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Ex-Dodger Mixes Bar and Baseball : Derrel Thomas Coaches Preps, Dreams of a Pro League Job

February 25, 1988|ROB FERNAS | Times Staff Writer

By night he manages the Barbary Coast, a bar in Gardena that advertises "Live Entertainment" and "Girls" across its beige stucco exterior.

By day, Derrel Thomas pursues a career that is more in line with his field of expertise. The former Dodger, whose skill as a utility player was sometimes overshadowed by controversy during a 15-year major league career, is the new baseball coach at Leuzinger High School.

If barroom manager and prep coach seem like an unusual pairing of jobs, remember, this is a versatile guy. He played every position but pitcher with seven National and American League clubs before finishing his career in 1985.

Thomas, 37, doubts he'll stay long at either job.

"I'd like to get back to the pro level as a manager or coach," he said. "I never expected to be retired this quick. I was unprepared.

"What I want to do is add to my resume. I'm trying to cover as many bases as possible."

That is not to say Thomas takes the Leuzinger job lightly. He approaches the season with high expectations. The Olympians open March 4 against Simi Valley in the El Segundo Tournament.

"I think this is an excellent situation," he said. "We have a number of talented players. This (job) allows me the opportunity to share my experiences and knowledge with these kids."

The presence of an ex-major leaguer at Leuzinger has helped fill the void left by Dennis Bowman, who died from a heart attack last May after coaching the Olympians to a 142-86-2 record over nine seasons.

Thomas' arrival was met with enthusiasm by players.

"After Coach Bowman died, I thought our team was going to have a letdown," said senior shortstop Wayne Johnson. "I feel Derrel is going to give the team a lift."

Second baseman Chuck Foster, nephew of major-league slugger and Leuzinger alumnus George Foster, also is looking forward to playing under Thomas.

"It's exciting with him being an ex-major leaguer," Foster said. "Most of the guys look up to him. There's no doubt in our minds that he knows what he's talking about. We're willing to listen to whatever he says."

However, not everyone was excited when Thomas was named coach a month ago.

Bobby Greer, an assistant for three seasons under Bowman, felt he deserved the job. He remains an assistant and the junior varsity coach.

"I was upset," he said. "I put in three hard years with Dennis. I've coached every one of these kids."

Asked about his relationship with Thomas, Greer replied: "We get along OK. I haven't tried to interject anything for fear of stepping on his toes."

Thomas was aware of the touchy situation when he accepted the job. He was asked to apply by Ed Gilliam, a friend and administrator at Leuzinger, after they ran into each other at a restaurant. Before moving to Hawthorne about a year ago, Thomas had never heard of Leuzinger High.

"I did my homework because I didn't want to enter into it blindfolded," Thomas said. "I know Bobby Greer thinks the job should have been his. But he's been great about it. He's been tremendously helpful.

"I'm hoping that maybe after this year someone will offer me a job in professional baseball. Then Bobby Greer can take over."

Thomas says he can't see himself coaching at Leuzinger for more than two seasons. That would be longer than his two previous coaching jobs.

He got his first taste last spring as coach at Los Angeles City College. Last summer he managed the Boise Hawks, an independent team in the Northwest League, a rookie league.

Thomas was fired halfway through the season by Hawks General Manager Mal Fichman, who said Thomas had argued with players and was losing control of the team.

"He's scattered," Fichman told The Times. "He isn't organized like a manager has to be, particularly at this level. I blame myself for that. I didn't recognize it. I should have given him more schooling. He may end up being an outstanding major league coach, but managing is different. I don't think he'll ever be a major league manager."

Thomas says he was fired because the team was losing.

"We had very few players with above-average ability," he said. "Some players were below average. I had to sign players from tryouts. The owners wanted more than what we were able to put out."

The Boise incident wasn't the first run-in between baseball management and Thomas, who was a No. 1 draft pick by the Houston Astros in 1969 out of Dorsey High. He played with the San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Dodgers, Montreal Expos, Angels and Philadelphia Phillies.

Wherever he played, Thomas did things his own way and, occasionally, got under people's skin.

Consider:

- With the Padres, he was chided by Manager Preston Gomez for refusing to buckle up on airplanes.

- During five years with the Dodgers, he frequently angered Manager Tommy Lasorda by making showboat basket catches.

- In 1977 with the Giants, he was spotted outside the clubhouse during a game washing his car. He explained that he was on the injured list.

- He missed buses and planes. When the Dodgers signed him in 1979, he missed the plane to spring training.

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