Inside Pitch: Most people in baseball are aware of the rich history of baseball in Orange County (Calif.). What has your experience been with that?
Benji Medure: It actually took a trip across the country—going to North Carolina for the National High School Invitational was incredible. Everyone had good players, but it’s that third or fourth game of the week that I think separates us from the pack. After all, we won the championship game in that tournament all the way across the country, and we played JSerra, who is fewer than 30 miles from us, in the final.
By day three in our league, you better have a guy, you better have a couple of guys, especially one in the bullpen, to get you through that game. That’s what it is—it’s the top-to-bottom talent that Orange County has that really sets us apart from anyone else.
IP: Who was your biggest influence from the baseball coaching side?
BM: My high school coach, Rich Graves, who is in the Riverside Sports Hall of Fame. I think he was worried about me, maybe thought I was headed down the wrong path, and he asked me to coach his freshman team with him.
I wasn’t a starter in high school. I was on the bench, and I remember going up to him in the middle of a game, and I said, “Hey, our shortstop should be in the five/six hole right here. This guy’s a pull hitter.”
I don't even know why I said that— I was scared to death of him. And the very next pitch, the kid hit a ball through the five/six hole. He said, “How about you come sit next to me?” I sat next to him the rest of the year, and he didn’t really ask me my opinion as much, but we developed a bond and next thing you knew, I was working for him. I really wasn’t good, and I really didn’t have a baseball mind, but I just went with it.
IP: How do you address the mental side of the game?
BM: We’re big on reset; 10 to 15 seconds to clear your short-term memory. We encourage our players to do that. We find a marker on the field, a reset marker with our eyes, just very simple techniques. You put your helmet away, you put your batting gloves back in your helmet, and whether it was a strikeout or a home run, that’s it—you’re done with that part and you’ve got to move on. Once you pick up your hat and glove, you’ve got to move on to the next thing that you’ve got to do.
As soon as you get on base and signal the number of outs to the coaches, you’ve moved on to your baserunning. You’ve forgotten about the single that you just hit, or the scoring decision on the error you just reached on. It’s always about the next pitch.
We talk about present, past and future, and just getting them to understand. We have “real life” Wednesdays, and we just talk about a lot of real life things, and how to cope with it. I think the more life skills that we teach these boys, the less they feel like it’s life or death in the game.
IP: How do you implement new things into a program that’s already firing on all cylinders?
BM: I’m a huge trial-and-error guy, but I steal a lot. I think every good coach does. The beauty of coaching in this area is that there are some brilliant coaches around here that I respect, and for lack of a better phrase, I steal their ideas. I see that, and I’m like, “Ooh, I like that. I'm going to use that.”
I watch a lot of college baseball and a ton of football. I’m a big fan of the Harbaugh family. I think that comes from my dad and me—watching the Harbaugh family and their father Jack, stealing their ideas of teamwork and culture. I use all of that. I'm a thief! But I think any good coach is always looking for something new that will help their team and drive their culture, and I’m no different.
IP: What are your practices like?
BM: I was a football guy. I played in high school and coached football for 14 years, and those guys were unbelievable practice-planners. It wasn’t ever the same; it was always a build, scaffolded up from a small drill that led to a bigger drill and eventually a well-oiled machine. Everything was connected. And my dad was a football coach and a teacher, so I was really able to hit the ground running when I got the opportunity to be a head coach, even though it was a different sport.
It takes me about an hour and a half or two hours to write my practice plan, which is broken into five-minute increments. I have a timer on my belt and I have a whistle, so it’s a combination of a football practice and a baseball practice. No one is standing around, there’s always movement, there’s always something going on from every position.
I think that got our program to the next level, when I really started to hone in on our practice plans. The X's and O's, getting the kids to buy into the intensity of the practice, doing everything with the intent of perfection, and even though you’re not getting there, you’re trying to do things exactly right. That comes from leadership, from our seniors, our former players that come back and practice with us—some of whom are big-time pro prospects, and they’re doing it the same way we taught our current players to do it. It’s this trickle-down effect from all these guys who have done it before, and what an awesome thing to see every day.
IP: Talk a little more about the influence your father had on your career…
BM: He was a longtime assistant coach in high school football, and he coached my Pop Warner team on the side. We would sit there and draw up plays, and his mind was incredible when it came to knowing what defenses we were going to do. His ability to read defenses and call plays to exploit them was uncanny, and I just wanted to understand so we could have a conversation about it. He was the guy up in the booth with the headset, so I would sit right next to him and try to figure out what he was talking about. It’s where coaching got into my blood, for sure!
I’ll call things out in the dugout just like an offensive coordinator, and sometimes I get it right. Kids are amazed but I just tell them, “Listen, I’m right 10 percent of the time, I’m just talking 100 percent of the time!” I feel my dad’s spirit in me when I am able to see and do things like that, because I remember hearing that at such a young age, hearing his voice calling things out before it happened. I get the chills talking about it, because it really is important.
IP: How has raising a family of your own helped you “raise” your baseball family at Huntington Beach?
BM: When I first started coaching, I was just a hardass, and I wasn’t going to show any of my players that I even liked them, let alone loved them. That was so counterproductive. It’s crazy how kids of your own can change your mentality with that. Two of my former players are assistant coaches and they give it to me all the time, “Oh man, this never would’ve happened 15 years ago. You were never this nice.” Everyone from the old days says that I have softened, and I have, and I'm glad that I have.
I’m a totally different coach because I’m a totally different person. That’s a testament to my wife, who changed me in a very good way. She made me realize what’s important and what I should be striving for without taking away my baseball spirit or my competitiveness. She just pointed me in the right direction. The commitment part, just being committed every day to your spouse, and understanding what that takes, the discipline that takes, it changed me. It changed my attitude, it changed my work ethic. It changed everything.
Of course, having four girls has definitely softened me. I cry a little bit more in team meetings. I never would've done that before. I tell my players I love them almost daily, because that’s what I’m doing at home. I’m not trying to put up a façade anymore, and to be honest, it’s a better way of coaching. It gives me more pleasure and it builds a stronger connection with my players.
IP: Do you feel like a finished product in that regard?
BM: I'm definitely still working on it. I was so desperate to get the program going at the beginning that it was just more about wins, about trying to keep my job. I had to win, and we weren’t winning. It wasn’t until my dad died on the first day of school in my fourth year.
I got that call and I eventually had to meet with the team, and since it was my fourth year, everyone in the room had been with me for the duration of their high school careers. Collin Balester, who pitched in the big leagues, was a senior that year. Hank Conger was a sophomore, and he caught in the big leagues. We obviously had some top-end talent, but I was going to be done. It was just me, just trying to succeed and set the bar.
I told them without even my voice cracking, “Hey, my dad passed away today. I've got to go take care of some things. When I get back, we’re going to start, and I want you to be ready for this, because this is my last year if we don’t win. If we don’t win this year, I’m done. I’m going to resign— I’m obviously not the person for you.”
Luckily we had great success that year, thanks to the talent of the team, but I think that season was the first time when I made a connection with my players. I’m still very close to that particular senior class to this day. There was a ton of emotion that I was carrying around from my dad passing away, and I needed the team. I had to be close to them, I had to show emotion, I had to crack. I felt all alone, and it was one of those things where it turned a lot around for me as a coach.
From that day, I think I’ve been more loving towards players and more process-oriented. Now HB is a factory to get guys to the next level, a stepping stone very similar to junior college.