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GURU IN A Small Town : Pitching Coach Gershberg Works His Miracles at Class-A Lake Elsinore

August 16, 1996|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAKE ELSINORE — Howie said this and Howie did that. You can't get these pitchers to shut up. Nothing gets them so worked up like a question about Howie Gershberg.

"He's like a magician," said Pete Janicki, a right-hander for the Angels' triple-A affiliate at Vancouver.

Howie, Howie, Howie. Is this puppy love or what? He is, after all, only a pitching coach. An Angel minor league pitching coach at that. What's the big deal?

Then you watch Gershberg--the object of their affection--at work.

Gershberg, a Lake Elsinore Storm coach the last three seasons, stood close as one of his pitchers tossed a baseball against a wall. There was no radar gun, no video tape, no catcher. Just a guy and his pitching coach working on the throwing motion, step by step.

In 10 minutes, the pitcher had a smooth delivery and a big grin. Gershberg had waved his wand again.

It has been this way for years. Gershberg talks, and talks some more, and pitchers listen. It can't be that easy, but pitchers--from a veteran such as the New York Mets' John Franco to a second-year pro such as Angel prospect Jarrod Washburn at Vancouver--swear by him.

"He's a guru," Shreveport pitcher Shawn Purdy said.

A transplanted Brooklynite who left the city long ago but kept the accent, Gershberg has been with the Angel organization since 1985. He has bounced from one Class-A team to another--Bend, Ore., Salem, Ore., Boise, Idaho, Palm Springs, Lake Elsinore.

But Gershberg, 60, has become almost a cult figure and pitchers from all levels have sought his advice.

Franco, whom Gershberg coached at St. John's University, doesn't go to spring training without letting Gershberg work the kinks out first. These days, Franco calls ahead. Other pitchers have been beating a path to Gershberg's door in Long Island during the off-season. They must first get permission from the Angels, then fly to New York, but the effort isn't wasted.

The list has included two Cy Young award winners, Bret Saberhagen and Frank Viola.

"Some coaches get too mechanical with their thought process," Franco said. "They throw too many things right at you. Howie keeps it simple and to the point and, if it's not broke, Howie doesn't try to fix it."

Franco was one of the first to latch onto the Gershberg mystique. He and Viola played at St. John's, where Gershberg was the pitching coach from 1974-84.

"Howie is like the San Diego Chicken," Boise Manager Tom Kotchman said. "You know that skit the Chicken does, where the little chickens follow him across the field? That's Howie. I'd see him walk across the field and his pitching staff, his little chickens, would follow him around."

Gershberg has taken a number of pitchers under his wing. He remains at the Class-A level because the Angels prefer he work with younger pitchers.

Huntington Beach's Brandon Steele, a fourth-round pick in June, said the Angels want to send him to Lake Elsinore because, "they have this pitching genius out there."

"Howie knows what he's doing, but a lot of guys know what they're doing," Angel General Manager Bill Bavasi said. "But not everyone has the patience. That's a good combination for working with young players. Howie has the patience."

Al Goldis, then an Angel scout, recommended that Gershberg be hired in 1985. Gershberg was given a one-year trial at Class-A Salem. The Salem staff included Chuck Finley and Roberto Hernandez, now the Chicago White Sox closer. The next season, the Angels insisted Gershberg stay with the organization.

Gershberg would not turn down an assignment in the major leagues and has had offers. But he is committed to the Angels, who helped him get through a 1986 back injury. So he goes where they send him and they like to keep him close, where he can also work with major league pitchers rehabilitating injuries.

Bryan Harvey, who is trying to come back from elbow surgery, has spent several days in Lake Elsinore this season.

"Howie has this voice like your father," Finley said. "I think the young players latch on to that and listen to him."

His credentials help as well. How many minor league pitching coaches have written books ("Championship Baseball") and produced instructional films, one for ESPN and another for the NCAA library?

One season the USA baseball team rolled through Boise on tour. Gershberg was asked to talk with one of the team's pitchers. A five-minute chat turned into a half-day clinic for the entire staff, which was taped for future reference.

"The guy just knows a ton about baseball and pitching," Washburn said.

Gershberg grew up in Brooklyn, across the street from Boys High School (now Boys and Girls High School). Even then it was one of the poorest sections in the city.

"[My parents] met over here. My father worked in the fur industry, but the dyes poisoned his hands," he said. "He had to quit and became a taxi driver.

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