Call it the last step, the final act in a conversion process from outsider to trusted leader.
There Manny Alvarado stood, or at least he was trying to stand. He was bent at the waist, gasping for air as desperately as any of his players on the Kennedy High baseball field. The Golden Cougars awaited the next words from their coach as they recuperated from a fatiguing set of wind sprints run across the outfield grass.
Earlier that day, Kennedy fell flat in a 4-2 loss to Cleveland when a victory would have clinched the North Valley League title. After the bus ride back to Granada Hills, Alvarado assembled the team and ordered the extra work.
As the players chugged through their first 40-yard dash, there was Alvarado, running just as hard as those half his age. When he halted the sprints and addressed the team after catching his breath, the words were superfluous. The message already had been delivered: All shared blame for the defeat, starting with the coach.
"I told the guys that I must have done something wrong," Alvarado said recalling the incident. "We were playing for the league title and we got only six hits and two runs, so I guess we weren't ready to play. That's my job and I didn't do a good one. That was just the way I approached it. It wasn't a coaching ploy but it worked out that way."
Kennedy rebounded two days later with a 7-5 victory over San Fernando to clinch the league title and start a five-game winning streak that culminated in the City Section 4-A Division championship.
Alvarado, at 35 the head coach of his first varsity team, led the Golden Cougars to a 4-3 win over Palisades in the final at Dodger Stadium and has been named The Times' Valley Coach of the Year.
A year ago, Alvarado was a stranger to the Kennedy players. After an eight-year absence from high school coaching, Alvarado returned in 1988 to work as an unpaid assistant to San Fernando Coach Steve Marden. When he was awarded the Kennedy job last June after Dick Whitney resigned to become the school's athletic director, players wondered, "Who is this guy?"
"It was definitely a 'Who?' We had no idea who he was," senior pitcher Mitch Cizek said.
Alvarado, the unknown quantity, walked into a difficult situation. Kennedy's was no sagging program looking for a savior. The Golden Cougars were a veteran team: Eight of the projected starters for 1989 were seniors-to-be. Expectations ran high. Kennedy had won two City titles in the 1980s and was Mid-Valley League champion in '88.
"Some people told me I had my hands full," Alvarado said. "There were a lot of seniors and I was expected to win right away. You had to introduce yourself, deal with the players and the community and win all at the same time."
Given the circumstances, Alvarado chose a soft-sell approach, which is fortuitous because that's his only approach. Quiet and unassuming at 5-foot-8, 140 pounds, he tiptoed into the program. No sweeping changes were ordered. No dramatic manifestoes were issued.
When practice opened in February, Alvarado got a break. Team rules dictate prompt arrival at all practice sessions and look who showed up late for one of the first workouts: team leaders Gino Tagliaferri and Pat DeBoer, both seniors. The two formed Kennedy's double-play combination and were three-year lettermen.
Alvarado waited for no explanations. As soon as the pair hit the field, he banished them to the outfield.
"I made them run until I got tired," Alvarado said. "You have to set limits and stick to your guns. When a rule is broken, you have to fix it. In a way, it was a blessing in disguise. I don't know if it made an impression, but they weren't late again."
DeBoer accepted the discipline as payment for membership on the team.
"I had no resentment because I knew I deserved it," he said. "I had a good feeling that it was going to happen as soon as I got in the parking lot. We thought it was going to be hard to get adjusted to him but it wasn't."
With the ground rules established, Kennedy embarked on the season but received bad news one week out of the gate when star center fielder Shawn Madden, who has signed a letter of intent with Stanford, suffered an injured right shoulder. His status remained unclear for a couple of weeks before he underwent surgery in April and was lost for the season.
"I think that lit a fire under us a little more, especially when we found out for sure he was through for the season," Alvarado said. "There was no more doubt. James Campbell rose to the occasion as his replacement and the kids started playing better."
With his team in stride and heading toward a league title, Alvarado was thrown a curve when teachers staged a walkout against the Los Angeles Unified School District and the 4-A baseball coaches boycotted the season. The baseball coaches stood alone along the sidelines while playoffs continued in all other City sports.