During his heyday as baseball coach at UCLA, Art Reichle figured that by the time he turned 76 years old, he would be peacefully settled in a Florida retirement community playing endless rounds of golf.
He swears that he never believed he'd be coaching a bunch of "undisciplined" pitchers at a high school in the sticks of Ventura County.
But Reichle's love for the game has put his dream retirement on temporary hold. Although he and his wife, Ruth, recently moved to Melbourne, Florida, to start their life of leisure, a baseball team in Southern California cried for his return.
Making good on a promise he made last summer to Santa Paula High Coach Mark Magdaleno, Reichle dusted off his baseball uniform in time to begin the season as pitching coach for the Cardinals. Besides, Reichle said his back is "too sore to play golf right now, anyway."
Santa Paula, a laughingstock last year in the Frontier League with a 1-9 record, has benefited from Reichle's expertise. It upset defending league champion St. Bonaventure, 5-3, in the season opener last week. Pitchers Manuel Herrera and Pete Alamillo combined for 11 strikeouts and allowed only two walks in the victory. Those numbers could very well have been reversed last season.
"I'm twice the pitcher I was last year," said Herrera, the lone senior on the pitching staff. "Coach Reichle has really instilled confidence in my game. Last year I went through the motions. This year I'm going through the motions, but I know what they mean. I know when to pitch a certain kind of ball, and I'm throwing harder and more accurate than ever before. It's a tremendous improvement."
It's hard to believe Reichle, who lives in Ventura, has made that big of an impact since he joined the team in mid-February. Pitching isn't something that normally can be taught in a few weeks. But the coaches and players swear Reichle's presence has done wonders.
"You just try to be a sponge with a guy like that," said Magdaleno, in his second year as coach. "I'm the head coach and I make the final decisions. But I'd be lying if I said he didn't have a big influence on what we do. He's a veteran and a pro. I respect what he has to say.
"He's really something. I love him to death. He treats me like a son. This is a chance of a lifetime for me and my players."
Don't think of Reichle as the mellow grandfatherly type, however. He's a 6-foot-0, 170-pound spark plug who admits to having "plenty of fire" left in him. He's not afraid to criticize a player or let another coach know when he's upset. He's popular, though, and well-respected.
That's how most remember him at UCLA, where he coached for 32 years from 1939 to 1974. He was the freshman coach in 1939 and served as an assistant on the varsity the next season, working primarily with Jackie Robinson. He was promoted to head coach in 1941, but had to step down the following year to serve in World War II. He returned in 1946 and was king of the dugout for the next 29 years. His highlight was winning the Pac-8 championship in 1969.
"We tried hard there, but I was never able to recruit out-of-state players because I couldn't give them scholarships," said Reichle, who played football, rugby and baseball at UCLA from 1934-36. "It made competing pretty tough."
Reichle stayed on at UCLA as assistant athletic director until 1980. Since then, he has tried to enjoy life without baseball. It hasn't been easy. He finds himself running back to the field at every opportunity. He met Magdaleno while working at camp last summer at Ventura College.
"I asked Mark when he was going to get himself a pitching coach," Reichle said. "He kept telling me I was his man and I agreed. When I moved to Florida I never expected to be back. But here I am. Obviously me wife isn't too pleased with me. She's hardly seen me since we moved."
While he is helping out at Santa Paula, Reichle is staying with a friend of Magdaleno. He plans to return to Florida later this month and be back in time for the playoffs.
"I've decided I can't live my life without baseball," he said. "So when I get to Florida, I'm going to look for some kind of coaching opportunity. I love the game, and I love being around kids.
"When you're my age, you're just happy to be walking. If I can walk onto a baseball mound, that's all the better."
Santa Paula, a largely Hispanic agricultural community, hasn't been a hotbed for baseball talent. Reichle said his biggest challenge has been developing enthusiasm and a strong work ethic. He considers himself a perfectionist who wants to make the game fun. He doesn't tolerate poor discipline.
If a player or coach is caught using profanity on the field, they must give Reichle 25 cents. He uses the money to buy treats for his grab bag. When a player does something well, Reichle rewards him with a stick of licorice of a pack of sunflower seeds from the coveted bag.