JUCO Journal: MSJC Baseball

Mt. San Jacinto College baseball coach Steve Alonzo is different from any other baseball coach I’ve ever interviewed.

College baseball coaches are mostly reserved and strict, unable to laugh at anything but their own jokes. Not Alonzo. Happy to get some attention, he opened up to me like I was Barbara Walters.

He invited me aboard his golf cart and we drove around the warning track at MSJC’s baseball field as I asked him questions about his team, which is about to enter the Southern California Community College Regional Playoffs as a No. 7 seed.

I had heard that Alonzo was a different kind of guy, but I didn’t expect a tour or his ballpark, which he built from the ground up. Heck, no coach has ever invited me along for a ride on anything but the team bus, so I was kind of having a good time.

I asked him my first question: “What makes your team, this program, unique?”

And he gathered himself and gave me a great quote, the results of which I put into my Press-Enterprise article published May 6, 2009 that you can read here.

He had plenty more to say, the best of which, “This is the most disorganized organized program there is,” is as accurate an attempt at describing his program as I could ever conjour. This great thing is, the players absolutely love Alonzo’s style and because the team is succeeding, the whole system seems to be working.

To be fair, the MSJC baseball team has toiled throughout much of Alonzo’s 21-year tenure, usually finishing somewhere in the middle of the Foothill Conference. But it isn’t a meddling program, he graduates players, “anywhere from eight-to-12 this year,” and helps promote young ballplayers to the pro and collegiate ranks. The Eagles have had 28 alumni turn pro and another 114 receive scholarships at four-year universities.

The most interesting aspect to Alonzo? He claims to have been baseball executive Dan Duquette’s personal hitting coach while Duquette was the general manager of the Montreal Expos and then the Boston Red Sox. I haven’t done any fact-checking on this but it’s interesting, nonetheless. He also claims to have been the first professional hitting coach of a bunch of guys with the BoSox, including Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Varitek.

So if what Alonzo says is true, then he’s worked with some perennial All-Stars and might know some things about making it at the next level. His experience and charisma seems to have charmed the Eagles’ two best players, Drew Madrigal and B.J. Salsbury, a couple of sophomore’s with their baseball futures in the palm of the respective hands.

Madrigal (Menifee Paloma Valley HS) is a strikeout monster. He’s averaging just over 1.3 strikeouts per inning two seasons after leaving a full-ride at Cal State Northridge. Salsbury, the best high school player in Riverside County his senior year at San Jacinto HS, is 12-1 with a minuscule ERA. Salsbury says he has his passion for baseball back after he soured on the game while trying to find the right fit for his talents. His full-ride to UC Riverside didn’t work out. Neither did a stint at Riverside Community College.

Two other players, Garret Caldwell (Palomar HS) and Jeff Bunch (Phelan Serrano HS) also left scholarship offers and are now playing for Alonzo. Caldwell left NCAA D3 power La Verne and Bunch, like Madrigal, left Cal State Northridge. Both said that they weren’t “fitting” at their respective university.

Everyone seems happier now. And the Eagles are 31-10, so that helps.

Alonzo says his team plays a style called “Gorilla Ball.” When pressed to find an answer to what that means, he says, off the record, “We let the players be themselves. We don’t bunt. We only have three signs. We don’t scout other teams. Never have. That’s how we do it.”

I say “Sounds kind of like ‘Moneyball.’ Are you a fan?”

He says he is, which goes a long way toward explaining why his team is so successful this season. They can get on base and score runs, sure, but now the Eagles have a second quality starting pitcher to help carry the workload.

So to go with his lights-out pitching tandem, Alonzo, ever the hitting coach, has MSJC hitting the ball and scoring runs better than any team in the state. The Eagles’ Johnny Eshleman has a state-leading 75 hits this season and the team is scoring an average of 10.7 runs per game, also tops in the state. And nothing makes a pitcher look better than 10 runs of support and security.

Alonzo’s group is a loose bunch. They like hanging out in the dugout and just being ballplayers. Alonzo, unlike his contemporaries, allows this to happen because he, himself, is as down-to-Earth as the come. I don’t think he wants any unnecessary headaches. He’s much too easy-going for that. He’s likes enjoying himself and he, too, likes hanging out in the dugout… and just being a ballplayer’s hitting coach.

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