The Occidental College baseball team is going through a season like many others in recent history. The Tigers are again under .500 and figure to finish in the bottom half of the seven-team Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
For every victory over Redlands, there is a lopsided loss to Chapman or the Master's. The Tigers' coach, Jeff Henderson, has led the team for 16 seasons, the last 12 of a losing variety. But at the Division III level, coaches seldom lose their jobs solely because they haven't won enough games. At academics-oriented Occidental, Henderson hasn't had to worry about job security.
That's the problem, say some former members of the team. After a players-only meeting last week, 20 of the 25 players on the Tiger roster walked out on the coach during a meeting the next day. In essence, it was a mutiny against Henderson.
"We have no respect for him as a coach and we feel he has no respect for us as players," senior catcher Jason Sabolic said. "We aren't motivated to play for him."
The move forced Occidental to cancel four games in the California Classic last weekend. The Tigers resumed practice Wednesday and will play nonconference games today against Chapman and Menlo.
Some players, mostly freshmen, have returned over the last few days. Henderson said a few asked to return minutes after their protest and expects to have 16 from the season-opening roster for today's games. That leaves nine holdouts in an episode that has brought the program unwanted publicity.
"Obviously, I'm very disappointed with the situation," said Henderson, who played at Occidental in the early 1980s. "Individually, I was hurt by this. I was further disappointed that we've had to deal with this in the paper when I think it's a team issue that really should be kept within the team."
Disagreements between players and coaches are not uncommon. In an extreme case, 10 San Jose State basketball players left the team midway through the 1989 season and demanded the dismissal of Coach Bill Berry. Berry stayed on, coaching mostly walk-ons, but was fired after the season.
Occidental Athletic Director Dixon Farmer said he has no desire to make such a move, although he said Henderson will be evaluated at season's end.
"I like Jeff as a person and I like the stuff he has done for our program," Farmer said of the coach who also oversees the school's club teams and intramural sports program. "He's been an Oxy guy in every sense of the word."
Some players wonder how one of Occidental's own let the program deteriorate from a high level set by longtime former coach Grant Dunlap.
Junior Simon Rodell, a first baseman and one of the team's top pitchers, claims the coach resists opinions from players and has taken to blaming Rodell and four others for leading the revolt.
"We hope that it's a temporary step, but we refuse to play for Coach Henderson," Rodell said. "We love nothing more than to play baseball. But Coach Henderson has been vindictive and dishonest."
It has been a difficult season for the Tigers. Two days before the first game, freshman shortstop Greg Davis was killed in a car accident. Junior center fielder Yamil Verde, a Marine reserve, was called to active duty.
"We all have been scarred," Farmer said.
Some players viewed the walkout as unnecessary. "I think it was too extreme of a move," said Jared Miller, a junior outfielder now playing catcher.
Sabolic understands not everyone shares his view. "The guys that [returned], they did it for personal reasons," he said. "That's their decision and I'm fine with it."
But some friction has developed between those who returned and those who are holding out.
"It's hard because a lot of them are your friends and now when you see them, they're kind of [distant] with you," said freshman pitcher Paul Beringhaus, who did not take part in the walkout. "But I've got some of friends on the team and I really want to play."
That's what Henderson is looking for.
"We're here to play," he said. "We've got guys who want to play."