Athletes honor coaches who made difference

first_imgYou hear a lot about San Pedro High football and baseball, but the truth is that from 1949 to 1965, no Pirate sports program was as consistently successful as gymnastics. Gymnastics may never have attracted the crowds or the headlines of other sports, but to those who competed during those years, there was nothing “minor” about it. Under the tutelage of John Balen, the Pirates dominated the Marine League in John Wooden-esque fashion, winning 13 titles and 67 consecutive dual meets. To honor “Coach,” now 84, a group of alumni, no spring chickens themselves, got together last weekend and presented him with his own tile at the San Pedro High Walk of Honor under the bleachers at Pirate Stadium. Among them were those who played for him in his fall role of Bee football coach. Balen is known by an entire different generation, mine specifically, as a P.E. teacher. I remember him as laid back and witty. Those were the days when a teacher could crack wise over the foibles of students without fear of being sued. He could bark, but he left most of the yelling to colleagues such as Bill Seixas and Mickey Teora. Seahawk central Balen wasn’t the only coach paid homage in recent weeks. There were even more examples of the positive impact sports can have on society at Harbor College’s inaugural Athletic Hall of Fame banquet at Simon’s Restaurant in San Pedro. It not only brought together some of the greatest athletes in Harbor Area history, it showcased how quality coaches can affect the lives of individuals and how those same individuals, working together as a team, develop a camaraderie that transcends race, ethnicity, social status and all the other artificial barriers that tend to divide us. And while the event was ostensibly to honor sports heroes, the most common theme of the night was family. There was the Harbor College family in general, with an outpouring of affection for coaches Floyd “Scrappy” Rhea, Jim White and Jim O’Brien, but beyond that, love for specific families. The honorees all paid tribute to wives, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren and even aunts. In introducing O’Brien, Tony Bloomfield, the former Seahawk now coaching baseball in Northern California, said that one of the many things he learned from his mentor is that winning is important, but what he really wants to do is mold his players into being great husbands and fathers. From those present, it appeared there were some quality role models for Harbor College athletes. The family theme was emphasized when Hall of Fame medallions were presented to the widow of John Montagne, a member of the 1956 state championship baseball team, and the son of the late Victor Prieto, a pitcher on the 1978 state title baseball team. O’Brien made sure to give proper recognition also to two nonathletes who were mainstays of the Seahawk sports family for decades, team managers Earl Webb and Gene Curtis. Webb, who started at Harbor College in 1957, died in 1994. Kenny Anderson, who played basketball at San Pedro High in the late ’60s, was there to accept the Hall of Fame medallion on behalf of his late brother, Dennis Johnson. And longtime San Pedro High teacher/coach Wayne Rhea accepted the medallion for his dad, who is now 86, noting the love and affection shown by his former football players. Scrappy, never too big on speechmaking, ended up at the lectern surrounded by his 1964 Seahawks and told the crowd he was flattered to be honored. Joe Morgan, World Series champion and Hall of Fame baseball player, was one of the last speakers. He prefaced his remarks on former Seahawk Enos Cabell by saying, “As I’ve gotten older, I realize the most important things in life are friends and family.” He then choked up when introducing his “best friend” from their years together with the Houston Astros. The only individual honoree unable to attend was the former Fermin Lasuen great, Haven Moses, who was a JC All-American under Rhea. A last-minute business engagement kept him in Denver. Athletic Director Larry Johnston, who doesn’t look much older than the students on his campus, said he was inspired to create the Hall of Fame as he walked around and saw all the pictures of former Seahawk greats. Even he couldn’t imagine, however, the overwhelming response the event would engender. More than 300 people, twice what he expected, attended. He has a tough act to follow. Steve Marconi, a lifetime resident of San Pedro, is a freelance journalist. He can be reached at [email protected] local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Balen was not someone to cross, however. He had an athlete’s build even then. Herman Moreno, who was on Balen’s 1951 gymnastics team, says, “The girls used to go goo-goo over him. He always stayed in good shape.” He’s a lot thinner now, and the dark hair has gone gray, but the hairline remains the same. Moreno, who put together the gathering with the help of Leon Callaway, another Balen student, admires Balen for being “very sincere, a wonderful person, like a father.” He also remembers the story about Balen taking some of Seixas’ favorite snack, dates, and replacing the pits with Ex-Lax. Some 20 former athletes, including one who came all the way from Las Vegas, showed up to honor their mentor, which tells you something of what they thought of him. In addition to the tile, he got a T-Shirt with his name on it and the words, “The Best.” That just about says it all. last_img read more