Jerry Weinstein: The Best Baseball Coach I Ever Knew

When I was a kid, growing up in Sacramento, I went a couple of summers to a baseball day camp hosted at Sacramento City College. Designed for elementary school-aged children and led by the City College players, the camp let us focus on fundamentals, filming our batting stances, having us hit against pitching machines, and then showing us fine documentaries on baseball history at lunch. I was never a very good player (I look like I have my feet inside two buckets in the black-and-white photos we got of our batting stances) but I have positive memories from the camps. I also got to meet City College’s legendary coach, Jerry Weinstein.

At the time, Weinstein was in the midst of a remarkable 23-season run as City College’s coach. He guided his teams to an 831-208 record, 16 conference championships and one national title over the course of his tenure. He also helped develop a veritable assembly line of future Major Leaguers, including four-time All Star outfielder Greg Vaughn and former Atlanta Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser. Weinstein capped his career in Sacramento with the national title, in 1998, then left to take a job working with catchers in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

Our paths crossed again in 2003. I was a sophomore at Cal Poly and had just started covering the school’s baseball team when I learned that Weinstein coached the squad’s catchers and pitchers (he didn’t last long with the Dodgers.) We talked extensively on a feature story I did about Garrett Olson, a true freshman who had just cracked the starting rotation for Cal Poly and now pitches for the Seattle Mariners. Weinstein didn’t remember me from the camps, not that I blame him, though we hit it off. I told him how I had worked at an ice cream store in our neighborhood in Sacramento, and we talked at length about Bill Conlin, a sportswriter who spent over half a century at the Sacramento Bee. Weinstein chided me once for scribbling notes during an interview, telling me Conlin never wrote anything down.

Weinstein became my preferred quote among the Mustang coaching staff, much more talkative certainly than head coach Larry Lee, who was a fine manager but may as well have been deaf-mute. I even later advised a fellow writer to seek out Weinstein rather than Lee for a quote. The writer later came back laughing, saying that he and Weinstein had talked at length about Jewish ballplayers before getting to their interview. His story turned out great if I remember correctly.

Weinstein and I have both since moved on from Cal Poly. I graduated in 2005 and Weinstein now coaches the Class A team for the Colorado Rockies, the Modesto Nuts. I saw a story a few years ago that when the Rockies signed former All Star catcher Javy Lopez, who was attempting a comeback at the time, they “encouraged Lopez to visit Jerry Weinstein in San Luis Obispo, Calif.” The story made me smile, even if Lopez’s comeback didn’t work out.

Before they were famous: Garrett Olson

I started covering baseball my sophomore year of college at Cal Poly and the first series I attended, a freshman southpaw making his debut drew my attention.  Pitching long relief against Loyola Marymount, the hurler was a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable game.  Before long, he earned a spot in the starting rotation and eventually, he became a compensatory first-round major league draft pick following his junior season.

The pitcher’s name?  Garrett Olson.

Now don’t get me wrong, my alma mater is no USC or LSU, producing assembly lines of pro athletes.  But every so often, Cal Poly has sent someone to the pros, from former All Star baseball players Ozzie Smith and Mike Krukow to current Philadelphia Eagles starting linebacker Chris Gocong.   Olson is one of the more recent Cal Poly alums to reach the ranks.

He’s no All Star yet, already on his third team in three years, having gone from the Baltimore Orioles to the Chicago Cubs (for whom he never played) to the Seattle Mariners.  Still, he’s showing signs of improvement.  Olson’s earned run average has gone from a “Horrific, don’t tell anyone” 7.79 in his rookie year to a “We’ll just keep this between you and me” 6.65 last season to an “Almost there, buddy” 4.68 in the current campaign.  He started the season in Triple-A Tacoma but has forged his way into the Mariners’ starting rotation, going five innings against the Angels in a loss on Sunday (he got lit up.)  I hope he stays.

My vested interest is that I knew Olson before he was famous.  Besides covering him in the home series against LMU, I wrote a feature on Olson later that year.  He struck me as a nice, shy kid as we sat outside his red brick engineering dorm, talking about how he’d trained with a former pro pitcher growing up in Fresno.  I spoke to his catcher and one of his coaches, who both raved about him.  “He’s the same if he surrenders a three-run bomb or strikes out the side,” the catcher told me in essence.  The coach likened Olson, with his pinpoint control, to another major league pitcher he’d coached in college, former Orioles pitcher Matt Riley.

Early on, talk like this is cheap.  Every athlete seems to think they’re a solid prospect and their agents are even worse bullshitters.  But Olson legitimized the hype, at least by the end of his time at Cal Poly.  His final season, I watched him against visiting top dog Cal State Fullerton, dueling with another potential first round pick that year, Ricky Romero, who now pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays.  Former major leaguers Carney Lansford and Robin Ventura were both onhand at Baggett Stadium that night and both gave me their approval about the pitchers.

Olson still has a long way to go before he’s entrenched as a major leaguer.  I’ll be watching, though.