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Requiem for a Baseball Man

By
January 12, 2010

John Stevenson was one of the best minds I have ever met in amateur baseball. In his community in El Segundo, California, he coached for 50 years and made the playoffs 42 times. He ran practices like clockwork. He never cared where a guy would get drafted, but he wanted each guy to have success in and out of baseball. John never got caught up in the trappings of professional baseball. Business cards did not impress him. He was a teacher at heart.

Stevenson, who passed away Monday at age 76, won 1,000 games here in Southern California. For those of you around the country, I’d like to share a story I wrote about Stevenson in 2007, a tribute to a baseball guy.


Baseball’s Moses reaches the Promised Land
March 1, 2007

By John Klima

The edges of the only clipboard John Stevenson has used in his 48 years as a high school baseball coach have become so rounded that he could be mistaken for Moses carrying the stone tablets down the mountain.

On the bottom of the clipboard remains the outline of a blunt strike made against a solid object. Stevenson, whose devotion on a baseball field at age 73 remains as sharp as it was when he first brought his clipboard to the field as El Segundo High’s head coach at age 26, allowed for a slight moment of self-deprecating humor.

“You see,” Stevenson said, holding his clipboard upside down, as if the laugh is worth the lesson. “This mark was created by a younger man in a moment of becoming more emotional than professional.”

Almost everything you need to know about Stevenson can be found on his clipboard.

Start with the top page, normally reserved for the schedule of the day’s practice. Perhaps the term “practice” doesn’t adequately describe Stevenson’s detail-oriented drills, which turn ordinary afternoons into baseball study halls and years later resonate in the minds of boys he helped shape into men.

Finish with the well-rounded corners that have dulled with time but have not removed the edge that has brought Stevenson, already California’s all-time victories leader, to the brink of 1,000 career victories. He began his head coaching career in 1960 and begins the 2007 baseball season Friday with 998 career victories.

In a century of high school baseball, no California prep coach has ever won 1,000 games. Stevenson will join only six other coaches in the country to reach the milestone, according to the National High School Sports Federation Hall of Fame.

There hasn’t been a new crater created on his clipboard in several years, and as the years have mounted, Stevenson’s stoicism seems to have grown stronger. His pride, however, isn’t found exclusively in 1,000 victories, but in the thousands of lessons he has imparted to a community where he has reached iconic status, as well as in the consistency of his program. His mark has been methodically made, and this, Stevenson shares with pride, is by design.

“The biggest significance is the consistency of the program,” he said, later adding: “I’m not a hobby guy. I’m not going to go hiking or fishing. I don’t play golf. I love coaching games and I love coaching practices. I loved it when I started, and I don’t love it any less now.”

And why should he? Stevenson is his own Branch Rickey. The youth baseball programs in El Segundo feed him a steady stream of talent. Boys are raised to dream of playing for him.

“When you grow up in El Segundo and you’re a baseball player,” said senior pitcher Mike Quinones, “you know you’re going to grow up and play for Coach Stevenson. It’s an automatic. If you let it happen, he becomes like a father figure.”

Entering his 48th season, Stevenson’s program has sent 47 players to professional baseball, including six major leaguers: Bobby Floyd, Ken Brett, George Brett, Scott McGregor, Zak Shinall and Billy Traber. But the numbers alone do not seem to matter to Stevenson as much as the meaning. Consistency is his companion.

Every season, he wants his team to win 20 games. A standard regular season has only 28 games. Stevenson’s teams have achieved that goal in 30 of his 47 seasons, including a 25-10 record in 2006 that left them one victory short of Stevenson’s eighth CIF championship. He is 7-6 in championship games, and his memory is longer than a fungo stick.

These are memories that remain with George Brett, Stevenson’s best-known player, who is now an executive for the Kansas City Royals, the team of his Hall of Fame career. Brett’s path began when he played 300 games for Stevenson in high school and American Legion baseball before he graduated in 1971.

“What he does for you is portray the importance of treating the game with respect,” Brett said. “John always seems pretty mild- mannered but make no mistake, if a guy makes a mistake that hurts the team, that guy will get aired out.”

Brett’s standing as a prospect aside, Stevenson didn’t exempt the young and emotional shortstop from the sharp tongue.

“A lot of it is one-on-one, but sometimes it was in front of the team,” Brett said. “The one thing about John is that he’ll never call out a kid during a game — not in front of the other team, in front of the parents and the umpires. He wants the player to realize that he needs to not make that mistake again, but he does it with respect for the game and for the kid.”

When told that Stevenson was not only still active, but closing in on 1,000 career victories, Brett and McGregor had different reactions.

“My God!” Brett said. “I didn’t realize he had that many wins. Tell me something: did he schedule a patsy?”

McGregor settled in Baltimore where he spent his entire major league career. He is now in his seventh season as the team’s double-A pitching coach. He smiled.

“I can believe it,” McGregor said. “Much of the success Georgie and I had can be traced to the way he coached the game. He ran us to death and he commanded respect of us.”

Stevenson, too, has his own set of commandments, which resonate among decades of former players. Be it boys who grew up to be professional baseball players or who grew up to follow other life paths, these lessons remained. In interview after interview, the same themes appear.

Thou shall be on time.

Thou shall be prepared.

Thou shall execute.

Thou shall put the team first.

Thou shall work hard.

Thou shall respect thy teammates.

Thou shall honor the game of baseball.

Thou shall not squander thy ability.

Thou shall play with dignity and honor.

Thou shall respect thyself.

He only needs one clipboard for his commandments. Brett and McGregor said they benefited from Stevenson’s hand.

Brett signed in 1971 and was sent to Billings, Mont., in the Pioneer League, where as a freshly graduated high school senior, he was pitted against college players. The Pioneer League was a difficult and fast-paced league for many high school players, but Brett fit in immediately, largely because he had been prepared by the commandments of Stevenson.

He hit .291, partly, he said, because of Stevenson’s insistence upon repetition and attention to fundamentals.

“I was way beyond my years in that league,” Brett said. “Not physically, but I was ready mentally. I didn’t have to think where I needed to be on a play.”

By then Brett knew how to throw, how to run a bunt defense, how to hit and run, where he had to be as a shortstop when a ball was hit into the gap with runners on first and third.

“John had taken care of me,” Brett said. “The little things had been instilled in me by repetition and preparation.”

As it was when Brett graduated in 1971 and McGregor in 1972, it is today. The only difference, perhaps, is when Stevenson will say he is finished.

What will not be found on Stevenson’s clipboard is his own timetable. As the victories increase and the years go by, he believes it will take nature to loosen his grip on his sole obsession. His own defiance accompanies precision.

“I will never make a decision that ‘this’ is my last year,” he said. “I evaluate after each year based on a number of factors I consider. When it’s time, I’ll walk into the athletic director’s office and say, ‘I’m done.’ I don’t want to stay at the party too long.”

Stevenson and his wife, Gail, have been married for 36 years.

The couple’s only child, Eric, graduated from El Segundo in 1990. On paper, Stevenson has been married to baseball longer, first as a catcher at Redondo Union High, later at UCLA.

“Some of these questions, I get asked by my wife,” he said. “The answer is I love being around young people. I’m 73. I see other people my age and it’s like their life is done. They’re going through the motions. Being out here with these kids — and I have to brag, El Segundo kids are wonderful — keeps me invigorated and interested.”

Stevenson believes his body will tell him when it’s time to move on.

“I believe life has a way of making those decisions for you,” he said. “When I fall asleep in the dugout, I guess it’s time to hang them up.”

His clipboard will probably fall apart before he does.

Comments

One Response to “Requiem for a Baseball Man”

  1. Mark Rosin says:

    John-

    What a nice story of a coach who “got it”. I’m sorry to hear of his passing and I hope he was able to pass on his passion to someone who can take over the program for those kids. What a legacy !

    Mark

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