(Part II of our feature on Frosh/Soph/JV coaches)
Lots of sports fans demand definitive answers to bottom line questions. How come this athlete isn’t as good as he can be? Why isn’t our team winning? Or, if this coach is so great why isn’t he or she in Division I or the pros? Coaches can be as ambitious as any player, but the best ones find their niches and start teaching.
Antonio Juarez has been coaching baseball and football at Joliet Central for 29 years. He’s been Central’s sophomore baseball head coach for the past two seasons after stepping down as head coach. Three decades of work for any single employer is impressive, and Juarez could have moved on. What makes him stay? WillCountyBaseball.org sat down for breakfast with Juarez and talked about local sports, his career, and how he learned to be a coach.
WillCountyBaseball.org: We talked to Central’s varsity head coach Kevin Fitzgerald in April. One of the topics was building a baseball program. He mentioned you specifically as a cornerstone for Central’s program. How do you and Kevin work together to develop players for varsity competition?
Antonio Juarez: “We have meetings at the beginning of the year to discuss philosophies, pitching, defense, and offense. We talk about things like signs and terminology so kids have the same system all four years.
“I always put everything into one binder. When I was a head coach my assistant coaches used to call it the bible. As big as it was, as thick as it was; but it had everything. It had forms, different styles of practice plans. Here’s what we’re going to do with our hitting. How do we bunt? How do we slash? How do we take? How do we hit and run?
“For pitching, here’s what we want to do with our preseason work. Here’s what we want to do during the season with the running game. What’s our five-day plan? If the kid throws what’s he going to do on his days off? If he’s pitcher only we do more things. If he’s a position player/pitcher we’ve got to change because we have to protect the arm. What are we doing on base running with different situations?”
WillCountyBaseball.org: So did you create this from scratch, or how do you develop this type of manual?
Juarez: “I’m like everybody else. I steal from all the best. I’ve taken football manuals and tied them with my baseball manual. I had to consider the main topics that were being covered. Here’s what we’re doing with our parents. Here’s what we’re doing with our weight training program. Here’s what we’re doing with our summer program. So, I had different sections in there for what we were doing during the school year.
“I got the The Baseball Playbook by Ron Polk. I remember getting that one early on and designing the handbook from that.”
WillCountyBaseball.org: So you copied the format and included all your material?
Juarez: “Yes, and applied it to us.
“Even though I never played for or coached under Gordie Gillespie the vast majority of philosophy that I believe in are the things he taught. A lot of that is because Dale O’Connell was my varsity football coach at Central. I coached on his staff for three years. I watched and listened to him impart a lot of Gordieisms.
“I coached under John Randich who played for and coached with Gillespie. Almost all of our calls for baseball were the same things Randich was using which were the same things Gordie was using.”
WillCountyBaseball.org: How do you lay down the basics for young players before introducing more complex strategies? For instance, like Joe Maddon says, if he gets his guys to run hard to first base he can work on everything else from there. You seem to be talking about a way to think.
Juarez: “Respect 90 right? Yes, but you’re right there with the kids. They still have to be able to see where you’re going. I know a lot of kids don’t care about it. A lot of them just say, ‘Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.’
“But the ones who really grasp where you’re going they can see how everything ties together. That comes from the classroom. Those are the higher-level thinking skills you always try to teach your kids. Not just to memorize stuff, but I need you to be able to apply it. And understanding that, even if we don’t necessarily practice a situation, you can see how it will fit with everything else. Somebody always has to cover a base. There’s got to be a cutoff. There’s got to be a backup. It doesn’t change.
“We always talk about the Derek Jeter play in the World Series. There is nothing in any book that says the shortstop is supposed to be in that position, but he sees the play in front of him and is prepared to make that play.”
WillCountyBaseball.org: Some coaches talk about teaching their players as far as they can before letting them off the leash. For instance, a runner might round first on a hit to the gap. Does he look for the coach, or does he make up his own mind?
Juarez: “We’ve had that conversation with our baseball staff with Kevin. On a popup I used to yell out who should catch the ball. Kevin said they didn’t do that at Joliet West when he was there. I told him the difference is that the West kids have more baseball experience. Most of our guys play in March through May and they’re done. So, before I can let them off the leash I have to get them to that point.”
WillCountyBaseball.org: You’ve been a teacher at least as long as you’ve been a coach. How do you think your coaching benefits from your teaching?
Juarez: “It’s the psychology of teaching. We talk about these things with our coaches. We say we either teach it or we accept it. So when we come back in from practice and a coach says, ‘We taught that. They’re just not getting it.’ I have to say, ‘Then you didn’t teach it.’
“Some kids can hear something one time and they’re great. Some kids can hear it ten times and they’re fine. Some kids might need to hear it a thousand times. You have to know who can learn what, what rates they learn at, and how they learn. It’s different. Not everybody does the same thing. One person you can verbally teach. One kid might need to learn kinesthetically – you have to physically show them what they have to do. Our job as coaches is to teach, or there’s a ceiling on what they learn.”
Antonio Juarez is a 1982 Joliet Central graduate and he loves his alma mater. Ambition can be a virtue, but that’s a relative term to Juarez. His ambition is to carry on a legacy of teaching and coaching at Joliet Central, and any athlete lucky enough to play on the Steelmen sophomore roster will benefit as a player. More importantly he’ll benefit as a student and person.