Veteran Big Leaguer Takes Helm At Don Bosco

In a career that spanned 19 seasons and included 1,178 games, Mike Stanton became accustomed to tossing the ball to one of the many managers he played for upon leaving the mound.

Now, as the first-year head coach for Don Bosco Prep, a traditional New Jersey power, the former lefthanded set-up man with three World Series rings, has changed roles.

"I'm getting used to going out there (to the mound)," said Stanton, who took over for Greg Butler in the fall. "Baseball is baseball. I was pretty familiar with the program here. Last year I was with the freshman team and I was able to hang out with these guys during some of the (state) tournament games. I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into as far as what was expected of us."

Butler took over the Don Bosco program in 2008 and led the team to a 33-0 record and the NJSIAA Non-Public A title. Don Bosco was 26-5 in 2009, extending its in-state winning streak to 57 games before falling in the state sectional semifinals to St. Joseph of Montvale. Butler had to step down due to a position he accepted as athletic director at another high school in the state.

This spring Stanton has Don Bosco poised to make another long postseason run. The Ramsey school is 18-3 and is blessed with pitcher/first baseman Eric Stevens, who is headed to Boston College next season. Stevens is the latest Division I recruit to come out of this parochial powerhouse.

"I didn't think about coaching high school, but I did figure that coaching was going to be in my future somewhere down the road," Stanton said. "I didn't know at what level, but when baseball's in your blood, you have to figure out a way to stay around it.

"Being around the freshmen last year, I was able to slow the game down a little. I expect a lot from them, but I also have to remember that we're dealing with teenagers. It's pretty much what I expected as far as the baseball side of it is concerned. There have been a lot of growing pains with stuff that goes on off the field, but I have a great coaching staff that has really helped with the transition."

One of his assistant's is Jim Wladyka, who pitched in the minors for the Mets and Royals before retiring last year. Wladyka handles the scouting and the college recruiting. He is the son of former Ramapo College coach Joe Wladyka.Stanton was a position player when he graduated from Midland (Texas) High in 1985. Drafted out of Alvin (Texas) Community College in 1987 in the 13th round by the Braves, Stanton pitched 19 years in the majors, finishing with a 68-63, 3.92 mark and 84 saves. At his best he was the perfect set-up man for the likes of Mariano Rivera. He pitched in six World Series with the Braves and Yankees. He started just one game in his career.

Returning The Favor

At 42 he views coaching at Don Bosco as a great opportunity to teach and give something back, plus he gets to coach his son, Cameron, a sophomore who is a righthander and outfielder.

"They know who I am and what I've done," Stanton said. "They ask questions here and there, but I don't just throw out what I've done. We're not here to promote me. We're here to make these guys better ballplayers and better young men."

Although the nuances of pitching are obviously Stanton's strength, he also presides over a team that can bash the ball. Don Bosco has scored in double figures eight times this season.

"I pitched for all those years," he said, "but I was a position player long before I pitched. I had pretty good coaching when I was young. I always considered myself a student of the game. I was always listening to what the coaches were saying, not just the pitchers, but the hitters. If it ever came up, whether it was one of my own children or as a natural coach, I would have an idea what I was trying to do. I think I have adapted okay."

Still, Stanton admits to feeling the pressure that coaches of successful programs go through.

"When you're a head baseball coach at the high school level, it's not just for the varsity team," he noted. "You're over the JV and the freshmen. It's a full-time job. Sometimes it's a job that's not the most fun job. But when you see the kids' faces after they've played a good ballgame or had a good hit and you might have had something to do with it. That's what it's all about." "One of the things we preach is teamwork, and being for the team. That's always been my approach to put the team first, especially being the offensive linemen of baseball. While I was in New York, my job was to protect Mariano.

Staying Home

Stanton never "officially" retired. He last pitched for the Reds, his eighth team, in 2007, appearing in 69 games. Like so many baseball fathers, he missed seeing his own kids play. That was a factor in why he took the Don Bosco position.

"I've been on the road so much," he said. "Then I started going to see my son play. It kind of turned into me hanging around every day and they ended up giving me a uniform. But I've always had a passion of working with kids.

"I expect a lot out of the kids. To me, the way I look at it, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't. I'm going to be firm, I'm going to be fair and we're going to have fun. It's not all just about winning. It's about promoting the sport and its' about getting these guys ready for later in life. I'm not here to just make better ballplayers. I'm here to make better young men. We just use baseball as the avenue to do that."

Stanton has emphasized the fundamentals. Before he takes his position in the first base coach's box during games, he hits fungoes and runs the infield drills.

"We want to make sure we teach all aspects of the game, bunting, hitting and running, Stanton remarked. "I don't think that's taught that much in the amateur ranks anymore. I want to develop baseball players, not just hitters. A baseball player has to be well-rounded.

"These kids are very focused. They know what they want in life. They have their ducks in a row without any of my help. All I have to do is not screw it up."

Everett Merrill is a freelance writer based in North Plainfield, N.J.