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Involuntary Separation : University High Job Helps Ease Gerakos' Pain of Losing the Anteater Baseball Program

March 21, 1993|MIKE REILLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Chris Conlin received the letter seven years ago, shortly after he was fired as University High baseball coach.

Conlin had just guided the Trojans to a Sea View League title in his first season as coach.

But several parents, upset with Conlin's strict approach to the game, pressured the administration into firing him.

Then Conlin opened his mail one day to find a brief note of encouragement.

He didn't know the author.

It was signed, Mike Gerakos, UC Irvine baseball coach.

"Mike had heard about what happened and took the time to write," Conlin said. "He told me that life goes on, to hang in there. He also told me that if I ever needed anything, to give him a call."

Conlin later returned as University's coach--and later returned Gerakos' kindness.

When UC Irvine dropped its baseball program last spring, Gerakos, the winningest coach in school's 22 years of baseball, was unemployed.

So last fall, when Conlin needed an assistant baseball coach, he asked Gerakos. Conlin offered only a small stipend, but Gerakos eagerly accepted.

Gerakos, 42, is back at the high school level for the first time since playing at Santa Fe Springs St. Paul in the late 1960s.

He works with University's varsity pitchers daily and twice weekly with the lower-level pitchers.

"Working with the kids here and the coaching staff helps me keep my sanity," he said.

Leaving baseball--and UC Irvine--wasn't easy for Gerakos. He had coached for 18 seasons, six as an assistant coach at UCLA, his alma mater, before taking over Irvine's program in 1981.

The Anteaters were 312-338-8 in 12 seasons under Gerakos, who was the 1987 Big West co-coach of the year with Cal State Fullerton's Augie Garrido.

Although Gerakos' teams never finished higher than second in the conference, they were always competitive with College World Series-bound teams such as Cal State Long Beach and Fullerton. The Anteaters also produced one of the major leagues' rising stars in Baltimore's Brady Anderson.

Gerakos still lives in Irvine, only three blocks from University, and about a mile from UC Irvine, where his wife, Kathy, works as an administrative assistant.

His ties to the college are still strong, as is last season's disappointment. He thinks Irvine athletic department officials could have saved the baseball program.

"I would be lying if I said I wasn't bitter," he said. "I don't lose any sleep over it. I can deal with what happened to me, I'll land on my feet.

"What upsets me is that we're supposed to be in the business for student-athletes, and Irvine's administration, somewhere along the line, lost sight of the student athlete. At least the baseball student-athlete."

The trouble started during the 1991 season, when the school, facing a $500,000 athletic-budget deficit, considered dropping five sports. Baseball's $200,000 budget was an easy target.

"They had to find money somewhere," Gerakos said. "And baseball was a quick-fix."

Players wore black armbands and raised the outfield flag to half-staff for what they feared was the school's final game.

Instead of dropping baseball, the school trimmed $526,000 from its $4-million athletic budget by withdrawing funds for five other sports--water polo, men's soccer and volleyball, crew and sailing. The programs continued on a self-funded basis.

Still, the damage to the baseball team had been done.

Two of Irvine's four recruits wavered on their commitments. Gerakos told them he wouldn't hold them to the commitments, and they should be free to sign elsewhere.

If the baseball team was saved, he wondered, at what level will it be saved? And for how long?

The Anteaters survived the 1992 season with a smaller budget that the team boosted by raising $60,000 through camps, a golf tournament and other projects.

"We were always on a bare-bones budget," Gerakos said. "No one had any luxuries to abuse anything. We begged, borrowed and begged some more."

On May 26, then-Athletic Director Tom Ford broke the news to Gerakos: more budget cuts meant baseball was finished.

Gerakos was frustrated. His players, boosters and parents raised money to balance the budget, which was what the administration asked him to do. Now the same administrators were cutting the program.

"In 1991, we weathered the storm," he said. "In 1992, we were deceived. Not only myself, but the boosters, the players and the kids I was recruiting.

"I'm of the opinion that the decision to drop the program was made well before May 26, maybe as early as February. They knew what was going to happen.

"At that time, there was no indication that baseball might be dropped. The feedback that I was getting and boosters were getting was that they weren't going to eliminate any programs."

As far as Gerakos is concerned, it still doesn't make sense.

"How can they (administrators) go a full year knowing they have to make that decision, then be so wishy-washy about it?" he said.

Gerakos' teaching position in the Irvine physical education department was cut along with the coaching job.

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