Remembering When

There was a time when coaches stayed.

There was a time when coaches were lifelong teachers, not traveling salesmen.

There was a time when they molded children into adults who would return 42 years later and hug a weathered body and laugh into a hearing aid and thank an old man for their lives.

"Mr. Pote," they still call him.

During a week filled with the impending departures of the top assistant coaches for the best teams in pro and college football, Phil Pote awoke Tuesday in the same house in which he has lived for nearly 45 years and took the drive of a lifetime.

To the Fremont High baseball diamond, to the celebration of the city landmark known as the 1963 Fremont High city baseball champions, to his kids.

It was the last South Los Angeles team to win a big-division city title. It was one of the last times the national pastime ruled the American city. It was a triumph of the spirit.

Three future major leaguers played for that team. Policemen and professors and preachers were born of that team. They gathered Tuesday to honor the last of a Jackie Robinson-inspired generation.

But they couldn't stop talking about Mr. Pote.

This crazy white coach for their team of 15 African Americans and one Latino.

"The gringo," said Pote, 71, with a grin.

Pote was the guy who ordered them new uniforms with huge numbers so the world would know that an inner-city baseball player mattered, no matter what his color.

"Those numbers were a foot high, I swear," said former second baseman Charlie Porter, now a college umpire. "That's how he made us feel."

Pote was the guy who ordered that their uniforms remain unwashed during their stretch of four road playoff games because he wanted to keep the Fremont High dirt caked on the cuffs.

"He wanted us to always keep a piece of our home with us," said outfielder Paul Jefferson, now a college professor. "He really made us proud of this place."

And so Pote returned to join them Tuesday, wearing a red Fremont coaching jacket he wore during that championship season, having pulled it out of a trunk and stuck it awkwardly around his frame.

"This jacket is a little wrinkled, and I apologize," Pote said. "But as you can see, I'm also a little wrinkled."

The team featured Bobby Tolan, Bob Watson and the late Willie Crawford.

Yet nobody was cheered as loudly Tuesday as the guy who greets you with his left hand because his right hand is seemingly frozen from years of holding a stopwatch.

"Mr. Pote taught us pride," said Porter, maybe because Phil Pote practiced what he preached.

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They don't play much baseball around here anymore, of course.

They try, certainly. Fremont has a grass infield and decent bases and a coach who shows up for games after working all night giving out parking tickets for the city.

But the place that is tied with Long Beach Poly for the most major leaguers produced by one high school in the country -- 24 each, at last count -- has become yet another faint gasp in baseball's slow death in the city.

Basketball is faster money. Football is cooler money. Both sports contain plenty of glamour, diversity and college scholarships.

Baseball is zero for three.

"Don't get me started on why baseball isn't working in the inner city," Pote said. "You'd win a Pulitzer Prize while I was getting slapped."

Forty-two years ago, Pote made it work.

This is what happens when you have a coach who is tied to the town, who is committed to the neighborhood, who doesn't worry about shoe deals or TV shows....

All these years in Los Angeles, and Phil Pote still doesn't have a cellphone or an e-mail address or even call waiting.

But give him a few minutes and he can rustle up a bag of balls and some sweet, sweet bats.

He spent 10 years at Fremont, a dozen years at L.A. City College, spent time at other city spots, and is now a part-time Southland scout for the Seattle Mariners, two or three games a week, never straying far from home.

"Phil showed, they all showed, what baseball can do in a community," said John Young, founder of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), the group that is recognizing the Fremont team at its annual Beverly Hills banquet tonight.

It started with shoes.

"One day somebody broke into my locker and stole everything but one cleat," recalled Porter.

"Mr. Pote saw me moping around, and the next day, he tossed me a shoebox with new ones.

"He did that for a lot of us."

It continued with gloves.

"My glove was dilapidated," recalled first baseman Winston Phillips. "Then one day he just tossed me a new one. A first-base glove. I had never seen anything like it."

It continued with values.

Pote never cursed -- "horsefeathers" was his strongest word -- and insisted that his team also never curse. He wouldn't allow them to chew tobacco. He lectured them about smoking.

"The things he taught me, I find myself teaching kids that I coach," said former pitcher Ron Mingo.

"I sound just like him."

Pote fought the old perception that inner-city kids were cocky by refusing to allow them to pack up even one piece of equipment until the game was over, even though they won several blowouts.

"They did it once with one out left, I emptied out the bat rack in anger, and they never really did it again," Pote said.

He battled the old idea that inner-city kids didn't care about grades by establishing a tougher academic standard than the rest of the school, refusing to play any child who had less than a "C" average.

Former shortstop Curtis White showed up Tuesday even though he did not play in one 1963 regular-season game. He was benched until the playoffs because of grades.

He came to show his gratitude.

"By doing that, Mr. Pote changed my life," said White, a college graduate and manager at Costco. "I thought I was a big shot. He taught me you have to take care of your responsibilities first."

In the end, the Pathfinders believed Mr. Pote was more than a physical education teacher, they believed he was magic.

In the quarterfinal playoff game against Gardena, he screamed at a Crawford grounder to bounce into the outfield, which it did, setting up Tolan's game-winning grand slam.

Before the championship game against Banning, catcher Bob Watson's arm was hurting, so Pote ordered strong-armed Jefferson to play catcher and throw during pregame warmups.

Banning thought it was Watson, and so did not try to run on the ailing catcher in Fremont's 8-0 victory.

Afterward Pote bought them all dinner, but then he always bought them dinner. He allowed them to throw him into a school courtyard pond but then, he was always doing crazy things like that.

"He has a heart as big as Mt. Olympus," Porter said. "He walks around looking like a bag man, and people don't know. People have no idea."

Pote wrote his team a thank-you note Tuesday, a tiny mimeographed note that ended with the 1963 Fremont motto of W.U.T. -- We, Us, Team.

He pointed to the little pile of papers and asked his player to each take one.

But for one of the first times in 42 years, they disobeyed.

Instead, Porter took the microphone and asked that the players thank Pote.

And so they did, rising carefully on their canes and extra weight and memories, a standing ovation for all that can be right in the coaching profession, for a man they still call Mister.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. For previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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