John Scolinos Remembered by the San Gabriel Valley Tribune
By Jim McConnell,San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Staff Writer
The summer of 1971. There I was, stationed at Fort Polk in Louisiana and due to be shipped out to Vietnam at any moment.
What to do?
When in doubt, watch baseball.
So I wrangled a weekend pass and went up to Shreveport to take in an American Legion baseball tournament.
One of the teams was from some small town in east Texas but, when they began their infield I noticed something very familiar. They were taking infield the exact way John Scolinos taught it.
When they finished I rushed up to their coach, thinking he might be one of John's long-lost players from Cal Poly Pomona or even Pepperdine. Turned out the coach had seen Scolinos teach the infield drill at a clinic in Arizona, liked it and adopted it as his own.
Life was like that for Scolinos, who influenced more people, and made more friends, than anyone I know.
John was wise. John was principled. John was loyal. These are admirable traits. In an age when image has become everything, John never could be anything but who he was. Some called him old-fashioned. To this reporter, he was ageless.
The Golden Greek lived by the Golden Rule. It served him very well. Treat people, all people, as you would want to be treated. Simple advice but deep and profound. It takes a strong faith to live that way.
To those who did not know him, Scolinos might come across as a coaching dinosaur, a prude lost in the 1940s. Actually, he lived in the moment. He could relate to the young and old, the rich and poor, the famous and infamous.
It also might be surprising to reveal John had a great sense of humor. It sprang from a life that seemed to be constantly pitching him knuckleballs.
"I wanted to be a big league ballplayer," Scolinos said in a 1976 interview. "That was the biggest thing in my life. Can you beat that? Me, at 5-foot-8, with my bow legs. But I managed to convince myself it was gonna happen.
"So what did happen? I stuck around pro baseball for five years and never got out of `C' ball. I couldn't hit, couldn't run. I was just fooling myself. When you're that dumb, you have to laugh at yourself.
"Even after I got out of the service after the war, I wanted to go back and give pro ball another try. How dumb was that? So you look back and laugh. Thank God I didn't have a little success, or I probably would have wasted 10 years of my life in the pros instead of only five.
"I was on a bomber in the war and got airsick. I was in the Merchant Marines and got seasick. I tried three or four odd jobs after I got back home and wasn't any good at any of them.
"So there was a point where I had to say `OK God, I've been trying it my way and nothing's working. What have You got planned for me?' After that, life got a lot easier."
Despite his success as a coach, Scolinos was the first to admit baseball is a very humbling game.
"You hang around this game long enough and it will drive you crazy," he once told me after a tough loss. "You work to get your best guys out there, teach them about all the plays, practice every day and you get in a game and that little white ball hits a pebble no one saw and bounces away and you lose the game. What do you do? Curse the pebble? How crazy is that?
"You have to keep a sense of humor about things like that. Otherwise, you'll go nuts."
Scolinos was a very sane man.
He also was a giving man. The Lord only knows how much money he gave away, oftentimes to strangers.
Once, after Cal Poly had won the 1976 NCAA Division II World Series in Springfield, Ill., the team stopped in St. Louis on the way back home. Scolinos decided to lead a group of about 20 players, coaches and sportswriters on a walking tour of downtown St. Louis. At one point, we passed a group of tattered young men leaning against a boarded-up building. John took a few steps, turned around, went back and handed each of them some folding money. It was so subtle I doubt most of the group even noticed it. That was John.
He also was a giving man in that every young man who joined his teams would stay on the teams. If you look at the Cal Poly baseball record book, every year under Scolinos there are several players who appeared in only three or four games, did not hit or pitch well and certainly did not play the game beyond their time at Poly.
But they were very much a part of the team, and Scolinos gave them as much practice time and attention as he did his star players. It was a generosity based on nothing other than John's humanity. No extra wins resulted from the practice, but you would certainly like to think it was a part of the man that netted him a great reward.
That reward has begun. Peace be with you, John.