I learned long ago that some the greatest learning experiences in life, some of the most memorable moments of a career, are when I am resigned to the fact that I’m not the smartest guy in the room. I accepted that long ago, and it continues to pay off.
That was again the case last week when former UCLA head baseball coach Gary Adams hosted his annual baseball camp in Bear Valley Springs. Adams, who coached the Bruins from 1975-2004, invited players from his early teams, 1975-1980, to come coach the kids in our community. As more than one of them explained to me when I asked what brought them to Tehachapi, “you don’t say no to coach.”
I was invited to a gathering at the Adams’ home the evening following the first day of camp to get a chance to talk with some of the players, guys like 1988 World Series Champion Tim Leary, 11-year MLB veteran Matt Young, and a guy who spent 16 seasons behind the plate in the big leagues, Don Slaught. There were several others who wore Bruin blue in attendance, guys who were giving something back to their coach who gave them so much.
Take Young for example. Eleven years in the majors, a World Series Championship with Oakland in 1989, a storied collegiate and professional baseball career. He drops his happy-go-lucky demeanor for a moment when asked about his presence in Tehachapi and his service to his college coach.
“I can’t turn Gary down. He’s one of the nicest human beings on the planet. There are very few people in life who effect you and mold you. Coach Adams was one of those people,” Young said. “I had a great father growing up, but fathers do some things, coaches do another; Gary was one of those outside influences that was very special.”
Surrounded by college and MLB history, I recalled a lesson both my parents and my coaches passed along as well: shut up and listen. I did plenty of that but was engaged in a few conversations about today’s pitchers and their inability to throw more than 100 pitches. We also talked about the evolution of the baseball bat. I found out later I was having that conversation with Tim Bjelland and Jim Auten.
Bjelland and I later discovered he knows my aunt and uncle in Costa Mesa. That connection went even further as we dissected Auten’s 29-homerun season in 1979 (then a UCLA record) and discovered that Auten’s 26th homerun that season was given up by a college pitcher out of Southern California College — Brian Costelloe, my uncle. Apparently, long after their college careers, he and Bjelland had been adult softball teammates and made the connection. Small world, right?
Giving back to their coach and to local kids in our area wasn’t just a matter of showing up, either. Don Slaught, now founder and president of Right View Pro, a swing analysis and comparison program, brought his service to the camp. He recorded each camper’s swing, allowed them access to his analysis site where they can now compare their swing to any MLB All-Star and compare everything from point of contact to hand placement. An above and beyond approach from someone whose company bio page starts with the powerful statement: “if I ever quit learning, I’ll quit coaching.”
I couldn’t fathom the number of baseball games played that surrounded me and I didn’t try. The innings, the injuries, the amount of heart and soul these men gave to the game, and their unbelievable dedication to it all these years later. Impressive as I simply observed and listened.
The stories and the wine flowed that evening. Apart from being a baseball aficionado, Coach Adams is now a small-scale vintner. The passion and strategy he puts into his wines is comparable to that of managing a baseball team. Grow and nourish, maintain, protect, look for the right combination and know when something or someone has reached their peak potential.
As does the wine, it seems like college baseball players, especially this group of Bruins I was fortunate to interact with, simply gets better with age.
Corey Costelloe has covered the NCAA, professional and local sports for more than 20 years as a reporter and broadcaster. A THS graduate, he now resides and works in Tehachapi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are his own.