As a senior infielder at Santa Clara University in 1984, Mark Cummins had the privilege of playing most of his final games in front of his late father, Larry, who took the year off from coaching at Monterey Peninsula College.
Cummins felt it was “one of the most special things” a father could do. So much that he vowed to do the same for his sons if they played for a four-year college.
Always a man of his word, the legendary Live Oak manager will pass that tradition along next season with his second-oldest son, Matthew, completing his college career at San Francisco State University. Cummins’ break from coaching will be much longer than his father’s.
After 27 years, 450-plus wins, 22 Central Coast Section playoff appearances, 12 league titles and a CCS championship won with the Acorns in 2008, Cummins stepped down Thursday following Live Oak’s season-ending 3-1 loss at Leland.
Cummins, 49, announced his resignation Wednesday, though, players and assistant coaches were made aware of it at the team’s annual Alumni Game held April 23.
“It’s been in the thought process for a while now, at least a couple years,” said Cummins, who took over the Live Oak varsity program in 1986 after his second and final year with Santa Clara High School. “I wanted to get to 25 years (with Live Oak) … that quarter-century mark. That meant a little bit. Everything just kind of aligned this year with Matthew being a senior next year at San Francisco State and Kyle (Luscher, his stepson) graduating here.
“It’s been a long haul, 27 years raking fields on the weekends and coaching and all the little things. It’s a lot of time. I’d like to relax a little bit.”
Cummins’ semi-retirement — he is still the school’s athletic director and would like to coach the Live Oak boys golf team next year — put an end to speculation that has surrounded his future for some time. He was the Acorns’ longest tenured coach behind Mack Haines of the water polo and swim programs.
“We always kind of wondered, ‘Is this his last year?'” senior catcher/pitcher Cody Van Aken said. “But we were never really sure until he confirmed it. We just tried to win as much as we could for him.”
Live Oak finished 8-18 (5-16 in Mount Hamilton Division play) and missed the playoffs for the second time in 19 years — a rare blemish to one of the winningest baseball coaching careers in CCS history.
But it was never about winning to Cummins.
“The most rewarding part by far is just the relationships that you have with the players,” he said.” During the season, it’s one thing. But it’s even more gratifying when you see them later on in life, and you see them become so successful, and you think, ‘I hope I had a little of something to do with that.'”
Cummins reiterated that when asked if the Acorns’ 2008 CCS title, an elusive milestone he reached with Matthew starting at pitcher and shortstop as a senior, affected his decision to step down.
“The championships are nice and everything, especially after coming so close to winning CCS all those years,” Cummins said. “But the biggest thing was instilling those relationships. We’re coaching baseball, but we’re also coaching a lot of things in life.”
Players took heed to Cummins’ lessons, which centered on the team’s motto: pride, believe and respect. That “pride” covered every aspect of the game; whether it was legging out a lazy pop fly or making sure your home field and uniforms always looked their best.
Cummins led by example. The affable Monterey native was clean-shaven during the season and spent countless hours doubling as the head groundskeeper at Sarich Field.
“There was a level of accountability he instilled in you that I certainly carried over into my professional life,” said 1998 Live Oak alumnus Adam Ferguson, 31, an all-league shortstop-turned lawyer.
“My senior year, we had a really bad game, made a lot of errors, dropped pop flies, awful game. And after the game, we did infield and outfield practice until it was pitch dark. There was just that level of accountability. If you have a bad game, don’t complain about it. Work on it at practice.”
Cummins had an uncanny ability to balance hard work and fun, which made him easy for players to get along with.
“Playing for him has been the best part of these last four years. He taught me everything,” senior pitcher Rich Martinez said.
“When I was little, I just remember coming to games and watching with (Luscher) up near the scoreboard and thinking someday (I’m) going to play in these games, too, for Coach Cummins. I always looked forward to that.”
Cummins’ impression on Morgan Hill extended to Pony Baseball, which he coached in the summer for many years.
“I knew him as an icon even before I came here and became friends with him,” said 2003-10 Sobrato manager Shorty Gutierrez, now an assistant coach at Mission College under Mike Perez, Cummins’ predecessor. “To win so many league titles and be so involved with the school; I think he created a huge impact by just being involved and showing interest in the kids in every fashion — in the classroom, as the AD.
“He was the coach in Morgan Hill. His teams were always prepared and ready to play.”
A successor was determined in the past five years, with Cummins grooming C.J. Goularte, his 28-year-old pitching coach and a 2001 Live Oak graduate, to take over when Cummins decided it was time.
Goularte is not nervous about taking over.
“I have that anxious feeling of becoming a head coach,” Goularte said. “But Mark has prepared me for everything, has prepared me for this step. … He’s done so much in getting me ready to be a manger.
“It’s been a great experience. He’s a consummate mentor. He has given me the freedom to try new things — and actually knew the better way to do it, but he still let me figure it out on my own.”
Goularte took the lead in giving Cummins a proper going-away present at the Alumni Game. Goularte and several former players raised enough money to send Cummins on an all-expenses-paid first trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., for induction weekend in July.
“A guy who’s had a hall of fame career should deserve to go to the Hall of Fame,” Goularte said.