The Dana Hills High baseball team isn't off to a great start this season at 5-9-1. But the Dolphins have hope for the future because of a major league connection.
Former Angel right-hander Mike Witt is in his second season as the school's pitching coach, and although the arrangement hasn't translated into instant success, it seems to be working well. Dana Hills pitchers are learning from one of the top major league players of the 1980s, and Witt--who has been out of professional baseball since 1993--is rediscovering his joy for the game through his young players' eyes.
"Coaching has been easier than I thought it would be," said Witt, 36. "I really wasn't doing too much--playing a lot of golf and spending time with the kids. When they asked me if I'd mind coming out and helping out, I thought, 'What the heck, I might as well do something along these lines.' "
Witt was approached last year by Donn Munsell, then the Dolphins' coach and now an assistant at Laguna Beach. Munsell said he saw Witt helping out with the Dana Hills basketball team. Witt was a standout baseball and basketball player at Anaheim Servite High from 1975 through '78.
"He was very receptive and did a great job," Munsell said. "Considering where he's come from and where he's been, he got the kids' respect and attention quickly."
Witt, who lives near the school, said he doesn't try to force his opinions or ideas on the players, even when they're receptive to his every suggestion.
"My thing is making sure they don't hurt their arms when they pitch," he said. "Without good [form], you can hurt your arm. Then, during the process of a game, I try to show what kind of thinking should be going on as they pitch."
One of Witt's biggest boosters among the players is junior right-hander Sean Fluent, who is 4-1.
"It's awesome having an ex-pro as a pitching coach," Fluent said. "But he's the most down-to-earth guy I've met. It's like talking to a big brother. He doesn't tell you what to do, but he helps you do whatever you feel comfortable with."
Many of the Dana Hills players last season didn't realize the depth of Witt's experiences, both good and bad, "except for a couple of die-hard Angels fans," Witt said. "But the last time I was in the game most of them were about 12 years old, so I wasn't surprised they didn't know that much about me."
After playing at Cypress College, Witt was selected by the Angels in the fourth round of the 1978 free-agent draft.
He reached the majors in 1981 and in 1984 went 15-11. That started a four-year stretch during which Witt won at least 15 games each year. His best season with the Angels was in 1986, when he was 18-10 and the Angels won the American League West title. He finished third in the Cy Young Award balloting behind Boston's Roger Clemens and Milwaukee's Ted Higuera.
During his Angel career, Witt would have his hand in two no-hitters. He pitched the 13th perfect game in major league history, defeating the Texas Rangers, 1-0, on the final day of the 1984 season, and he combined with Mark Langston to no-hit Seattle, 1-0, in the third game of the 1990 season.
In 1990, Witt was traded to the Yankees for Dave Winfield and was 5-9 in his first season in New York, limited by a sore elbow. Elbow and shoulder injuries ended his career by 1993.
Now that he is coaching, Witt said he still has something to offer. Dana Hills players are more than willing to listen.
"He has been quite comfortable in sharing his knowledge," Dana Hills Coach Bob Canary said. "I could see that during our American Legion season this summer. Mike could see some optimism in the kids' attitudes. It was something he could work with."
"I'd love to keep him around a long time, but I don't know his immediate future. He's rooted here [in Dana Point] with his family, and he is a very strong family man. I hope he'll stick around and help us have some good years."
Witt says he's unsure of his plans. He said he doesn't have an interest in coaching professional baseball because the travel would take him away from his family.
"It would have to be a situation like with the [Mission Viejo] Vigilantes," he said of Orange County's new minor league team. He did get a call from Saddleback College to see if he might like to work there, but for the time being Witt wants to stay at Dana Hills.
"I'm just looking for a niche I can fall into," he said. "I take care of the investments I've made, but I haven't gotten into any businesses.
"I've had tons of people from my son's Little League ask if I'd give pitching lessons. I've said no, but that is an area to get into if I want to follow this up. It would be a natural. But I don't think I'm ready for that yet."