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Napa Valley Prep Baseball: Anderson leaves helm, stays to assist Smith
Prep Baseball

Napa Valley Prep Baseball: Anderson leaves helm, stays to assist Smith

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Most baseball coaches with a 5-1 record would have been in a bad mood for months if that season was suddenly canceled by a pandemic.

But the COVID-19 lockdown put Rich Anderson in more of a philosophical mood after his 26th season at the Vintage High helm was cut short last March.

Maybe it was time for another change.

“Not having a complete year last year and then no summer or fall ball really disrupted our rhythm and continuity. I do not feel like I know the players and their abilities like I have for the last 31 years. This was a major sign to me that it was time to move on. I feel the pandemic maybe just gave me time to reflect and reassess my coaching life.”

What he realized was that he still wanted to coach, just not be head coach — not the way he went about it, anyway.

“Honestly getting older takes a toll on you physically,” said Anderson, 53. “I am very physical in the way I coach with throwing, etc. I would be a liar if I said I feel the same today as I did when I was 25. I used to be able to teach five periods, work on the field for a few hours, coach, and then still run to the river to wakeboard. Now, once I get home from practice I crash on the couch. Hopefully relinquishing the head coaching duties will help me find some more energy. My knees, however, have put my wakeboarding days behind me.”

Anderson was already the winningest head coach in Crusher baseball history when he stepped down in 2007 after his 16th season at the varsity helm.

He was only 39, though, and still wanted to coach. He became director of baseball for Napa Legion’s five age-group teams, managing two of them. An English teacher and assistant athletic director at Vintage, he rejoined the Crusher program as junior varsity assistant coach in 2010.

When successor Cam Neal stepped down to assume his current post as athletic director, Anderson was ready to give varsity head coaching another go. Five and six seasons later, the Crushers won back-to-back Monticello Empire League titles — the fourth and fifth crowns of Anderson’s career.

He had compiled a 242-179-1 record — winning 57% of the games — over 16 seasons in his first stint from 1992-2007, with MEL titles in 1995, 1996 and 1999 and five Sac-Joaquin Section playoff appearances. He also won 57% of the time in his second stint, going 140-104-2 from 2011-20, with five more SJS playoff appearances.

“I’ve driven the same truck for 20 years, lived in the same house for 25, been married for 28. I’m just consistent,” he said.

That’s an overall record of 382-283-3, as both the third and fifth head coach in Vintage baseball history.

Had the pandemic not happened and last year’s 5-1 team been able to somehow match the 23 wins of the 2015 squad, Anderson would have had 400 wins.

“People have asked me if it is disappointing that I won't reach that milestone. I can honestly say no,” Anderson said. “I love to win, but it has never been my main focus here — probably to our detriment. Competing has been more of our focus and our covenant has always been to have a purposeful attitude — on the field, in the classroom, and in life.

“I have always felt that player development and technique are essential to the program. Sometimes when you focus on these areas, you aren't putting winning first because development takes time. But we also wanted to give our players a chance to play at the next level, and winning doesn't always assure that.”

Increasing players’ individual potential wasn’t the only reason.

“Team culture was also a big part of what we did,” Anderson said. “I love being a culture builder. However, this takes time, and sometimes you sacrifice success on the field in order to build the right culture within your team. Each team is different, so each year is a new challenge. When you put culture first, even when your team doesn't win a championship, players leave with something they feel they have gained from.

“I always wanted our players to feel the experience, the day-in-and-day-out grind, was well worth it and more important than winning. You cannot always win in life, but you can always grind and learn how to deal with the ups and downs that life gives you. That has always been really important to me.”

The same three school years Neal was at the baseball helm, 2007-10, Billy Smith was varsity head coach of the football program. Smith will begin his first season as varsity head coach of baseball when the Crushers visit Justin-Siena for their Vine Valley Athletic League opener at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Anderson is now one of Smith’s assistant coaches, and couldn’t be happier.

“We have three extremely capable coaches, Billy Smith, Mark Lundeen and Brandon Alves, who could be the head coach at Vintage,” he said. “Billy Smith was the head coach at Morro Bay High School when he came to Vintage in 1996. I have always told him that at any point he would like to be the head coach, I would step aside and allow him to do so. He has earned the right to be the lead guy with all of his years he has given to baseball in this town. We are friends and I can easily coach alongside him as an assistant. He really is a baseball expert and his understanding of the game is a gift that he loves to share with players.

“I still love to compete, but what is required of the head coach as far as preparation for game day wasn't enjoyable anymore. I love practice. Games? Not so much. The travel, organization, etc. is not as much fun as it was when I was younger.”

Like when the Crushers played Rob Rinaldi’s teams.

Kudos from a Sacramento legend

Rinaldi took the Woodland High helm the same year Anderson did at Vintage, 1992, and won a Sac-Joaquin Section title that year. The Wolves were section runners-up in 1999, led by future American League MVP Dustin Pedroia. Six years later, Rinaldi became the first head coach at the new Pleasant Grove High in Elk Grove. He would have two head coaching stints of his own there — one from 2006 to 2014 that was capped by three straight league titles, and 2017 and 2018.

With so much in common with Anderson as a coach, and respect, they’ve kept in touch.

Asked Monday what he thought about Anderson stepping down, Rinaldi said “the Napa baseball community and Vintage High baseball are suffering a loss larger than most people will ever know. For many of the last 25-30 years I scheduled Vintage as often as possible, knowing that we would be up against a great opponent, an opponent that was extremely well coached, and one that always competed with class.

“Rich is a fantastic teacher of baseball, but his impact was much larger than that. He taught his players how to compete, how to face adversity, how to work as a unit, and how to never give up. In addition, Rich coached Legion ball for years. He continuously improved and maintained the field, and he sought out competition that would challenge his players to be their best.

“However, above all of that, Rich established great relationships with his players and helped them learn to love the game. Vintage has produced so many great players who were able to continue their careers at the college and professional level, thanks in great part to Rich's work ethic and the work ethic he instilled in his players. Rich's impact can be evidenced by, and will continue on through, the coaching tree that has sprouted from his program.”

Anderson, a 1985 Napa High graduate, got his start as Vintage’s JV coach in 1989. Three years later, while teaching at Napa High, he was named Dan King’s successor as Vintage varsity head coach.

“I bet that will never happen again,” he said of teaching and coaching on different sides of the crosstown rivalry.

Like Rinaldi’s, Anderson’s 1999 team — which went 27-5 — was one of his best.

“But the 1993 and 2012 teams are close to my heart,” Anderson said. “The '93 team made the playoffs and really competed with the premier teams of the time, Vallejo, Fairfield and Armijo. That group of guys really set the foundation for the program. I have contact with about five guys from that team on a weekly basis.

“The 2012 team had my son (Ryan) on it and we made the playoffs. His team and the Napa High team of that season were made up primarily of the summer team I coached and many of the kids that hung around my house. Napa High was fantastic that year and our team won 19 games. Watching both our teams have so much success during the MEL season was something I will never forget.

“Of course, the championship teams of 2015 and 2016 were special, too. The group of players that came through and went on to have college and pro success is amazing. I feel so lucky to have been here when that group came through.”

Former players miss him

Aaron Shortridge, who starred as a senior at pitcher and shortstop on the 2015 team before pitching for Cal. He is now a member of the Altoona Curve, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Double-A affiliate. He nearly got to make his major-league debut last year when the pandemic took away that opportunity, and he is now rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.

As he watched his teammates prepare for their Northeast League season opener May 4 against the Bowie Baysox in Florida, he talked about Anderson by phone Tuesday.

“Rich is probably the most important coach I’ve ever had, still to this day, because he cared about the man more than the player,” he said. “The way he helped his players grow up is why he stood out. Things he said, to this day, still help me in my professional baseball career. One of those is ‘Be in awe of no one and respect everyone.’ He taught me a lot about self-belief, bringing energy to a team setting, playing the game the right way, having fun doing it, the importance of repetition, consistency every single day, being loud, facing your fears, and working on yourself.

“Rich Anderson is a one-of-a-kind human being. He wasn’t really a baseball coach for me. He was a life coach.”

With his three JV seasons included, Anderson was a head coach with five presidents in office. He had started a year earlier and stopped a year later, it would have been seven.

“I am super proud of coaching in five different decades,” he said. “The only way to do this is to adjust to the times and keep trying to identify with the players. Players challenge you to grow and find ways to help them. I cannot thank Vintage enough for what it has given me. Tom Prescott hired me all the way back in 1989 and I feel so lucky that he believed in me at such a young age.”

Greg Murphy, a 2003 Vintage graduate who played two years for Anderson and graduated from UC San Diego, lives in San Diego with his wife, Meghan, and works for a successful San Diego startup that develops cell-cultured seafood products.

Murphy said Anderson prepared him for life so much that he asked his former coach to read a verse in their wedding in 2015.

“He and Chrissy flew down to San Diego for it,” he recalled. “That was very special for me — and my mom, as well, as she knows how much of an impact Rich had on my high school career more than anyone. He created an ecosystem of accountability, perseverance and teamwork that became our foundation for navigating life.

“Rich taught us the value of picking up your teammate, and playing small ball. If there's a runner on third with less than two outs, and you're at the plate, you know that your team expects you to complete one job in that moment. And when given the sign to bunt, the expectation was to successfully lay it down every time. And if your teammate is stranded on the bases, pick him up and bring out his gear.

“Rich also talked about perspective taking. There were several instances after a difficult, grueling practice for example, when Rich reminded us that we have it easy — that playing baseball on this beautiful field in the Napa Valley is a privilege, which it was. I played for Rich in the immediate 2 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and during the first two years of the Afghanistan war. Whatever pain we thought we felt was quickly dissipated. Some common refrains I remember were ‘If you're not early, you're late!’ and ‘You can't hide out here. The ball will find you, and you will be exposed.’”

Anderson’s influence crosses several borders. He keeps in touch with Alvin Alvarez, an exchange student from Honduras who was named MEL Pitcher of the Year for the 1996 Crushers as a senior. Alvarez and his brother, a 1995 alumnus, were both on league championship teams.

“In my first class was Mike Neu,” he said in an email Monday of the current head coach at Cal. “He had played with my brother and could tell the family resemblance, so he took me to meet Rich. We had a great year, but what I learned the most is that the discipline and approach I had for baseball could be translated to my everyday life.

“I was surfing through some motivational images in the internet for my daughter (a tennis standout) and found one that said: “A coach will impact more young people in a year than the average person will in a whole lifetime.” I immediately sent it to Rich because he always tried to be a positive influence on us.”

Anderson looks forward to coaching out of the limelight.

“I learned from Mike Brown over at Napa High School — he was the head coach for 18 years (1984-2001), but he also coached at the lower levels for years and enjoyed doing so — that coaching is not just being the head coach," he said. "You can give back in so many ways as a coach, whether you are the head guy or an assistant.

“I still have a lot to give and I know that Vintage baseball is in capable hands. I am just thankful I can contribute in some way. I have basically been going to a baseball field my entire life. At age 53, it would be difficult to just stop cold turkey. It is undeniably a big part of me.”

Patrick Marleau of the San Jose Sharks has broken Gordie Howe’s record for most NHL games played. Marleau played his 1,768th game on April 19 against the Vegas Golden Knights. The Canadian forward is currently playing in the 23rd NHL season of his career. 1,595 of his games have been with the Sharks. He has also played games with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Pittsburgh Penguins. To be merely mentioned in the same sentence as Gordie Howe is an achievement most hockey players can only dream about. To break one of his records is historic, Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner. Marleau thanked all the people who have helped him along the way, including his family, coaches and teammates.

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