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Taking the Game to Heart : Emotional Maio Coaches El Camino Real With a Football Mentality

June 03, 1993|STEVE ELLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a lead-pipe, aluminum-bat cinch.

Sometime tonight at Dodger Stadium, Coach Mike Maio will fidget. He will gnash his teeth. He will play with the tiny pebbles in front of the dugout.

He will spend as much time staring at his feet as he will at the field. He will chew on blades of grass and paw the turf. If he takes off his El Camino Real High baseball cap, he might be able to give change for a dollar. But that's another story.

The safest bet of all: Afterward, win or lose, he will get teary-eyed.

"I'm an emotional guy," Maio said, shrugging.

Year-round, too. In the spring, he coaches baseball. In the fall, it's football. In between. . . .

"If all he ever played was chess, he'd still go nuts," said Ryan McGuire, a 1990 El Camino Real graduate and a former Conquistadore baseball standout.

Check, mate.

For the second time in four years, El Camino Real and the ever-animated Maio will be playing for the City Section 4-A Division title. The top-seeded Conquistadores (23-2) will face Chatsworth (22-7) tonight at 7:30.

It's a good thing his players didn't let him down in reaching the final, because Maio has enough nervous energy to fuel halogen headlights. He needs all the games he can get to work off the edge.

If the game lasts long enough, Maio probably will remove enough stadium topsoil that the locals will call it Chavez Ravine all over again.

Maio's anxious, fastidious nature is well-established. Moments after each home game, players open up a nearby storage shed and begin wielding various implements of construction. The catcher rakes the area around the plate. Others drag the infield. Each kid has an assigned task.

Between innings, Maio can often be found straightening up the bat rack and making sure the batting helmets are aligned in a neat little row.

"I drive my wife crazy at home," Maio said. "Before I can sit down and visit with her, I have to make sure the whole house is clean and there's nothing else that needs to be done."

On the road? In 1990, the last time the Conquistadores played in the 4-A final, the team bus pulled into an almost-empty parking lot at Dodger Stadium a few hours before the game. Maio climbed down the steps and looked around. No other vehicles were within 100 yards.

Several moments passed. No players followed. Maio climbed back on the bus and closed the door. The driver fired up the engine and moved the bus approximately 10 feet, so that it was parked between the little white stripes, before players finally entered the stadium.

Maio is wrapped so tight he has darn near ruined himself a few times. He said he puts so much pressure on himself to win that physicians repeatedly have warned him over the years to take a step back and decompress.

"Losing still eats me inside," admitted Maio, 53. "I know I love to win. But I think I hate to lose even more than I love to win, if that makes sense."

To occupy himself during games, and to keep him from dying a thousand deaths in every inning, Maio found other distractions.

Once the game is under way, the fidgeting begins. When he isn't straightening up the dugout, Maio's favorite safety valve is the admittedly mindless pursuit of tossing pebbles through chain-link fences. The routine varies, depending on the site of the game.

"They've got to go through the holes in the fence, but only on certain fields," he said. "It depends where I am. It's something to occupy my mind a little bit.

"I started it when the doctor told me to not take the game so seriously. I'm not really superstitious, but when things are going good, I try not to break the flow."

Then there's the small-change act. Whenever Maio finds coins on the ground, he tucks them into the lining of his cap. His players tell the story of the time Maio walked into the dugout, took off his cap and unknowingly revealed a quarter, stuck to his forehead. Players bit their tongues and tried not to laugh.

"He's very superstitious," pitcher Kevin Szymanski said. "He crosses himself before every inning, he arranges the bats in a certain order, the helmets in a certain order. It's kind of funny."

Maio knows that some of the players think his act is a little strange and that there is a pronounced generation gap, but he hopes some of the message is getting through.

"I hope that in the long run that they learn something," he said. "They may not all agree with my methods, but I hope they know my heart's in the right place."

It's usually on his sleeve, to be precise. Many players are fiercely loyal, years removed from the program. Several have turned up at playoff games over the past two weeks. So have the parents of many former players.

For some, Maio's no-nonsense manner strikes a responsive chord.

"He was a great guy to play for," said McGuire, an All-American first baseman at UCLA. "In today's society, there's so much finger-pointing and taunting. Nobody is responsible for their own actions.

"Coach doesn't put up with that."

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