In the 1980s, many were captivated by the Baltimore Orioles and their future Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken. Growing up in Essex and playing shortstop for Calvert Hall, Rich Bielski was one of them.
Now the coach at Archbishop McCarthy High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — and this year's USA Today National Baseball Coach of the Year — Bielski remembers a meeting with Ripken that helped shape his aproach to the game.
"I made the state all-star team, and our game was played in old Memorial Stadium after an Oriole game," said Bielski, now 44. "It was 1984 and the Orioles had won the World Series in 1983, and Cal was MVP. It was a great time to be an Orioles fan, and he came into our dugout and asked who the shortstop was.
"He sat down with me and we talked. I was so enthralled, I forgot to run out on the field for the next inning. The coach yelled, 'Hey Bielski, do you want to play baseball?' And I said, 'Oh, sorry, Cal, I've got to go.'"
Bielski committed an error that inning, but with it came a memorable lesson.
"He asked what I thought I had done wrong," Bielski said of Ripken, who was still in the dugout when he returned. "And I said something about throwing the ball too low, and he said, 'Actually, it was your footwork. If you don't have good footwork, you're going to make a bad throw.' Meeting and talking to him was a very memorable moment for me."
Bielski reflected on that story while talking about the important influences in his life last month.
This spring he was honored by USA Today after leading Archbishop McCarthy (29-3) to its second consecutive 4A Florida State Championship and the No. 1 national ranking in USA Today, Baseball America and Perfect Game USA.
"Being named coach of the year was a surprise," said Bielski, who has a career record of 300-99. "I don't know how it happened. But the previous season we won the state championship, too, so there was some recognition there and maybe this season built on it."
Before arriving at Archbishop McCarthy, Bielski coached Hialeah (Fla.) High School to state titles in 2001 and 2002. After that, he took seven years off from coaching to be with his family, which included three small children.
"Now, my kids are older," Bielski said, explaining his return to the game. "My son, Blade, is 15 and played junior varsity for us most of last season before moving up to varsity as a pinch runner for the playoffs. My daughter, Brianna, is 17, and Brooke is 11. Both girls also play sports. Brianna plays flag football and is a cheerleader, and Brooke is in competitive gymnastics."
Through the years, Bielski has developed a philosophy that he and his assistant coaches — former major leaguers Alex Fernandez (Florida Marlins and Chicago White Sox) and Nelson Santovenia (Montreal Expos, Kansas City Royals and White Sox) — try to instill in their players.
"I tell them, 'If you want to be a champion, you have to work like a champion all the time,'" he said. "Anyone can want it on game day. Anyone can try to win on championship day. But it's the players who work like champions in the offseason who become champions in the spring season. Game time is the fun time. It's your reward for working so hard in practice, and our practices are intense and tough.
"We've told them they can't win a state championship by themselves. The only way to do it is to do it together."
In 2010, Bielski had a perfect example of that on his team. He had a big-time player in Nick Castellanos, who was drafted in the first round and signed with the Detroit Tigers that year. But Castellanos couldn't win his team the title by himself.
"Other teams pitched around him, so the only way he was going to get a ring was if we all got a ring," Bielski said. "And we did. It's very gratifying to see kids continue to develop their baseball skills and learn life lessons, because they become productive citizens and family members. We really try to preach that this team is their second family and they have to look out for each other."
Growing up in Essex, Bielski learned the game from his father, Dick, who was a 30-year teacher and varsity baseball coach at Eastern Tech. The elder Bielski began teaching his son the game when he was an infant, telling his wife shortly after his birth, "he was born with a baseball bat in his hands."
By age six, Bielski was playing in the Middle River baseball program, and then the Essex Little League and eventually Johnny's Baseball Team, a nationally known amateur team that featured the best players from all over the country.
Longtime Calvert Hall coach Joe Bender remembers Bielski as a smart student and player who could "do it all."
"He didn't get recruited out of high school because we weren't ranked at the time," Bender said. "We were just beginning to get a little recognition. But he played good shortstop for us, hit the ball with power and could run. If he'd played here 10 years later, I think he would have been on the major league's draft list."
Bielski went to Harford Junior College to get some exposure. Harford qualified for the Junior College World Series, but at the time, Bielski said, the school had a rule that the team couldn't travel more than 200 miles from campus.
"So we didn't get to play, and the team, mostly freshman, all transferred after that season," he said.
Bielski then enrolled at Miami Dade North , a prominent junior college that Bucky Dent, Mickey Rivers and Steve Carlton attended.
Bielski made such an impression that he was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the January 1986 draft for junior college players and then, after not signing, by the New York Yankees in the regular June draft. He also received five college scholarship offers and chose to take a full-ride to the University of Georgia, where he got to play in the 1987 College World Series. .
Bielski got his degree in math education and found his way back to Florida.
"I kind of followed in my dad's footsteps," said Bielski, who is in his 23rd year of teaching honors geometry and algebra at Hialeah. "He's always been my inspiration. He taught me about baseball and life. I still hear his voice."
Of course, he also hears that voice because his parents come to Florida for three months during the baseball season and attend about 90 percent of his team's games.
"It's always nice to look over and see my dad," said Bielski, who is spending eight weeks this summer coaching the State Champs Baseball Camp at Archbishop McCarthy. "He knows all the players and follows them even in the minor leagues. I can't wait for him to come every year — even though he loves telling his grandchildren embarrassing stories about me."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun