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After 18 Lean Years, Things Are Looking Up in the Top of the 19th : 49er Baseball Coach Lives, Breathes the Game

February 11, 1988|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

In the sparkle of early morning, the baseball field at California State University, Long Beach, looks lush. The dirt is chocolate colored and footprint-free. Center field, where the grass holds dew, belongs to sea gulls.

For John (Cisco) Gonsalves, in his 19th season as 49er baseball coach, this is paradise--especially now that the university has given baseball a boost.

Gonsalves was on the field and dressed in his No. 25 white uniform and brown "LB" cap, though the afternoon game last Saturday with Chapman College was hours away. "I love this uniform," he said. "I could stay on the field 24 hours a day."

He is on it most mornings, thinking of strategies for the day's game . . . and working. "I line the field, drag it, water it, paint the bases, paint the mound, all that beautification," Gonsalves said.

He has been a one-man show almost since he took over--coaching, recruiting, raising funds and taking care of the field he all but built. Now, however, he realizes that he needs help if he is to win. "I'm 44 years old, I can't do it all anymore," he said.

It was always assumed by most of his athletic directors that he could.

But Gonsalves, who has a 441-592-16 career record, always lacked manpower and money. He never had a full-time assistant until six years ago. He had only two scholarships each of his first 15 seasons.

So he raised money, even spent $2,000 or $3,000 of his own each year on the program, but the total never approached what was available at baseball-prominent schools such as Cal State Fullerton, Pepperdine, USC, UCLA and Loyola Marymount. As a result, the 49ers could not compete with them.

The team was 16-41-1 last season and Gonsalves was on the verge of quitting after a 19-5 loss to UC Santa Barbara in April.

A few days after that defeat, Gonsalves' spirit was restored when Athletic Director Corey Johnson gave him a commitment to build a strong Division I program.

"I'll tell you what, we're playing great baseball," Gonsalves said last Saturday morning, although the 49ers were 0-3. "If we play like this for 60 games, we might be able to turn this thing around this year."

Gonsalves has a master's degree, but he is the epitome of a lifetime baseball man, to whom the off-color vocabulary of the dugout comes naturally.

The years of frustration have not manifested themselves on his face, which is smooth and deep brown, the result of a Hawaiian and Portuguese heritage and the California sun.

"I'm happy," he said.

The reason was on the outfield walls, on which hung the gold advertising signs Gonsalves had tried in vain to get for 10 years.

Johnson got permission for Gonsalves to sell the signs, which will bring in $30,000. Money is also being raised by the Dugout Club, the team's booster group. Gonsalves now has the equivalent of five full scholarships, and Johnson said the maximum of 13 is targeted for the fifth year of a five-year plan.

Gonsalves, who earns $38,000 a year as a teacher of weight training, softball analysis and baseball theory, hopes to eventually be free from teaching, add to his staff and get a new clubhouse.

But for now, he still has to cope.

"How can you be Division I when the head coach has to wash equipment on Saturday and Sunday?" he asked.

Gonsalves was 12 when his family moved from Hawaii to Long Beach. The youngsters he played with called him Cisco because they thought he was Latino. After starring in baseball at St. Anthony High School, he declined a contract offer from the Minnesota Twins and decided to play at Long Beach City College and then at CSULB.

"I could run and I had good hands," said Gonsalves, who was an infielder. "And I had desire and heart--I was a hustler."

He signed with the New York Mets and played in the minor leagues from 1966 to 1968 before becoming the 49er assistant coach in 1969. Shortly thereafter, he was stricken with tuberculosis and spent three months in a hospital. After recovering, he became head coach the following year and at age 25 led the 49ers to the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. championship. "Haven't smelled it since," he said.

TB is not the only misfortune from which Gonsalves, who lives in Seal Beach, has bounced back. When he was 27, he was in a car crash and presumed by firemen to be dead until they saw his hand twitch. Last season he crashed into the bullpen bench and broke six ribs when he lost control of the three-wheel vehicle he uses to drag the infield.

Bull-necked Paul Deese, a volunteer assistant coach, stood in front of the 49er dugout as game time neared.

"The whole game is an attitude, men, nothing else," Deese said. He sprayed obscene adjectives as liberally as he did tobacco juice.

From behind his glasses, Gonsalves watched with amusement and said, "I used to do all that."

Assistants Added

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