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BILL PLASCHKE

He's Building New Family in the Desert

Mark Cresse, a member of the Dodgers for 25 years before he was ushered out, is still enjoying a life of baseball.

November 13, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. — At first glance, it's baseball as usual for everybody's favorite bear of a Dodger.

Under large colorful signs proclaiming "Big League Dreams," in batting cages next to deep green fields, Mark Cresse is working with a hitter.

He exhorts, claps, grabs, hugs. He spreads his big arms and gives monologues on pivoting hips, quick barrels, Mike Piazza, Reggie Jackson, beauty.

It's baseball as usual, with three exceptions.

The hitter is 56.

The hitter is a woman.

The sport is softball.

"Unbelievable," says Carol Ford, a bespectacled Irvine businesswoman. "I'm getting a lesson from a guy who coached in the major leagues?"

Believe it. Mark Cresse is still smiling, still working until his face gets red, still doing what he does best in a refreshing new complex.

The Dodgers should still be ashamed.

*

Tucked behind a library in a quiet desert neighborhood here is a sprawling place that can only be described as, well, a big league dream.

Standing just inside Big League Dreams Sports Park, on your right is Wrigley Field. Straight ahead is Yankee Stadium. Up around the corner is Fenway Park.

All three fields are smaller versions of the originals but come complete with Wrigley brick and ivy, white Yankee facade, and a Fenway Green Monster.

The sizes of the fields are perfect for the youth league baseball and adult softball games that are played each night.

The approach of the park is perfect for its new part-owner and director of youth instruction.

"To have a 6-year-old hit the ball a few more feet because of me, that's more fun than listening to a major leaguer rag you for not throwing perfect batting practice," said Cresse, who recently moved here and began working at the first-year complex.

It's also fun for the park's creators, the Odekirk family of Glendale, Dodger fans all.

"We can't believe a guy with his honesty and class and class would be available," said Rick Odekirk, 40, a former Dodger batting practice pitcher. "The Dodger loss was a huge gain for our family."

Family. When it came to the Dodgers, that's a word Cresse used to believe.

For 25 years, he was in the middle of that family as the bullpen catcher, coach, and hardest-working man in the house.

No Dodger has coached for more than Cresse's 22 consecutive seasons, or clocked more hours.

Cresse was the first uniformed person at the park in the early afternoon, and the last uniformed person off the field after the game.

Although his primary duties were supervising the relief pitchers during the game, he was in charge of the spring training schedule, the winter workouts, batting practice, early practice, late practice.

In 25 years, he missed four days of work.

And for 20 years, he protected Tom Lasorda.

As an unofficial bodyguard, Cresse would accompany Lasorda outside the clubhouse, watching his back against disgruntled players inside. Yet on June 24, in Lasorda's first days as interim general manager, Cresse was fired by Manager Glenn Hoffman while Lasorda sat quietly nearby.

Did we mention that Lasorda is also the godfather of Cresse's son Brad?

Hoffman told Cresse that he was making a change because the team needed "a spark."

Then Lasorda smiled and added, "Mark, we're not letting you go. We are reassigning you to manage in [Class-A] San Bernardino."

Cresse still remembers that smile.

"He acted like he just gave me a candy store or something," Cresse said. "But after all these years, if they didn't think I was good enough to work on the big league level, I'm sure they didn't think I was good enough to work in the minor leagues."

Fellow coaches Reggie Smith and Glenn Gregson also were fired, but both men were buried under a pile of poor statistics for the pitchers and hitters.

For what Cresse did, there have never been statistics. The quiet integrity and work ethic he brought to the team could not be judged in wins and losses.

Every good sports organization, it seems, has a longtime coach who doesn't make a lot of money or headlines, but whose presence has become such a symbol of the team's values that he is welcome there forever.

On the Dodgers, the big man affectionately known as "Beach"--Tom Paciorek thought he looked like somebody from Muscle Beach--was seemingly that guy.

"Around the Dodgers, they always said if you worked your rear off and kept your nose clean, you would have a job for life," Cresse said. "I thought I did that."

To this day, Cresse is not sure why he was fired.

Some think it was because Lasorda was upset at Cresse's support of Bill Russell after Lasorda retired, even though that was Cresse's job.

Others say that, after firing Reggie Smith, the Dodgers felt they had to hire another African American to take his place, so Cresse was sacrificed for John Shelby. This speculation is unfair to Shelby, an outstanding baseball man who deserves to be on a major league staff.

But the circumstances were odd in that Shelby admittedly never had coached a bullpen before being hired, and never worked there after replacing Cresse.

Lasorda has repeatedly said that Cresse was fired not by him, but Hoffman, because the new manager deserved his choice of coaches. Yet Hoffman and Cresse were friends.

"I was crushed, my wife cried, the first night I slept 20 minutes," Cresse remembered. "Then I was really scared. If you are Tom Lasorda, you can get another job. If you are Mark Cresse, maybe you can't."

But of course he did. Good guys always do. In his new gig, he will start a baseball academy in the desert, expanding on his successful Los Angeles-area schools with the same class that he once brought to the Dodgers.

Even now, as in the last 25 years, he refuses to criticize anybody.

"That organization was very good to me, and I'll always be grateful to them," Cresse said.

From a bush-league firing to Big League Dreams. Maybe Mark Cresse got lucky. We know at least one 56-year-old woman did.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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