an arm injury. Last season, he was 9-4 at Lake Elsinore and credits Gershberg with reviving his career.

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“He’s the most positive coach I’ve ever been around,” Janicki said. “One time, I had the worst game ever. I couldn’t get anybody out. Howie came to me afterward and said, ‘The way you fielded that one bunt was perfect. You did everything right.’ ”

Gershberg has developed drills that break down a pitcher’s delivery frame-by-frame, which he goes through in reverse order. A pitcher first learns how he should finish his motion.

“We’ve worked in the Hawaiian winter league the last couple years and the pitcher’s from Japan and South Korea just love him,” Kotchman said. “He doesn’t speak their language, but he’ll get them doing those little drills with hand language. Afterward, they bow to him.

“I told him, ‘Howie, I love you, but I ain’t bowing to you.’ Maybe I should. We always had the best staff in the league when he was my pitching coach.”

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No matter. There are plenty others who worship him.

“The joke has always been that Howie just touches you and you start pitching better,” Purdy said. “Well, one time, I had been trying to learn a cut fastball on my own for about month. Nothing. I go to Howie and within 10 minutes he had me throwing one. He’s magic.”


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