MacDonald having a ball during ‘retirement’
July 9, 2009 · Updated 3:01 PM
Retirement is a loosely used word in Bob MacDonald’s vernacular.
The South Kitsap resident is spending the summer as the hitting coach for the short-season Everett AquaSox, a minor-league team affiliated with the Seattle Mariners.
“Would you call me a senior citizen?” MacDonald said. “I guess you would, but I don’t feel like it. I’ve got a lot of energy and I feel like I have stuff to give.”
MacDonald, 66, who coached the University of Washington’s baseball program from 1977-92, threw batting practice to the Mariners during spring training. He told Director of Minor League Operations Pedro Grifol he would be interested in performing some instructional work within the organization.
Grifol told MacDonald there weren’t any openings, but he would stay in contact.
And last month, MacDonald received “the call,” where he was told there was a “99.9 percent” chance there would be an opening in Everett.
Two days later, Grifol called with an offer.
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind for me,” said MacDonald, who still is adjusting to filing computer reports after each game. “I equate it with starting college as a freshman. The first week of school, one of your professors gives you a paper that’s due in a month or two. Then you go to another class with four books to read for the quarter. And then the third one gives you 200 pages of reading to do that night.
“It was a little overwhelming a first.”
MacDonald hasn’t managed since leaving Navy after the 2000 season, but has volunteered with the North Kitsap High School baseball program in addition to the West Coast Collegiate Baseball League’s Kitsap BlueJackets.
One former North Kitsap player MacDonald mentored was Jared Prince, who starred at Washington State University before being drafted last month by the Texas Rangers. Prince plays for the Rangers’ short-season affiliate in Spokane.
“If you need to know anything about baseball, Coach MacDonald is a great instructor,” Prince said. “When I was going through the recruiting process, I called him a few times and asked him what he heard about each school. He’s a great resource and a great person.”
Everett third baseman Hawkins Gebbers, a Brewster High graduate, was a 33rd-round selection by the Mariners last month. Gebbers, who had a .348 average in 46 at-bats, said MacDonald has been a valuable resource.
“Before Bob says anything, he does a lot of analysis,” he said. “You know he’s not just going off one swing. He said my swing is pretty fundamentally correct, so we’re working on timing and adjusting to faster speeds of pitching.”
Perhaps some of that unique perspective comes from developing as a pitcher. A Rhode Island native, MacDonald remembers his father driving him to a Little League tryout of about 400, and then leaving.
The coaches called for pitchers first and he saw half the crowd join that group. Another quarter followed when infielders were called. By the time catchers came around, MacDonald said there only were about a dozen kids left.
“I’d never caught before in my life,” he said. “But that’s how I got started.”
MacDonald credited those coaches for cultivating his interest in the game. He later moved to the mound when he threw a one-hitter with 13 strikeouts in a Little League playoff game as an 11-year-old. MacDonald also said he was the youngest pitcher to win an American Legion game in Rhode Island history, two years later in relief.
His family moved to Washington state — MacDonald’s mother was raised in Pasco — to be near his grandmother. He pitched at Queen Anne High and for the Cheney Studs, a youth team that included six-time major-league all-star Ron Cey.
But MacDonald said his playing career was derailed by a knee injury sustained when his cleat got caught in a warped pitching rubber at Seattle’s Hamlin Park. Years later, MacDonald learned that the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee had dissolved. Despite the injury, MacDonald still earned a scholarship to UW, where he lettered in 1962 and ’64.
He bristles when he sees modern players who aren’t as tough, and believes that’s because the modern athlete has “had everything handed to them.”
MacDonald’s players often hear about how toughness equates to success.
“When you get knocked on your butt, what do you do?” he asked. “You play the game in three places — right between your ears, in your heart and in your guts. If you’re playing with just two of them, you’ve reduced your chances by one-third.”
He has reminded players about that since he graduated with a degree in physical education and then helped guide Cleveland High, the smallest school in Seattle at the time, to a city championship. He then went out to Pullman to earn his master’s in education at Washington State, and was an assistant coach for Bobo Brayton from 1974-76.
“I enjoyed it over there and working for Bobo,” MacDonald said. “It was quite an experience to go to the College World Series.”
Later that summer, while coaching a summer-league team in Grand Junction, Colo., MacDonald was contacted by UW athletic director Mike Lude. He was offered the opportunity to lead a struggling program — the Huskies’ last winning record had been in 1966.
He took over a program that finished 7-27 in 1976 — and posted a winning record his second year.
“You have to turn things around mentally with the players and everyone,” MacDonald said. “I had to come in and be a stern taskmaster to start off.”
ACROSS THE MAP
MacDonald, who compiled a 422-322-7 overall record at UW, helped guide the Huskies to their first playoff appearance since 1959 when they advanced to the NCAA West Regional in ’92. UW beat Arizona and Fresno State, but lost against Pepperdine and Hawaii to be eliminated.
“We got the program on the map,” MacDonald said. “That was the high-water mark for the program at that point.”
MacDonald left UW after that season to take over Navy’s baseball program, where he compiled a 178-152-3 overall record in seven seasons. His family’s military background made the position appealing, but there was more to the move than that.
“We had a new athletic director, Barbara Hedges, and I really didn’t feel that comfortable with her,” he said. “Mike Lude was a great athletic director and I didn’t see things going the way I thought they should with her at the helm.”
Hedges since has left the university, but MacDonald didn’t care for the way his successor, Ken Knutson, was fired last week by athletic director Scott Woodward. MacDonald said if Woodward had wanted to fire Knutson, it should have occurred immediately after the season ended when UW was swept in three games by the rival Cougars.
He also said UW will struggle against its Northwest rivals — Oregon, Oregon State and WSU — because its facilities are lagging.
“If they’re going to compete, they have to have the facilities to draw the players,” he said. “They’re going to have to figure that out.”
MacDonald admits he didn’t know much about Kitsap County beyond periodic recruiting trips to the area. But he had some family friends near Belfair and decided to check out the area with retirement in mind.
“I loved it,” he said of his visit to McCormick Woods. “Look at the golf courses over here. And it’s quiet compared with Seattle.”
MacDonald bought a house looking over the second tee and has spent most of his time there — until now.
Instead of making the daily commute up north, MacDonald is spending the summer in Monroe — about a 20-minute commute to Everett Memorial Stadium — with retired Everett Herald sports columnist Larry Henry and his family.
One reason why MacDonald is excited to do that is because he likes the direction the organization is heading under new General Manager Jack Zduriencik. Seattle had a 43-40 record through Tuesday after finishing 61-101 last year.
“I feel like I still have a lot of baseball knowledge and I want to impart some of that,” he said. “I want to help some of the younger coaches out and teach the younger players the Mariner Way.”