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He's Sacrificing Again

Baseball: The same kind of tough choice that led to coaching has Donatella leaving powerful Sylmar.

June 04, 2002|MIKE BRESNAHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gary Donatella knows all about choices, how bad news can alter one's plans in life and how an orange Volkswagen Beetle can drastically change the vectors of a career path.

He was 19 when he had to make his first major decision, en route to a baseball career at a community college in Valencia, when his father was laid off as an aircraft engineer.

It was 1973. The war in Vietnam was ending. The economy struggled, in particular his father's manufacturing sector, as the U.S. dollar grew softer and oil prices soared.

Donatella was forced to pick up the tab for his shiny new Beetle, payments that a few months earlier had been made by his father. A hundred bucks a month, another $25 or $30 for insurance.

"I couldn't figure out a way to play baseball and pay for the car," Donatella said. "I had to make a decision."

A playing career ended. The foundation for a coaching career began.

Donatella started work toward a physical education degree at College of the Canyons, then finished it at Cal State Northridge, all while putting in 30 hours a week at an aircraft supply store in Burbank. Well before he became known as the nuts-and-bolts baseball coach at Sylmar High, he was in charge of packing and shipping screws and wing nuts at the supply store.

"It was tough sometimes," he said. "I went there after school while a lot of my buddies were out playing ball or messing around."

Familiar with sacrifice at an early age, Donatella, 48, had to make another choice this season: After 14 years at Sylmar, he will resign from coaching baseball after the Spartans play Cleveland High for the City Section championship tonight at Dodger Stadium.

His son, Justin, 7, is starting to blossom as a youth baseball player. Donatella saw only seven of Justin's 22 games this season. He doesn't want to miss any next season.

"Two practices a week, batting cages every Wednesday night, two games a week.... He hadn't had that schedule before," Donatella said. "It seemed like the timing was right [to step down]."

But not before he coaches in a championship game for the first time. The top-seeded Spartans (27-4) are a model of Donatella's past teams, with discipline, dignity and an actual sense of community, a rarity in these days of open enrollment.

Every player on this year's roster is from Sylmar, with the exception of third baseman/pitcher Francisco Molina, an exchange student from Mexico.

"We like to have the kids that are supposed to come to Sylmar High School," said Donatella, who graduated from Sylmar in 1972. "I believe in a community school. We always have enough good players at our school to be competitive."

Donatella is simple, yet stern. If a player doesn't follow the rules, he gets benched. If grades start to slip, so will his plate appearances. It's a system the players have bought into.

Opposing coaches have also taken note of it.

"He'll let his kids know what is expected of them and if they don't take care of business, they're not around," said Granada Hills Kennedy Coach Manny Alvarado, also in his 14th season. "It's kind of old school. He holds the kids accountable for their actions."

Donatella, who has a career record of 402-180 in 20 seasons, coached at Marshall High for six seasons before arriving at Sylmar in 1989. The Spartans advanced to the playoff semifinals that year and would have gone to Dodger Stadium if not for a three-run home run by Garret Anderson, now with the Angels, that led Kennedy past Sylmar, 8-7.

Two years later, the Spartans made it back to the semifinals, but lost to San Fernando and swift-throwing right-hander Ray Rivera who, coincidentally, is now the Sylmar pitching coach.

"It's funny how things happen," Donatella said. "We've got a stockpile of pitchers who have worked with him. He's a big reason why we are where we're at today."

Rivera is the leading candidate to replace Donatella, who will still teach P.E. at Sylmar.

As Donatella reflects on his career, he remembers the path he took to become a coach, how his father found work again within a year or two before retiring, and how he is a game away from semi-retirement.

"As it turned out, everything worked out," Donatella said. "It's been fun."

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