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Mudville: April 14, 2024 8:47 pm PDT

Baseball’s John Wooden

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Great coaches and great speeches need to be appreciated in baseball.

Now, in so many ways, it’s about shortcuts, gimmicks and analytics.

It was never that way for John Scolinos. His “17 Inches’’ speech remains the gold standard – as does his College Baseball Hall of Fame coaching life. Here at The Story we are all about giving you the best – and that is what John Scolinos did every day of his life.

Scolinos was the baseball coach at Pepperdine University from 1946 to 1960 and at California State Polytechnic University Pomona from 1962 to 1991, compiling a career coaching record 1,070-954-17. He died November 7, 2009 at the age of 91. He won three national championships at Cal Poly Pomona.

This is about how he lived and the impact he had on a legion of ballplayers and coaches. It is my hope that the Nerds read up on John Scolinos and take the time to watch his most famous speech, “17 Inches”.

Mark Wiley was one of the lucky ones who got to pitch for Scolinos at Cal Poly Pomona.

Wiley went on to pitch two years in the majors for the Twins, drafted by Minnesota in 1970, and his hometown Padres. Wiley eventually became a highly-regarded pitching coach for a number of major league teams, including the 1997 Indians who beat the Yankees in the ALDS, the Orioles in the ALCS and made it to Game 7 of the World Series losing to the Florida Marlins 3-2 in 11 innings.

Wiley, 75, also worked in the front office of several teams. He retired in 2021 – 51 years after getting drafted – but it was the lessons Scolinos taught him during his college years that have stayed with him to this day.

“Coach Scolinos was basically the John Wooden of baseball,’’ Wiley told BallNine on Saturday from his home in Orlando, Florida. Wiley attended Cal Poly Pomona from 1967 through 1970. “He was my mentor. A lot of the stuff I believe in, came directly from him. He was absolutely tremendous in teaching you about life as well as baseball.’’

Scolinos became that to so many young men who wound up being coaches and so many who heard him speak through the years at coaching conventions. He set the tone for the game and ignited the careers of many baseball people. As a coach he was big on the techniques of visualizing success, and not just in baseball, but in life as well.

“I’ve given numerous talks at clinics and stuff and his central message was that if you surround yourself with good people, you‘ll be good,’’ Wiley told me. “For me, that’s one of the first things I tell young guys, if you really want to be a ballplayer, surround yourself with other guys who want to be ballplayers. Playing means more to you than the stuff off the field, and that will keep you out of trouble.’’

Wise words indeed. You can see why there is the comparison of Coach Wooden and Coach Scolinos.

“It works in anything, not just baseball,’’ Wiley said.

“Baseball is the family game because it’s the only game that parallels everyday living. You learn to handle fear, failure, frustration and all that, make adjustments and control…’’

In a 1989 speech Scolinos said, “Baseball is the family game because it’s the only game that parallels everyday living. You learn to handle fear, failure, frustration and all that, make adjustments and control. That’s what the game is all about, that’s why it is a great game, people.’’

Wiley went to Helix High in La Mesa, San Diego County as did basketball great Bill Walton, who I got to know during my time covering the NBA.

Scolinos had time for everyone.

“I went to Cal Poly because of Scolinos,’’ Wiley said.

A mutual friend of Wiley’s father connected the two. “I remember one time when I was in high school, Coach Scolinos had a doubleheader with UCLA and I went up there to watch the game. After the games he worked with me and talked with me for another hour, hour and a half. I told my Dad, ‘I want to go there.’ I never would have been in pro ball if not for him. I was not a prospect out of high school.’’

Wiley was a couple years older than Walton. In his neighborhood Wiley was best friends with twin brothers. They had a younger brother who was best friends with Bill Walton.

“We’d be over their house and Bill would come over and we used to kid him. We used to call him ‘Stick’ because he was so skinny and tall. ‘Hey Stick, what’s going on?’ Bill had an older brother who later played for the Chargers, and he was like 265 pounds and 6-5 in high school,’’ Wiley said. “He was on the basketball team too and he would just clear out the lane and let Bill do anything he wanted to do.’’

Coach John Scolinos

“Stick’’ went on to play at UCLA for John Wooden, who greatly impacted his life. Wiley went on to pitch for Cal Poly and John Scolinos, who greatly impacted his life.

John Wooden had his Pyramid of Success. Astros manager Dusty Baker has an autographed copy of the book. I know because he showed it to me one day in his office.

John Scolinos had his “17 Inches’’ speech.

Scolinos gave his 17 Inches speech a number of times, including 1996 at the Opryland Hotel for the 52nd ABCA’s convention. He was 78 at the time and was the speaker every one of the 4,000 coaches at the convention wanted to hear. He showed up in a light blue shirt and a string around his neck from which home plate hung, according to Chris Sperry, who wrote about the speech many years later.

For 25 minutes Scolinos mesmerized the crowd and never mentioned the home plate. When he did, he opened the eyes and ears of everyone listening, explaining what he learned about home plate in 78 years. He then asked what the width was of home plate in Little League.

Someone cautiously answered: “17 inches.’’

He asked about the width of home plate in Babe Ruth’s day and in current Babe Ruth Baseball and was given the same answer: 17 inches. How about high school? Then college, the minor leagues and finally the major leagues.

The answer was always the same: 17 inches.

“And what do they do with a Big League pitcher who can’t throw the ball over 17 inches? They send him to Pocatello!’’ Scolinos bellowed. “What they don’t do is they don’t say, ‘Ah, that’s okay Jimmy. If you can’t hit a 17-inch target. We’ll make it 18 inches or 19 inches. We’ll make it 20 inches so you have a better chance of hitting it. If you can’t hit that, let us know so you have a better chance of hitting it. If you can’t hit that, let us know so we can make it wider still, say 25 inches.’’’

Scolinos was making his point. Don’t lower the bar, raise the bar. It’s about accountability.

“Coaches, what do we do when your best player shows up late to practice?” Scolinos asked the crowd. “Do we hold him accountable?’’ Other rule breaking incidents were mentioned. “Do we change the rules to fit him? Do we widen home plate?’’

Scolinos then turned home plate toward his face and wrote on it with a Sharpie. He turned the plate around to reveal a house complete with a door and two windows, what home plate represents, and offered these words: “This is the problem in our homes today. With our marriages, with the way we parent our kids. With our discipline. We don’t teach accountability to our kids and there is no consequence for failing to meet standards.

“We just widen the plate.’’

He then added the American flag.

“This is the problem in our schools today. The quality of education is going downhill fast, and teachers have been stripped of tools they need to be successful, and to educate and discipline our young people. We are allowing others to widen home plate. Where is that getting us?’’

He then went on to talk about the Church and government and officials taking bribes from lobbyists and foreign countries and how home plate has been widened across the board.

And remember, this was 1996, 27 years ago.

Just think about how things are today and how the plate has been widened in so many ways in so many areas of life.

Just think about baseball and how the plate is constantly widened with new rules in the Rob Manfred Era like fake runners, only two disengagements by pitchers to make stealing a base child’s play, fake balls and fake strikes called because of so-called timing violations. So much has been widened by the powers that be – in their non-baseball minds – they say, to make it a more entertaining and quicker game.

Teams allow players to get away with so much more too as the power of the manager has been stripped away by the Nerds in Charge, elites running the new wide-plate MLB The Show.

Coach Scolinos was way ahead of his time.

Coach Scolinos surrounded by some very happy players.

I asked Wiley about the coach’s words and today’s society and he offered this heartfelt comment: “In our society, in all walks of life, not only baseball, we tend to try to make it easier, people are expanding the 17 inches… don’t obey the laws, even the laws of nature, so to speak, we are always trying to create something new when what is right in front of us is really good,’’ Wiley said.

“His words are really appropriate for today’s world.’’

Yes they are, more than ever.

“I have a CD of the ‘17 Inches’ speech and I have the article written about it, it’s really cool,’’ Wiley said. “You have to understand that he did stuff like that all the time in our team meetings.’’

Oh, to be a fly on the wall in those team meetings.

In fact, Scolinos even included a fly in a lesson in one of his meetings, Wiley recalled.

“He had props and he had gimmicks, there was one time he was making a point about making adjustments to a hitter and we used to have meetings at 7:30 in the morning,’’ Wiley noted. “We’d all have to get out of bed early and get to school and we’d talk about cybernetics and relate it to baseball. This one particular time he was talking about adjusting and there was a fly in the classroom and the fly was trying to get out; and it’s buzzing and it’s hitting the window and it’s moving down the window and it is hitting the window again and it keeps moving.

“He said, ‘Even a fly knows to adjust. You are not even adjusting, your swing is in the same plane every time.’ Everybody was just roaring. He was a comedian without being a comedian.’’

Mark Wiley in the dugout

(Original Caption) QLD Vs Victoria: Victoria's American import, pitcher Mark Wiley talks to teammates Brian Wonnacott, pitcher (left) and Alan Sieler, pitcher (right). January 18, 1980. (Photo by Paul Stephen Pearson/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

At all those coaching speaking engagements Coach Scolinos would talk about other things as well: Baseball drills, mentality, pitching.

“One thing I will always remember is that he talked about if you get enough pitches to one side of the plate, the plate subconsciously moves on the hitter,’’ Wiley explained. “We used to do it to (Derek) Jeter. We used to pound him in with sinkers. He could handle the ball up and in and bring his hands in and hit it the other way, he could handle anything away, that was his path, but he had to work to get to the ball down and in so he was trying to hope to foul it off a bunch of times and then you’d go back out there and he’d get a hit. Sometimes hitters get locked up on the ball away and the hitter argues with the umpire, saying it’s outside. That happens because psychologically they moved the plate.’’

Fascinating stuff – and great to talk about the art of pitching and not just velocity and spin rate. Great to talk to someone who played for the John Wooden of Baseball and used those lessons to teach the game.

Coach Scolinos always talked about TRUST.

“T’’ he said, stands for a player who is thankful for the game. “R’’ stands for reliability on and off the field. “U” is for understanding, understanding the game and what coaches are trying to teach. “S” is for sincerity. Don’t be a phony.

Finally, that last “T’’ is for truth. Be true to yourself and the ballclub.

Sounds to me like another Pyramid of Success.

Stop widening the plate.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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