Volume 76, Number 15 | August 30 -September 5, 2006

Sports

Left to right: David McWater, Jonathan Gonzalez and Ron Fulco

L.E.S. Gauchos corral former pro players as coaches

By Judith Stiles

When Jonathan Gonzalez was 4 years old, he picked up a pencil and wrote with his right hand, which indicated he would be a righty in baseball. However, soon after that, he grabbed a bat and a ball and hit lefty over and over again. By age 10, he began to throw a mean fastball with his right hand, and fortunately evaded the strict teachers in his school who might have made him choose one hand or the other. His godfather, Ron Fulco, a legendary fast-pitch softball player himself, had the baseball smarts to back off and let the kid play ball in his own way. By the time Jonathan joined the Lower East Side Gauchos baseball program, he was fortunate enough to hook up with coach David McWater, who understood the importance of allowing players to develop their own style.

McWater, a longtime Lower East Side resident and community leader and current chairperson of Community Board 3, founded the L.E.S. Gauchos baseball program shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. In the Gauchos mission statement it describes the Lower East Side as a “historically working-class neighborhood with many of our players coming from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.” Besides creating a program with first-rate former professional players as coaches and trainers, “the program teaches the young men how to ‘think’ like a baseball player, not just how to do it,” adds McWater.

These young men are taught strategies within the game of baseball that leave them well prepared for the curve balls life will throw them as they grow up. What sets the league apart from other Little League organizations is that the coaches are not dads with a hankering to soak up a summer of baseball by coaching their kids. Instead they are top-level former pro players, such as Frankie Rodiguez, who pitched for the Minnesota Twins — leading their staff with 13 wins in 1996 — the Seattle Mariners and the Cincinnati Reds, as well as Oreste Marrero from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, who was the starting first baseman for the Montreal Expos under manager Felipe Alou and had a long career in the minor leagues and overseas in Taiwan, hitting 278 home runs, 277 of them in the minor leagues.

“Watching Frankie and Oreste coach is like magic,” says McWater in awe of how they handle the ball. “It is hard to describe how they catch a ball because it happens so fast. The ball touches the heel of their glove and bounces into their throwing hand like lightning. It is amazing to watch.”

The knowledge these coaches have gained from playing in the big leagues cannot be quantified into a set of written instructions for other Little League coaches because it is largely an intuitive process that can only be taught by example. This has given the young players in the Gauchos an extraordinary leg up in the highly competitive world of precollege or preprofessional baseball.

The coaches, including Fulco, as well as John Manuel-Sanchez, who worked for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago White Sox, have created a “culture of baseball” on the Lower East Side for 65-plus kids ages 13 to 18.

Because the teams are privately funded, albeit on a shoestring budget, these city players get a chance to travel to college showcases and tournaments in areas of the country that are vastly different from the Lower East Side. The program also offers SAT prep classes for free, which — sometimes costing over $1,500 dollars — are too expensive for many teenagers, and can potentially raise a score 100 points. Unlike other area Little League programs, the Gauchos play up to 80 games a season, sometimes six to seven games a week, and they love every minute of it.

McWater and the other coaches hope to expand the program to include a facility with indoor batting cages and classrooms for academic and baseball education, as well as a centralized youth program where baseball can move indoors in the winter months.

This idea was inspired by the baseball town of Waxahachie, Tex., where in 1915 a baseball culture sprang up when Ty Cobb came to town. By 1925, five Major League players came out of this so called “high school baseball capital of the world.”

In New York City’s blossoming youth baseball culture, Jonathan Gonzalez of the Gauchos is now a highly scouted star pitcher, along with lefty pitcher Nelson Jiminez and Andrew Pena, a freshman at La Salle Academy. But the L.E.S. Gauchos are not for superstars only. There is a recreational division for anyone who wants to play baseball, because the way McWater sees it, “If they’re from the neighborhood and care enough to show up, well, we’ll put them on a team.”

In fact, the L.E.S. Gauchos welcome new players into the league, even youngsters who are taking their first steps into baseball land. All players at every level are given a chance to work with the expert coaches, including Burt Beagle, who boasts having coached over 200 players who have gone on to play professional baseball. But more important, the Gauchos coaches are mentors to these young men, and they have done their best to level the playing field for kids growing up on the Lower East Side.

For more information on the league and to become a sponsor, e-mail dmcwater@aol.com.

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