CARY, N.C.—For 25 years, John Savage called every pitch of every game that he coached at the collegiate level.
From his days as a pitching coach at Nevada and Southern California to being a head coach at UC Irvine and UCLA, Savage has been tuned in to each count in each at-bat with incredible attention to detail.
But this summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, pitch-calling was not one of Savage’s duties as manager. Rather, Troy Buckley (Long Beach State head coach) took the reins with the pitchers.
“It was fun, it was like relief,” Savage said with a laugh. “You can actually enjoy the game a little bit.”
The ability to delegate that duty is just one of the many luxuries Savage has with the Collegiate National Team, and the elite coaching staff he assembled. When USA Baseball tabbed him as manager back in December, Savage chose to stay local, and scoured the West Coast to assemble his staff.
Buckley, Rick Vanderhook (Cal State Fullerton head coach), Larry Lee (Cal Poly head coach), Seth Moir (UCLA assistant), Dave Snow (former Long Beach head coach) and Drew Linder (Florida State student manager) round out the staff.
Savage didn’t have to leave the state of California to find a roster of qualified coaches. Buckley, Vanderhook and Lee have helped build their respective teams into perennial postseason contenders, while Snow—who’s been retired since 2001—has coached with USA Baseball on four separate occasions.
More important than records and accolades, however, is the established relationship the coaches had prior to their arrival in North Carolina in early June.
“You only have a short period of time, you’re going to be traveling a lot, you want to know the guys that you’re with,” Buckley said. “If we’re having four different coaches from four different areas, it doesn’t mean we won’t win or do well, it just means by the time this things over, we start to get to know each other. Well, that’s already occurred with our history of playing each other.”
Buckley now finds himself in the same dugout as Vanderhook, a coach who just 10 days before the beginning of the CNT season, he was trying to beat in the Long Beach Super Regional. Buckley and Vanderhook—as well as Larry Lee—all call the Big West Conference home, and spend each spring attempting to outdo each other. Now with the CNT, the coaches are tasked with working together, and developing a winning strategy.
“The bottom line is you’ve got to separate it, and when you’re competing, hey they want to beat us and we want to beat them. But as far as the competition is over, they’re just a lot of respect—and we’re friends,” Buckley said. “We respect how we do things, how we run our programs, the history of our programs. So none of that ever bleeds into the lack of camaraderie.”
With the Collegiate National Team, each coach finds himself back in their niche coaching role; Buckley as a pitching coach, Vanderhook as a third base coach and Lee as a first base coach. Each has found some sort of pleasure in spending a few weeks as an assistant again, as opposed to being the man running the show.
“I haven’t coached third in 10 years. It’s kind of getting fun again,” Vanderhook said. “But it’s a lot of standing. Your feet get sore. Larry and I are ready to go home and rest our feet by the time we get back. It’s been fun, you’ve only got to focus on one thing.”
Buckley has relished his opportunity to be a true pitching coach again, especially given the fact that he has some of the nation’s best arms at his disposal.
“It starts with trust, it starts with figuring out what they do well, it starts with if they want some information to make some adjustments, then I’m happy to give it,” Buckley said. “Competing and being present every single time we’re out there. It’s awesome being an assistant coach again, because I actually get to coach. I’m a real pitching coach right now, and I am having a blast with it. I hope it’s been good for them as well.”
Buckley has been able to pick up on some pitching tricks from Savage, some defensive positioning strategies from Vanderhook, and he’s been able to tap into the vast resource of knowledge that Snow offers. Vanderhook added that by the end of the summer, he’ll sit down and take what he’s learned from other coaches with the CNT and use it to help re-tool his own team back at Fullerton.
Lee claims to have the best seat on the bus rides to and from games: behind Savage, diagonal from Buckley with Vanderhook across from him.
“I listen to a lot of the conversations that Coach Savage and Buckley have about pitching. They’re two of the best, and as a coach you’re always trying to get better,” Lee said. “The game is so vast, and there’s a game within the game. Just trying to get a nugget here and there.”
Buckley added, “We’re learning a ton. There’s some stuff we’re going to steal in a good way, to be able to re-program our team and make our program better.”
They’ll have the chance to see what their now-colleagues, soon-to-be rivals again have added to their coaching philosophies come next spring, when they all return back to their respective dugouts in the southwest.
“It’s a small fraternity,” Vanderhook said. “We’re just from one little pocket.”