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Flint's Irvine Team Did It the Hard Way : Baseball: He made the most of what he had to win 20 games, earn coach-of-the-year honors.

June 06, 1995|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — There are different ways to earn coach-of-the-year honors.

It is difficult to play a pat hand--more difficult than people realize. When you're expected to win, people accept nothing less. The pressure--from the boosters to the elementary school kids who look up to your players--can swing from subtle to suffocating.

That's why Ron La Ruffa of Fountain Valley, Dave Demarest of La Quinta, Tip Lefebvre of Santa Margarita and Joe Walters of Calvary Chapel all deserved commendation this season. None was given room to fail in pursuing a shot at Southern Section titles. None did.

Then there's the person who creates something out of nothing.

This was Bob Flint's miracle at Irvine. A team loaded with sophomores and juniors. A team with one outstanding pitcher and no hitters. A team that, on paper, should have been lucky to win 10 games.

Instead, Irvine won 20 of 28 games and led the Sea View League race much of the year before being overtaken by Santa Margarita the final week of the regular season. The Vaqueros then burrowed their way into the Southern Section Division III quarterfinals before being beaten by defending champion La Quinta.

That is why Flint is The Times Orange County baseball coach of the year.

"What's the matter, you couldn't do better than a second-place guy?" said Flint, evoking self-depreciating humor. But among his brethren, the choice was hailed as the correct one.

"The word 'class' describes him best," Demarest said. "He's as good a coach as there is in the county. His teams always play hard, and he always gets the most out of them.

"Bob coaches the game the way it should be played--his kids keep their mouths shut and just play. Win or lose, it's over when it's over. He's been around so long, I don't know if this was his best year but it was a good team."

By all rights it shouldn't have been this good.

The Vaqueros had one quality arm in senior right-hander Matt Ward, who won 13 games and saved four others. On offense, they scored only 102 runs, an average of 3.6 per game.

In high school, the .400 hitter is commonplace. At Irvine, only two surpassed .300. The Vaqueros totaled four home runs as a team and no one had more than one. In 15 of 28 games, Irvine had five hits or fewer; in six of them, the Vaqueros had only three. Overall they batted .250.

In other words, nothing like the big boppers Flint had in 1992 when Irvine made it to the Southern Section 4-A title game, which also earned him coach of the year honors.

But the Vaqueros persevered with an airtight defense (ending four games on double plays), the pitching of Ward and the unshakable faith that if the game was close, they would win.

"When he saw them in the summer league, Bob wasn't sure what they would do," Mater Dei Coach Bob Ickes said. "Battling for the league title, I'm sure, was a surprise for him.

"In the past he had teams that hit the ball well. This team had to scrap for every run it got, and understood they had to do the little things right. But they played their game and wouldn't let you take them out of it."

Flint himself hesitated in calling the 1995 season his best coaching effort. "I try to feel I don't coach any differently any year," but he did say it was probably his most satisfying team in terms of its effort.

"If I had just one word to describe them, it would be an overused word--chemistry," Flint said. "In this bunch there wasn't a Bobby Hamelin [now with the Kansas City Royals] or Scott Seal [now at UCLA]. But they came as close to their potential as any team I've had.

"A lot of different kids would pitch in here and there with a clutch base hit or a big defensive play. Then they start feeling more confident and it ends up a snowball effect."

Flint is quick to point out his assistants, Dennis Joslyn and Matt Bodas, also had a crucial role in Irvine's surprising season. But Joslyn, now in his 11th year with Flint, said the boss did a masterful job of motivating.

"I thought he did his best job ever in terms of getting players to play to their potential," Joslyn said. "These kids played hard. We hustled from station to station."

A heart attack three years ago hasn't been able to get Flint, 50, off the field; neither has not winning a Southern Section title in 16 years of coaching. "If I'm going to lean on that as a mark of success, that's a bad weight since I'm 0 for 16," he said.

"But the playoffs don't fit the baseball format very well. Baseball is two of three or four of seven, not single-game elimination. So we've always approached the playoffs as a reward. Even if you lost in the first round, hey, you made it."

So does he see the end in sight?

"I don't know. It's not that it's year to year, but that it's fun. As long as the fun stays, I'll do it. When it's not fun, that's it."

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