Jim Neidlinger learned a great deal about baseball by playing for Napa High School coach Clint Smith in the ’80s.
But the greatest lesson that Neidlinger took from Smith, who passed away June 15 at Kaiser Permanente Vallejo Medical Center after a short illness, had nothing to do with pitching, hitting, fielding or base running.
Instead, it had everything to do with behavior and character, how to conduct yourself and represent your school.
Neidlinger, who reached the major leagues as a starting pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1990, remembers the moment clearly, as it has stayed with him throughout his life.
“I think it really put me on the same page with Coach,” he from his home in Burlington, Vt., last week.
After being knocked out of the game by intra-city rival Vintage in a Monticello Empire League game won by the Crushers, Neidlinger went over by the Indians’ batting cage.
“I remember I was pouting, laying on my back side,” said Neidlinger. “He walked over and said, ‘Young man, get up and get into the dugout. And have some respect for the game.’
“It’s the first time and the only time that I think he was ever really mad at me. I had broken something with him at that point, and that’s a man that I never wanted to let down. I think I felt worse because I had let him down.”
Smith didn’t raise his voice or draw any attention to the matter, Neidlinger said. Smith was just that way, speaking in a soft tone to get his point across, never yelling or being critical of players as a way to motivate or provide feedback.
After the game that day, Smith took Neidlinger aside and went over the do’s and don’ts of player etiquette.
“I think that helped mold me of not showing emotions on the mound when things are going good or bad,” said Neidlinger. “That helped me a lot, being able to recover from tough situations, because riding trains, planes and busses, and trying to compete to get to the major leagues is not an easy deal, especially as you get older.
“Coach helped me try to understand what being a professional was all about. It took me a while to understand that.”
Former players such as Neidlinger and Bob Porter remembered Smith, Napa’s coach from 1972 to 1983, a member of the Napa High Athletic Hall of Fame, and a Napa Valley Unified School District employee for 30 years, as a man of great integrity and class, a coach who was positive and proud of his ballclubs. He passed away at the age of 79.
“He motivated you in a positive way,” said Porter, a third-round draft pick of Atlanta’s in 1977 as an outfielder-first baseman, who played two years at the big league level with the Braves. “He never screamed or hollered at you. He treated everybody the same, and off the field, too. He was just a nice guy, a good man.
“Beyond sports, he was a man that you could look up to.”
Smith coached Napa to a North Bay League title and a Monticello Empire League championship. The Indians were also the runner-up in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Class AAA playoffs in 1977.
Smith co-coached Napa American Legion teams in the 1960s and ’70s with Clarence Tye, a former Vintage coach, working with future major leaguers such as Bill Buckner and Warren Brusstar, both Napa High graduates.
“The one thing that I will always remember about Clint is what a gentle man he was — gentle in his teaching, in his coaching,” said Barb Franco, Napa High’s principal, who taught on staff with Smith, coaching the Indians’ volleyball team and working as a P.E. instructor. “Yet at the same time, he was a firm, strong role model for the kids. But he was just so gentle in the way that he interacted with people.”
Smith was active on the school coaching scene in Napa from 1957 to 1987, working at Napa Valley College, Ridgeview Junior High and Napa High. He came to Napa after having success as a multi-sport athlete (football, basketball, baseball) at Palomar College of San Diego and Long Beach State. He was also in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization for two years as an outfielder.
It was Smith who taught Porter about the importance of the mental part of baseball.
“How to think when you’re a hitter, try to be a little smarter than the pitcher when you’re up there hitting, learn from your mistakes when you’re hitting and playing in the outfield, get to know the hitters when you’re on defense, just try to be one step ahead of what they’re doing so you can anticipate where they might hit the ball or where they’re going to pitch it when you’re hitting,” Porter said.
Neidlinger is still involved in the game, working as an assistant coach at Middlebury College in Vermont, running a baseball academy and coaching an American Legion summer team. He toiled in the minor leagues for several years and carries with him the lessons that Smith instilled.
“He’s a man that I connected with immediately when I started playing for him,” the 1982 NHS graduate said. “He had a tremendous impact — you don’t realize that until you’ve kind of moved on. It’s a great loss, not just in the baseball community, but to the Napa Valley.
“The one thing with Coach, I don’t think that he ever doubted one player of his — the 17th player on his team or who he figured was his No. 1 player. He made you feel like you could play the game and that you had a role when you put on the Napa High School uniform, that you were important to him and that you were important to the team.
“He was not an egotistical guy. If it was a bad game, he always made you feel like things were going to get better.”
Neidlinger’s younger brother, Damon Neidlinger, said Smith was a decent and honest, principal-based, strong caring man.
“We were all lucky to have him,” said Damon, the Santa Rosa Junior College head baseball coach, who played for Smith. “I don’t even know if we realized how lucky we were during that time, but I do know that he had an impact on all of us.
“I always just so much respected who he was as a man. He was also a very wise man — he said a lot without saying very much. Things were never about him. It was always about the program, Napa High, the players. That is something that has definitely made a lasting impression on me.”
Smith put in 30 years in the NVUSD, retiring in ’87 as a P.E. instructor and coach at Napa High. He was at NHS for 17 years, coaching baseball and the junior varsity and freshman football teams.
“It would be a pretty good world if everybody had a Coach Smith in their life,” said Jim Neidlinger.