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August 29, 2014

The View from the Loge Level

Erstad and Percival in the Coaching Game

by Daron Sutton

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For a nine-year span, from 1994-2004, Troy Percival and Darin Erstad were teammates and eventual champions as Angels. But this duo formed a bond well beyond that of cohabiting a roster. The former college catcher Percival and Erstad understood each other’s intensity, drive and discipline, which carried them to very memorable careers. They would share a daily ride to the ballpark on the road, a carpool that on most days would have them arriving long before their teammates. Percival will kiddingly tell you that he and Erstad were close because no one else had the courage to attempt to do so based on Darin’s dogged approach to the game and gruff personality. Then in the next breath Troy would say something like he said to me back in 2007 when both had moved on to other organizations:

“I can’t say enough. He’s given his body to the game. The guys could’ve probably played 15-20 years, but the way he played the game you have to respect it,” Percival said, while a member of the Cardinals. “I’ve told this to people a lot: I’d come in to get a courtesy inning the last inning with a six-run deficit or lead and he’s still diving in the gap trying to make a play to save his teammates, save me pitches and runs crossing the plate. That’s the type of guy you want out there behind you.”

Erstad was behind Percival on October 27, 2002 and he made a play on a fly ball like he’d made 1,000 times before, but as we all know, it might be the most fondly recollected play in franchise history. They now both have the ring and the memories to prove it. Both are once again on the same playing field, but this time it’s as Division I college baseball coaches. Erstad just completed his third season at the helm at Nebraska, where he was an All-American punter on the Huskers’ 1994 National Championship team. Percival’s maiden voyage is in front of him as in July he was named head coach at UC Riverside, where he caught for three years. For both, these positions have served as a chance to return to a key starting point of their baseball journey.

“Percy, it means something to him to be there, like it means something to me to be at Nebraska. The guy built the clubhouse, I think, with his bare hands on his own dime. He’s invested in that university. On my side, this place has given me, outside of North Dakota, everything in my life—my kids, my family and my opportunity now on the field as a coach,” Erstad said. “My wife said it best. When we were deciding as a family if this head coaching thing was something we wanted to do, she just looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Darin you are in a position to effect kid’s lives in a positive way and that’s the most powerful thing you can have,’ and I was like, ‘Well..I’m in!’ Because that was one of coach (Tom) Osborne’s lines to me as that was the reason he coached.”

“Everybody knows my passion for the game,” said Percival. “It didn’t really matter at the time what level I was coaching at. I got into the high school coaching (Moreno Valley, Ca HS) and loved that. It was just the next natural step for me, especially getting to come back to my alma mater.”

But as Erstad mentioned, Percival had already come back to his college stomping ground regularly, but in 2007 he returned with hammer, nail and checkbook. Percival, his dad Richard and his father-in-law Jerry built the UCR baseball program a new clubhouse. This occurred during a brief hiatus late in his career. After the construction project, Troy pitched in 98 games in his final three seasons for St. Louis and Tampa Bay. But the clubhouse project is as unique of a give back as one can imagine, paid for and built by a man with 358 big-league saves.

“Truthfully I don’t think anybody can really understand just how much colleges still need funding. When I found out via Coach (Doug) Smith of what their needs was, I was just glad to go in and do it and actually get an opportunity to do it with my own hands,” Percival said. “So that’s just how I am, I actually like physical work. It may be more difficult than writing a check, but much more rewarding. Now I’m back in the same training room and locker room and I just got done painting it. We’re building a few rooms up and making them nicer. We’re making a nicer training room. Our infield is getting done right now. So we really pushing through and getting a lot of stuff done out here.”

The Scioscia effect has got to be studied when you get these two on the telephone. Both players will speak of many great influences in their careers. Erstad calls legendary Huskers football coach Tom Osborne a huge influence in his life and says he still is today. Percival was able to play for Leyland, Maddon and La Russa in his twilight years. But both share the guidance of Mike Scioscia and they are part of unique tree that branches out to three major league managers—Maddon, Bud Black and Ron Roenicke—along with two Division I head coaches.

“I don’t think it’s an accident. Mike’s extreme loyalty to his coaches and his players and his consistency in which he goes about his business, win or lose, 0-for-5 or 5-for-5. That loyalty and consistency are two of the trademarks and foundations that you try to pattern yourself after,” said Erstad.

“Look, you can look around and see all of the disciples of Mike Scioscia. There’s a reason these guys are successful and if you had your eyes open when you were playing for them, you’d really get a chance to learn a lot,” said Percival. “Joe Maddon, I learned so much from him and the way he communicates with his players, respects his players and allows them to go out there and play freely. I think I was very fortunate; I got to play for Tony La Russa a little while. I got to be around Jim Leyland for one spring training. You just get to see some old school mixed with some new school and how to command respect but not force yourself on people. I’ve been very fortunate to be around those people.”

You have two head coaches. One is a Gold Glove winner as a first baseman and an outfielder, the only one of his kind in MLB history. Another is ninth all-time in saves in the game’s history. We can guess that they had high standards for themselves as players—their resumes show that. But what are the non-negotiable standards for their players now that they are responsible for so many futures outside of their own?

“The first thing that I think is tremendously important, especially as you get further away from being a player, is never to forget how hard this game is. This game will beat you down physically and mentally and never lose sight of the fact that this is a very difficult game to play,” Erstad said. “I make sure that I always have that mindset and am patient with young kids as they are not only going through things on the baseball field, but going through things in the classroom and going through things socially. Just remember how really difficult it is to play that game. The non-negotiable part of this is your effort and attitude. There’s going to be a certain way that we’re going to go about our business and we’re going to be highly efficient with everything we have and everything we do and at the end of the day we can accept the results. But effort and attitude are going to be off the charts.”

“Other than your eligibility, because I’m not going to be a daddy figure out here and force feed you to go to school, you’re going to have to be responsible enough to play, but for me you’ve got one thing. If you leave everything that you’ve got out on the field than you’ve got a chance to play for me. If you’re somebody that thinks you can go out there and just let your talent speak, you’re probably not going to be able to play for me,” said Percival.

Erstad’s first few years in the college ranks have him acutely aware that Nebraska’s baseball program will be guided by him and not programmed by him. In other words, this past year’s 41-win season and trip to the NCAA Regionals in Stillwater, Oklahoma was accomplished by a roster of unique individuals with diverse talents, not by 25 Darin Erstads.

“I don’t want that. That would be really miserable to be around. It’s a good balance. It’s just that fun blend of people that feed off of each other in different ways. Some people’s traits you don’t have so you feed off of that and they might feed off of your intensity,” Erstad shared. “It’s fun to put that together. I am intense and I probably don’t smile as much as some people do, but they understand once they start to be around me and know that inside it’s a different person and they can approach me and talk to me and we do this together and they can be themselves. It’s just fun to see them grow as people.”

Percival hasn’t missed out on the fact that he’s got a red phone to Lincoln if he needs it. And he’s used it..frequently. It’s a welcome challenge for Percival and Riverside to battle to a higher spot in the Big West, a nine-team conference that boasts the likes of Cal Poly, Long Beach State, UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton.

“Right now he’s (Erstad) got a head start on me with this college deal, so I call him with NCAA questions and recruiting questions and all that stuff. The coaching part, that’s going to be the easy part, because baseball is going to be the same for the next hundred years. I know how to play it and I know how to teach it, but there’s a lot more that goes into it at the college level. He’s got a head start on me so I’m just picking his brain,” said Percival.

Old school concepts meet a brand new world in which social media may serve as communication, entertainment and information to many of your players. So how does a man who was a very traditional player in so many of his approaches stay current and show patience toward an entirely different generation of baseball players?

“They are in a different world. There’s no doubt about it. I think it’s a fine line that you want to be in tune with what they’re doing, but at the same time they’re kids and I’m not,” Erstad said. “From having my own young kids to hearing all of the stuff that they’re into, to having an open door where our guys can just come up and talk to me at any time and I talk to them and ask them questions about their lives. You just kind of get a feel for it. You kind of feel them out and see where they’re at. It’s all communication. You just talk to them. It’s going so fast with school and lifting and socializing. There are so many things going on that sometimes we forget to stop and actually look somebody in the eyes and talk to them, and I do my best to try to do that.”

“I think it’s a little easier for me. I’ve got a son (Cole) that’s a sophomore in high school. I’ve coached high school for the last two years. So I’ve never really gotten that far away other than when I was actually playing in the big leagues,” Percival said. “It was a natural progression. I coached my son’s travel ball team from the time he was 9 up until 14 years old. I’ve never really lost touch with the way things are changing in the youthful minds as we move along.”

They were both players in high school, college and professionally. They’re both parents and coach at the highest level in college baseball. I just mentioned that again to make sure that our sports parents gave the proper time to their bit of wisdom.

“Let your children go out and learn how to play the game and have fun doing it. I’ve seen too many talented kids that have gone by the wayside by too much pressure coming from the parents,” Percival said.

“As a younger kid, let them try everything. Let them experiment. Let them find their love. Let them try everything. I know there comes a point where you have to, you know, specialize, but expose them to everything. I mean the piano, reading…everything. Let them guide you and let them choose their path,” said Erstad.

It’s a warm tale of teammates with a friendship offering advice. But check the schedules; we’re all most excited to see them in opposite dugouts as foes. Aren’t we?

Daron Sutton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daron's other articles. You can contact Daron by clicking here

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