Finding the strike zone

Peter Johnson

The story of Paly’s varsity baseball team reminds one of the parable of the “Blind Men and the Elephant”. An old Indian tale, the “Blind Men and the Elephant” is a story about a group of blind men who all touch different parts of one elephant to learn what it is like. Because each person is touching a different part, such as the tail or the tusk, they disagree about what they are touching. Even though each man is describing the same animal, his personal perspective is vastly different from any other.

This is how the Paly baseball community was this season. Talk to one player, talk to another player, talk to a parent, talk to an administrator, talk to a coach – each one describes a radically different version of one team. Ultimately, however, one team hit the field this season. The conflicting visions brought with it a season full of tense emotions that went far beyond a win/loss record.

AS AN 8TH GRADER IN 2005, pitcher Matthew Tracy (’09) showed up at Palo Alto High School on a Saturday with his dad to watch the Paly baseball team practice. As he watched then-seniors like Nathan Ford (’05) and Matt Wismann (’05) take batting practice, Tracy could not help but dream about what his experience would be like at the high school level under five-year coach Pete Colombo.

“They looked like men out there,” Tracy said. “I expected it to be a big deal when I went there. I expected it to be professional.”

From 2000-2005, Colombo essentially rebuilt the Paly baseball program, leading the team to multiple CCS berths, as well as a 2004 CCS championship appearance. The 2004 squad was arguably the best Paly had seen in decades. The sixth seeded Paly defeated the first seeded West Catholic powerhouse St. Francis in a CCS quarterfinal match-up that left a stunned Colombo in tears. In that game, Paly baseball established itself as a top program in the area.

So, as incoming freshmen in 2006, players like Tracy were hopeful for a similar Paly baseball career.

“Coming in freshman year, I heard that Colombo had taken them to the CCS finals, and I was looking forward to playing for a great program,” shortstop Will Holder (’09) said.

Simply put, the Paly seniors did not get what they expected. Colombo took a leave of absence from coaching after the 2005 season, and was replaced by former Bishop O’Dowd HS coach Joel Kaufman.

Kaufman, however, wasn’t rehired after 2006. He was replaced by Paly alum and former minor league baseball player Dave Jefferson the following season. Jefferson stuck around until he was suspended at the end of his second year for getting ejected from two games. Pete Colombo came back to coach for the remainder of that year.

While fully expecting to continue what he started and get the baseball program back on track, Colombo decided in the offseason that he was not ready to coach again and stepped down. Hansen waited until weeks before the 2009 baseball season began before announcing the hiring of local club coach Donny Kadokawa.

And then, after a tumultuous baseball season, on and off the field, Hansen announced a week ago that Kadokawa would not be returning for the 2010 season.

Confusing? You bet. Unstable? Absolutely. When totaled up, Paly’s seniors had four different coaches in four years, no league titles and no CCS victories.

And next years’ seniors will begin with the same story.

“It’s bad,” Paly athletic director Earl Hansen said. “A lot of the times the coach I hired was the popular choice at the beginning, and then it just didn’t turn out.”

WHEN THE ’09 SENIORS talk about Paly baseball, their shared concern revolves around inconsistency and instability.

“It was totally dysfunctional,” said former pitcher Steven Burk (’09), who is the only Paly 2009 senior who played on varsity since his freshman season. “Paly did not have a single coach for more than two years. You can’t be functional when you have a new coach every season. You can’t create a program or have a system when you have a new coach every year.”

“It’s been pretty crazy,” outfielder Colin Byrne (’09) said. “There has been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of controversy, and a lot of different coaches.”

“The inconsistent program is what’s given us our poor record the past four years,” outfielder Michael Rizza (’09) said.

With each new coach, a whole new set of expectations, rules and styles emerged. In a game like baseball, where so much can either be micromanaged or left to the freedom of the players, adjusting to a new coach is like adjusting to a whole new way of playing baseball.

“It’s tough to switch coaches,” Holder said. “We started with two laid-back coaches that mostly just let us do our thing. And then Donny was so different from that. It’s tough.”

While the 2009 seniors’ careers at Paly had not turned out how they expected, as Byrne put it, “Hey, that’s life.”

Despite their volatile road, all the seniors agree that they were willing to put the past behind them and go into their senior season with a positive attitude. However, once the season started, for a handful of seniors, and two in particular, Kadokawa’s coaching style, communication skills and treatment of seniors as players and leaders became the last straw for them, and for their baseball careers.

The two seniors, former catcher Noah Sneider and Burk, would end up leaving the team mid-season.

“For the past three years, I did everything any of those coaches told me,” Sneider said. “It comes to point in our senior year where it’s like, ‘What’s important? What are you spending your time doing? Why are you here?’”

“When you have to come in every year and change everything, it gets to a point where you can’t get yourself to change anymore,” Burk said.

FOR THIS YEARS’ VARSITY BASEBALL COACH, Donny Kadokawa, high school baseball is all about ‘program’. Kadokawa emphasizes the importance of building a successful program for the future and developing collegiate baseball players, and cites this as his objective coming into Paly as a new coach.

“It’s about a program,” Kadokawa said. “It’s not about one player, it’s not about me – it’s about everybody. It’s bigger than us. We’re doing everything to try and promote the school and the program.”

Kadokawa stands at about 5’4’’, but his powerful presence in the dugout can be felt all the way to the stands. A self-described “straight shooter”, Kadokawa takes on a demanding coaching style that sets high expectations and does not shy away from criticism.

“I give you praise when you do it right, and when you’re doing it wrong, I’m going to tell you you’re doing it wrong,” Kadokawa said. “I don’t tell you what you want to hear, I tell you the facts. I tell you reality.”

For players who played for Kadokawa’s club team, “Team Kado”, a local club program that Kadokawa started in 2000, adjusting to Kadokawa’s style was smoother. Second baseman Scott Witte (’10), third baseman Wade Hauser (’10), first baseman T.J. Braff (’11) and pitcher Freddy Avis (’12) have all played for Kadokawa since they were ten years old. Most of them admit that there was an adjustment period.

“I actually remember wanting to quit after playing in one tournament with him, it did seem like a lot, the amount of stuff you learn in the amount of time is much different than anything you’ve ever experienced before,” Witte said. “Now, he’s definitely the best coach I ever had, and I completely agree with his styles.”

Kadokawa was aware of Paly’s struggles as a baseball program, and used this as an incentive to take over and rebuild it.

“They [Paly players] haven’t had a program, but I knew the potential of it,” Kadokawa said. “I didn’t want to see anymore of the kids go through the system and not get a chance to play at the next level.”

After the controversy-filled 2009 season, Kadokawa will not have the chance to continue the program he felt he revived. Hansen made the executive decision last week not to renew Kadokawa’s contract. When asked for the reasoning behind his decision, Hansen cited district policy related to employment decisions.

“I can’t comment on personnel issues,” Hansen said. “There was no firing. We just didn’t ask him back.”

While Hansen was legally muzzled, other sources The Viking interviewed were also reluctant to speak on the record. Even those who did agree to be quoted chose their words with much more caution when the tape recorder was on.

Following the announcement that he would not be rehired, however, an emotional Kadokawa candidly expressed his frustration at the Paly administration.

“I go to his [Hansen’s] office, I can’t find him. He doesn’t give us his cell phone number. Where’s the support there? I’m a new coach. This is my first year. I can see why he goes through so many coaches.
It just goes to show the lack of support and lack of any communication. You don’t think I communicate with my players? Well, it starts from the top,” Kadokawa said.

THE ADMINISTRATION’S perspective on the program’s woes differs markedly from Kadokawa’s. Hansen spoke about the difficulties of finding a coach at the district’s pay scale, as well as the myriad concerns that inevitably surface with any prospective coach. In Kadokawa’s case, his baseball business activities with Team Kado presented a potential conflict of interest.

“It’s very difficult to find a non-biased coach in sports like baseball,” Hansen said. “You either like them or you hate them. That’s the way it works with most club coaches.”

Finding a coach who can commit to the time demands involved in high school coaching presents another hiring challenge.

“It’s not easy finding a good coach,” Assistant principal Jerry Berkson said. “It’s tough to find a person who can be there at two o’clock everyday and leave at six and who’s qualified. I think it’s a crapshoot in any sport.”

WHEN TALKING WITH THE YOUNGER PLAYERS who have years of Paly baseball ahead of them, their concern with Paly baseball is with player attitude. Freshman Freddy Avis is one example of someone with a completely different experience from the seniors. For Avis, this season represented just the beginning of a promising baseball career at Paly under long-time travel team coach Kadokawa.

While Avis admits he was not even expecting to play varsity as a freshman, Kadokawa gave him the opportunity as a starting pitcher and mid-infielder, and Avis took advantage of it, quickly establishing himself as a solid varsity pitcher. As far as his overall role on the team,

“I wanted to be a utility player to just do whatever I can,” Avis said. “It’s not about me; it’s about me doing the job for the team. Because I’m a freshman, I can’t really take control of the team.”

“I’ll obey them [the coaches]. I might have doubts, but I’ll never make it an issue. Even though I might question them, I don’t make it personal.”

Avis’ primary goal for the season was to change Paly baseball’s reputation as a “poor program.”

On paper, the team achieved that goal. Paly rebounded after its dreadful 0-9 start, finishing the season at 13-14 and earning a number three seed in the Division II CCS playoffs, the program’s highest seeding in over four years. The team’s mediocre record was partly due to an extremely difficult pre-season schedule that included all the top baseball programs in the area.

But looking beyond the numbers and results, the Paly program is still far from finding consistency. Controversy surrounding Kadokawa, whether on the baseball diamond between players, on the bleachers between parents, or behind the scenes in Hansen’s office, plagued the well being of the team.

To players like Avis who are trying to get their careers moving in the right direction at Paly, all of this disagreement and drama was unnecessary and avoidable.

“After their rough years in high school baseball, some of the seniors never gave Donny [Kadokawa] a chance,” Avis said.

Teammate Jared Beeson (‘10), outfielder, agreed. “Their attitudes were honestly pretty crappy. They expected preferential treatment to me and they weren’t getting it,” Beeson said.

While players who share Avis’ view recognize the instability that seniors cite, they believed that Kadokawa was the one to right the ship and turn around the program for their future.

“He’s been the best coach that we’ve had at Paly,” third baseman Wade Hauser (’10) said. “He brought discipline to the program, which we never had. He was the best solution for the future.”

With so many ways of looking at the Paly baseball program and its direction, it is no surprise that these conflicting perspectives took their toll on the team once the season started. The tension came to a boiling point midway through the season.

IN MID-MARCH, a month into the season, Palo Alto baseball had never looked more unstable. With a record of 0-9, at a time when opposing emotions could not be more conflicted, at a time when the word controversy would be an understatement, Steven Burk took the mound.

Kadokawa gave Burk the ball just days after the season’s most heated moment, when clashing attitudes between players and the coach collided. After being approached by team seniors requesting a private meeting, Kadokawa instead held a meeting with the full team during practice. Burk and others expressed frustration with Kadokawa’s coaching style and the team’s direction. They also wanted to offer ideas for turning around their losing season.

“As a senior group – the group who are supposed to be the leaders of the team – we tried to talk to Donny about the problems we’d been having so we can try to fix it civilly,” Will Holder said. “But he never talked to us one on one [as seniors].”

A fiery and uncomfortable discussion broke out in the dugout. Some players had it out right there, unleashing their built up feelings about each other and Kadokawa, while others stared at the ground silently, unwilling to put themselves into the line of fire. The meeting provided no consolation for the players like Burk, a four-year varsity starter and star pitcher for the Vikings. Ultimately, it was Kadokawa’s way, or the highway.

“My voice was cracking because I wanted to leave that second,” Burk said. “[Assistant coach] Dick [Held] was holding me back, so I couldn’t.”

“I came home after practice and I was so upset and demoralized,” pitcher Freddy Avis (’12) said. “It was terrible just sitting there and being a part of the awkwardness. It was just awful.”

Nevertheless, Kadokawa gave Burk the ball in the next game, a league match-up against powerhouse Wilcox.  No words can accurately describe the importance of a Paly win. Despite all of the tension, Burk walked out onto the mound and pitched the game of his life. In a historic performance, Burk pitched a no-hitter. He blew by Wilcox hitter after Wilcox hitter, conceding only one base runner, on a walk, through all seven innings. Burk earned player of the week honors from the Palo Alto Weekly and SJ Mercury News, and Kadokawa called it “one of the best pitching performances” he had ever seen.

That day, Burk delivered the first Viking win of the year. That victory turned around the varsity’s season, and the team went on to go 13-5 from that point on.

Senior Steven Burk, however, walked away less than a week later, ending his Paly baseball career. In his final at-bat with the Paly team against Bellarmine, Burk ripped a homerun.

“I had wanted to quit ever since the day of the meeting,” Burk said.

Burk and the other seniors had pushed Kadokawa and the rest of the team to the limit, to the point where someone had to budge. Either Kadokawa could change to accommodate the seniors, the seniors could concede to Kadokawa, or the seniors could hit the road.

“I’m not one to let them dictate what they want to do,” Kadokawa said. “They feel that because they’re seniors, they got a right to dictate what happens. It’s not their program. It’s everybody’s program.”

According to many of the seniors, they did have that right. After putting in three years of hard work for the Paly baseball program, in spite of its problems, Burk, Sneider and Holder, especially, felt they deserved respect come their senior year – and didn’t get it.

“His program was in the future,” Holder said. “It made me feel like he didn’t care about this team. I felt like he was throwing this season aside, and he completely disregarded the seniors in some things.”

Holder, who will attend the United States Military Academy at West Point next year, even admits that he also considered leaving the team at around the same time Burk quit.

“I definitely thought about quitting at times,” Holder said. “I stayed in the program for the most part because I’m thinking about playing baseball next year. I had more to lose if I quit the team.”

The seniors remember what it was like for them when they first entered the program four years ago. The 2006 seniors set the tone and paved the way for the freshmen, sophomore and juniors. According to them, this was not the case under Kadokawa.

“Coming up as freshmen to be a senior, you’re shown the way by the older guys and they teach you the understandings of the team and the way things are run, which is the way they’ve been doing it,” Burk said.
“To work so hard to get to that point and then to be shot down… it brings your whole morale down to nothing.”

“I was out there every year, every conditioning session; I was out there working my ass off because I loved the game,” Sneider said. “Then we came in this year, and basically from day one, we weren’t respected.”

Although Sneider stayed on the team for another 11 games after Burk quit, he states that, after the team meeting, he “never felt a part of the team again.” Whether it was the culmination of a frustrating and inconsistent four years or Kadokawa’s philosophy, Sneider lost touch with the game that he had always loved.

“I went from coming into Paly and there being no place I’d rather be than the baseball field, to leaving and having that be the last place I wanted to be,” Sneider said. “That’s the sad part.”

TWO MONTHS LATER, on May 21st, Paly took the field (minus Burk and Sneider) in a home playoff game against14th seeded Willow Glenn in the first round of CCS. The team rallied from being down 4-1 in the bottom of the 7th, but ultimately lost 4-3. The season ended in heartbreak.

Looking back over the 2009 season renders yet another split view of what happened and sets up a 2010 season that will have just as many hands on the Paly baseball elephant. While the final chapter closes for this years’ seniors, the story continues for the 2010 seniors. They will face the same circumstance the ’09 group did: four coaches in four years.

Many believe that the fundamental problem in the baseball program, and in some other Paly sports, lies in the administration. Assistant baseball coach Dick Held, who’s been with the program through all the recent turmoil, thinks that placing blame on particular coaches or players is ignoring the larger and recurring issue: communication and support for hired coaches.

“We can say, ‘fire Donny’; we did the same for the last coach,” Held said. “We did the same for the coach before that. But we don’t address the fundamental problem. We need to understand that for $2500 were not going to get a perfect person. So we either make the investment in helping them get better or we go through this frustration. And where does the frustration wind up being visited most? On the kids.”

Players agree that the administration is responsible for establishing continuity in the coaching staff.

“When I was in 8th grade looking at the program, I saw the players go out and play and the coaches coach and that’s how it was,” senior Matt Tracy said. “For us, it was all backwards. There were so many rumors about coaches and stuff that it just wasn’t professional. It seems like this should never be a problem for the kids.”

Regardless of where the blame lies and who was most affected by the controversy this season, next years’ baseball team is facing a not-so-different elephant.

Assistant Coach Held supports this perspective.

“Is Noah [Sneider] and Steven [Burk]’s situation avoidable? Absolutely,” Held said. “But I think to say the problem was the coach – I would say I think the problem is bigger than that. Because next year and the year after, the situation is going to be the same, just with different names.”  <<<