‘A million sons’

By Doug Snover

Ron Davini’s favorite sport is baseball. That might seem obvious for a man who’s spent most of his childhood and his entire adult life on various fields of dreams throughout the United States and abroad.

Then again, after 34 years as a high school baseball coach, maybe it’s a fine testament to the game and the youth of the world to say that Ron Davini’s favorite sport is still baseball.

Davini, who recently turned 58, played on Arizona State University’s championship winning team in 1967, and was named Most Valuable Player in the College World Series. In his senior year at ASU, he signed with the Chicago White Sox. From 1969 through 1973, he taught high school and played professional baseball, reaching as high as Triple-A, one step below the major leagues.

When his playing days ended, Davini added coaching to his teaching career and never looked back. In 1993, Davini coached Corona to its first--and, so far, only--state baseball championship.

Though he’s retiring as head coach of the Corona del Sol High School baseball team, Davini is not taking any time off from his favorite sport. His new full-time job is executive director of the National High School Baseball Coaches Association.

He’ll be working out of his house most days, “spreading the word” to high school coaches across the country through the NHSBCA, but it’s a good bet Davini will show his easily recognizable face at high school diamonds around Arizona.

“It’s time to move on. I have a new challenge,” Davini said of his decision to retire from teaching physical education as well as coaching at Corona.

One of his goals is to fortify membership in NHSBCA by letting other high school coaches feel like they have some ownership in the organization.

There are approximately 13,000 high school baseball coaches in the United States, according to Davini.

However, not many have his credentials:

Thirty-four years as a high school coach (28 years at Corona and six before that at McClintock High);

A place in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., from his days as a catcher on the 1967 Arizona State University National Championship team;

One of the organizers of the Arizona Coaches Association;

Past president of the National Baseball Coaches Association;

Former head coach of the 1996 Junior National team that won a bronze medal in Cuba;

Coach of USA Baseball’s 2003 Youth National Team that won a gold medal in Taiwan;

Coordinator of baseball clinics in Russia for three summers in the early 1990s;

USA National Amateur Baseball Coach of the Year in 1997;

Inducted into the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame and Arizona Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2001.

Recalling the past

Along the way, Davini coached Corona teams to an overall record of 410 wins, 352 losses and six ties. His 2005 Corona team won the Corona del Sol Varsity Baseball Program’s 400th game with a 7-5 win over powerhouse Hamilton High School, but lost in the regional tournament to Kyrene Corridor rival Marcos de Niza to end the season.

Davini began cleaning out his office more than a week before his official “last day” of May 27. It turned out to be more than a one-day job to remove nearly three decades of memories and memorabilia.

Sitting at his desk in the dank cinderblock athletic office (where instead of offering a panoramic view of the Corona campus, the huge picture window looks out over the boys locker room), Davini reflected on the way high school baseball has changed since he started Corona’s baseball program in 1977.

One obvious difference is the universal use of aluminum bats instead of traditional wood variety.

Davini understands better than most the practicalities of using metal bats, although he admits he prefers the traditional wood bat.

“I like the sound of wood, yeah. That ping (of aluminum bats) always gets to you. But you learn to live with it. School budgets just cannot afford wood.”

Davini said he’s seen only one aluminum bat break in half--at a game this season against Marcos. Wood bats, especially those lower grades sold to non-professional players, can splinter easily, he said.

The best quality wood is reserved for professionals, he said. “Anything after that is balsa wood and tinder. When I was a kid, you’d buy a wood bat for 10-15 bucks. Now you buy a wood bat for 40-50 bucks, and in one swing it could be broken.”

“I’m a purist. I’d like to see wood. But I’m very practical. You can’t afford it. You just cannot afford it. You can buy an aluminum bat that last two-three years. With a wood bat, you just can’t get good-enough wood.”

Kids have changed, too

The boys swinging those bats have changed, too, Davini said.

“I think the kids are getting bigger and stronger. So much more mature nowadays. But still, kids are kids, though. Coaching kids on the national level with USA Baseball, where you deal with kids who are 15-16 and the premier players in the country who look like man-childs--6’5” 220--but you start talking to them and they still act like a 15 or 16 year old. They still have that youngster in them.”

“The downside of it, I would say, is that kids are not as dedicated to it as they were in the past. When I was a kid, we used to play a lot. Now they just go out and hire themselves a hitting coach or trainer or pitching specialist, where we used to just play.”

“Some have very good attitude. Then there are others who just want to put in their time and be part of a team,” he said.

Still other players are self-centered, putting themselves ahead of the team, which is something Davini won’t tolerate. He preaches teamwork to his Corona players throughout the season.

Davini has first-hand experience on the controversy of whether some high-school age players are burning themselves out by playing baseball year round.

Finally, some advice

“I think kids should play multiple sports. I think they should come out as a freshman and try all the sports they can.

“As a sophomore, if they’ve been successful with a couple of sports, stick with them,” he said.

“But not every kid’s interested in doing it (playing different sports in different seasons). You can’t force kids to do it.”

Davini said he supports kids playing year-round baseball only “if you do it in the right amount in the sense of you have fun when you’re doing it. That’s what we forget nowadays is just having fun.”

One of the challenges of the NHSBCA will be to promote a national standard for how many innings per week a young pitcher can pitch, he said.

Davini especially enjoys spreading the word about high school baseball outside the United States. He fondly remembers those three trips to Russia in the 1990s. Hundreds of Russian youths turned out for their first real exposure to the American pastime, so many that some had to be reluctantly turned away.

“We took along 10 or 12 kids to play and also to do clinics for the kids over there. It was great. We didn’t live in hotels. We lived with families. You can’t put into words the fun we had and the pleasure we got from teaching.”

Davini predicted that the Russians will absorb the baseball techniques and theories that he taught, and then improve upon them much as they did when they first learned the sport of basketball.

“That country has really improved in baseball. They’re now qualifying for some of the world tournaments,” he said.

“When you teach them something, they work it and they perfect it.”

So who were the greatest influences on Davini? Coaches, of course.

Davini rattles off a number of names, including Karl Kiefer, Arizona’s all-time-winningest high school football coach, and Bobby Winkles, Davini’s baseball coach at ASU.

“The question is why? Because they were professionals,” Davini explains. “They were mentors of the way it should be done. They were organized and fair. And the biggest thing is they were there for kids.”

Ironically, Davini has no son of his own to have coached during his illustrious career. Not even a grandson. He is married to Dr. Patty Vogel, who works in the TUHSD District Office. He has a daughter Cindy and granddaughter Sarandan.

Or, as Davini puts it, “I have a million sons, and only one daughter.”