After the last strikeout, they sat in the dugout, too numb to spit out another expletive. One of them, a catcher who had caught the brunt of the coach's sarcasm, inspected the stitches on a baseball as sun, wind and defeat stung his face.
The coach, who until last year was a stranger to losing, unleashed no tirade. Nine innings of pleading, encouraging, ridiculing, teaching and harping had been enough for one day. He shoved bats, which had produced--to his disgust--nothing but fly balls, into a bag.
He would let the embarrassment of a 4-1 loss to little Southern California College sink in without further comment. His Cal State Los Angeles players, their spikes clattering on concrete, headed toward vans for the trip home.
"We're very, very, very young," the coach, John Herbold, had said before the game. There are 25 freshmen on his team.
A short man, Herbold was stuffed into a black and white uniform. His stomach was a mound the waistband of his pants couldn't quite climb. His black sunglasses did not reveal eyes. His hair was the gray-black of metal shavings. His tan face contrasted with cracked, silvery lips.
Herbold, who won 481 high school games, is in his second season at Cal State L.A., struggling with a 3-16 record after going 23-42 last year.
For 15 years, he turned Lakewood High School teams into champions and himself into a legend, a guy who would kick holes in trash cans, catch his pitchers barehanded to show how tough he was and leave his family on Christmas to hose down the infield.
Once, as a spectator at a Colt League game at Blair Field in Long Beach, Herbold, in street clothes, jumped over a railing to argue a call an umpire made against one of his future players. The umpire said, "You're out of the game," and Herbold said, "You can't throw me out of the game, I was never in the game."
"He's a maniac," said his son, Andy, a CSULA pitcher.
Now he was still the same, barking the language of baseball in a voice that cut sharply through the afternoon breeze, intent on keeping his team alive--even if it meant hurting a few feelings--until the day when it will no longer be too young to win.
"You can't put the ball in the air--balls in the air are outs," Herbold said after a pop fly.
Herbold's sign to steal a base was missed.
"I did it with my feet, I did it with my hands," Herbold said, gritting his teeth, pointing a finger and putting his face next to the guilty player's face. "You're useless, thanks a lot."
Pitcher Chris LaRiviere walked a batter.
"Damn, that kills," Herbold said, adding after a stolen base, "Your walk just doubled."
While coaching at third base, he yelled to a player in the dugout: "You need to talk less about carburetors and exhaust pipes and more about baseball."
Jim Lynch, the CSULA catcher, struck out. The next inning, he dropped two pitches on stolen bases.
"I struck out, now I'm gonna die," Herbold said loud enough for Lynch to hear.
Herbold rubbed it in when a run scored: "That one has your name on it, Mr. Lynch."
Several days and a couple of victories later, Herbold, hose in hand, was wetting the infield before practice at CSULA.
"What I'm trying to do all the time is teach, teach, teach," he said. "I try to get them to wake up and learn."
His players have always learned well. "I had more high school kids go to minor league ball than any other coach in the country," Herbold said. "And I had more kids get scholarships than any coach."
Sixty of the players he coached reached the major leagues.
"I'm Kingsfield on 'Paper Chase,' " he said. "I admire him. He's a son of a bitch but he's a good teacher."
Herbold, a former Marine, has always approached baseball like a drill instructor, the diamond his Camp Pendleton.
"We're teaching what they taught in the Marines, to stay alive," he said. "You can do a lot of teaching by screaming."
Some people cringe at his methods.
"I yelled at a guy one time, 'What's the matter, afraid to get your uniform dirty?' " Herbold said, "and the athletic director said, 'You're pretty hard on that guy.' About a week later he made a great catch. If I wasn't hard on him, he'd have never made that catch."
Being hard on his catcher paid off quickly.
Can Be Intimidating
"Lynch is a tough guy, he hasn't buckled, although he was probably ready to kill me," Herbold said. "Last night he caught one game and said, 'Let me catch the second game.' I said, 'Go ahead, catch it,' and he did a fine job."
CSULA pitcher Dan Bryan had played for Herbold on Connie Mack teams in Long Beach.
"He can be intimidating if you let him," Bryan said. "That's just the way he teaches. When he yells at you, it's not to say how stupid you are, but to tell you not to do it again. If you take it in a negative way, you've defeated his purpose."
"They probably get tired of hearing me," Herbold said. "But then they kind of tolerate me, and a lot of it sinks in."
A mistaken impression is that Herbold is all mouth.