Rob Duron would the first to tell you his initial season as the Santa Monica High baseball coach has been turbulent.
He’s been frustrated by a perceived lack of backing by school officials on a variety of matters, including who is responsible for emptying garbage cans at the campus baseball field.
Duron has made a reasonable request – to acquire a cart to drag the infield — standard equipment at many schools. But as the season nears its conclusion he still doesn’t have one.
Then there’s the fact that the defending Ocean League champions got off to a slow start as Duron did things his way — in many instances ways that differed from how previous coach Kevin Brockway operated.
The combination of a team making a transition to a new coach and some early losses led to short tempers. Some parents were critical of Duron, and he needed to enforce a suspension or two to convince errant players there were rules to be followed.
And yet, entering the final week of the league schedule, Samohi has clinched a playoff berth with an 8-0 record and has a chance to win the league title in two games against second place Culver City in the first week of May.
There have been scouts from major league organizations and others from the baseball world at recent Samohi games, checking out pitchers Paul Salazar and Tyler Skaggs, and third baseman Logan Whitchurch – all of whom are likely to play baseball beyond the high school level. Their presence is reminiscist of when Jonas Swyer and Cody Decker were Samohi players attracting attention in the recent past.
And while Duron’s methods may be controversial, the aforementioned baseball people agree he’s done well in figuring out what talent he has and installing a winning system. But clearly, the new coach was experimenting at the outset. He hadn’t coached for many years and wasn’t familiar with the players’ strengths and weaknesses.
In the first 19 games, the Vikings hit exactly one home run. So he gathered the players one day, emphasized that statistic and told them that playing “small ball,” –moving runners, bunting, relying on pitching and defense to win — gave the Vikings their best chance to succeed.
Also, early in the season Duron used relief pitchers extensively. He had coached long enough to know that saving the key pitchers’ arms for vital late season games was important. But in key wins over third place Beverly Hills April 29 and May 1, both Salazar and Skaggs pitched complete games. “It’s the time for that,” Duron explained.
And, in the best example yet of “small ball” succeeding for the 2008 Vikings, catcher Alex Kovacs’ perfect squeeze bunt in the sixth inning May 1 broke a 1-1 tie and brought in the winning run against Beverly Hills. One inning later the Normans were eliminated from championship contention in the league race.
Some baseball people told me that the pressure on high school coaches has intensified in their sport. In a difficult economy the competition for college scholarships is greater, with parents seeing a scholarship — or even a partial one — as being all important, so players who want to show how hard they can hit a ball may not want to take pitches and bunt.
No matter that Joe Torre, one of the most successful managers in major league history, favors taking pitches in order to make opposing pitchers work harder. That was a constant theme in his winning years with the Yankees.
So, a high school coach has to absorb more criticism these days and have the courage to stick with his plan, regardless of what he hears.
Duron appears to have done that.
Aware of the controversy that surrounds hi, Duron quipped after the wins over Beverly Hills:
“Well, it looks like the team overcame me again.”