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He Remains Devoted to Softball

Coach: Auger has helped put stars on the diamond for O.C high school programs. Now he faces cancer surgery.

May 30, 1996|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Tom Auger is discussing his passion, softball, and is asked how people will remember him.

"They won't," he says. "The game will go on without me. I'm just a small part of this world. The more you go on, the more you realize you're just a grain of sand on the beach."

Not so, if we are remembered by what we leave behind. And Auger has left behind a legacy he can be proud of as a pitching coach who has developed some of the game's finest pitchers.

Olympian Leah O'Brien is one. Freshman phenom Marissa Young is another.

In between is an Orange County Who's Who, such as Los Alamitos' Carrie Dolan, who pitched Arizona to the College World Series title, and last year's strikeout leader, Kathy Ponce of Ocean View, who is at Arizona State.

This year, there's Geney Orris, who pitched Brea Olinda into the Southern Section Division III semifinals, as well as Young, who has Mater Dei in Friday's Division I championship.

There's Heather Hibben of Huntington Beach and Mary Petrie of Bolsa Grande and Brenda Quinn of Westminster and Cristy Turner of La Habra and . . .

Near as Auger can remember, he has taught about 2,500 players how to pitch over the last 26 years in his back yard. They have won national travel ball titles, Southern Section titles and scholarships by the score. But the lessons have stopped indefinitely while he faces his bout with cancer, this time on the back and inside of his tongue; it also rounds down the left side of his neck and "encroaches" an artery.

It's malignant, say his doctors, and requires radical surgery. The 12- to 14-hour operation is scheduled June 6.

"I told them, I hope they have good shoes on," Auger said.

Auger, 61, already has beaten cancer twice, in the throat 10 1/2 years ago, and a cancerous birthmark eight years ago.

Fifty years of smoking--up to about three weeks ago--probably didn't help. "Doctors said the smoking may have been responsible," he said. "I feel better already now that I've quit. I'm breathing better. But I understand that when the damage is done, it's done."

He also suffered a couple of "mini-strokes" two years ago that were corrected after he stopped catching pitchers and began taking aspirin to thin his blood.

He has lost 20 pounds in 25 days, but he's historically a tough out.

"I knocked my lessons off--I can't let my kids see me this way," he said. "I'm not going to let them see me broken down. When I get over it, then I'll tell them the story. I am going to lick this--one way or the other.

"I've pretty much won everything I've ever done."

He was an accomplished motorcycle rider in the 1950s, winning 5,000 first-place trophies, he said, on top fuel, 500 c.c. and 1,000 c.c. bikes. "We sold the trophies back [to them] because we didn't have any space for them," he said.

An auto mechanic with a 10th-grade education, Auger began studying softball pitching 26 years ago, helping the local kids. Then some of the parents suggested he do it full time.

"I'm very much into the physiological and psychological aspect of pitching," Auger said. "You can make your body do an awful lot of work without hurting it if you do it properly.

"I'm no genius. I just went in and looked at it real hard and asked, 'What can I do and what can I get away with?' I think you see that in all kinds of work, people who don't put their heart into their job."

So Auger put his heart into it, at $40 an hour, and made about $30,000 in his best year and $20,000-$22,000 usually.

There are just a few things he stresses: have fun, because "if you're not having fun, do something else"; practice often; take advantage of a willing parent.

"You have to have a good parent who will be able to sacrifice to work with the kid," Auger said, "someone who will go out and catch the kid for 30 minutes."

None of which has a thing to do with talent. So there are other things, too.

"Your entire body, from push foot to shoulder, has to work; the more power you can put into the ball, the faster it's going to go," Auger said. "The more you can rotate the ball, the more it's going to break.

"I worked in aerodynamics--designed model airplanes--and it's just fluid dynamics. If you want the ball to break, you rotate the seams.

"Maximum body force, rotate the wrists, and that puppy's going to do tricks for you."

And one of the most active puppies around is Young, Mater Dei's freshman whom Auger ranks alongside Casey Tacason of La Quinta as the best high school pitchers he has coached. Young went to Auger as an 8-year-old and has the potential to be an Olympian, he says. After all, he has already coached O'Brien, who is on this year's national team.

"Tom has been like a grandfather to me," Young said after pitching a perfect game in the section quarterfinals. "He has given me moral support, and supported me physically and emotionally, and made me what I am today.

"He's never given up on anything, and he taught me that."

Auger says Young's success is not from anything he has done, but what she has done.

"It's a pleasure to watch them grow, watch them succeed, especially when they go to college," Auger said. "I never got an education, and I know how important it is. They did all the hard work--I just showed them how. They had to practice, give up their social life. It was tough on them. It's fun to train someone and do well. And after they grow up, they come up with new ideas. Of course, sometimes a new idea is pretty old, but I never tell them that.

"I think it's a pretty poor teacher if the student doesn't learn more than the teacher."

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