UPDATE: Nogales’ game scheduled today against Segerstrom for the Newport Elks Tournament title was cancelled because of rain and will be rescheduled at a date to be determined. This means coach John Romano will go for his 600th career victory at home on Tuesday against visiting Temple City at 3:15 p.m.
By Steve Ramirez
LA PUENTE — Nogales High School’s John Romano is the dean of East Valley baseball coaches, whose won more games than anyone in area history.
Today, he can catch another milestone with win No. 600 when his Nobles travel to Santa Ana to face Segerstrom for the Newport Elks Tournament Friday at 3 p.m.
Still, Romano wants to know what all the fuss is about.
“It’s a positive thing in my life,” said Romano, who is 599-318-9 in 36 seasons at Nogales. “But I think (this) milestone is not as great as everyone seems to think it is. This is just my opinion, but I think guys who win Southern Section titles, is a much greater feat than what I’ve done. I’ve been lucky No. 1 to have a good wife (Therese) and a son (Christopher, a student at Michigan State), a good family at home, good health, and I have longevity, so I’ve been able to accomplish numbers.
“I think winning a section title is a much more positive feat than this. But this is just a longevity thing. It’s not the last game I’m going to win, because I’m going to coach for one more year than I’m going to retire.”
Ironically, enough, Romano’s career almost ended almost before it started.
“There’s been two defining points in my career,” he said. “I get here and I think I know everything about baseball. I was mildly successful (at Yucca Valley) and I go 12-11, 12-10-1 and 11-11, and principal Tom Jackson, who was a really good guy, calls me and says, ‘Johnny boy, you’re a good kid, come from a good family, but you have to start winning some games, or start thinking about selling life insurance.’
“From that point on, (former player) Paul Togneri came on and got us over the hump and after that, it just took off.”
The second big moment came during a meeting with former Arcadia coach John Meiers.
“I sat down with (him) prior to that season,” Romano recalled. “He told me, ‘If you go about it this way instead of this way, you can be more successful.’ That was the turning point. Jackson put a little bit of fear in me of failure, which I didn’t have because I was just cruising along. For the rest of the 80s and 90s, it spiraled out of control.”
The Nobles success was not lost on the rest of the area, who credited Romano with getting the best out of the hand that he was dealt.
“John is a quality high school baseball coach,” said South Hills coach Kevin Smith, whose Huskies met the Nobles twice annually from 2003-2011 when they were both members of the San Antonio League. “He’s done more for his kids than anyone around. He doesn’t always have the top kids and seems to put an above average product on the field. Those kids play for him.
“I can’t say enough about him. He knows the game and he knows how to get the most out of kids. When you play Nogales, you better be ready to play, because you’re going to get your butt beat if you don’t.”
Nogales has had it’s share of top area players over the years. The list is led by former major leaguer Cecil Fielder. But the core group also includes Togneri, his first star; Mate Borgogno, who later was an All-American at Cal State Fullerton before coaching at La Habra High School, and Mike Ochoa, Ralph Gonzalez and Tony Garcia, who were standouts for the Nobles in recent years.
But it was Romano, who helped push this players to be their best and become a highly-competitive team.
“The players that have made this thing successful have been very unselfish,” Romano said. “It’s not about who is going to be the star, it’s about team first from the kid who is the bullpen catcher that day to the kid who is a pinch-runner. They had to be unselfish for us to be successful.”
Another key for Romano has been stability in his coaching staff, mainly top assistant Don Montanez, who has been part of the progress for 31 years, the first two as a player and the past 29 as an assistant.
“When you have one assistant that’s been here that long, it makes it easier for you,” Romano said. “You’re on the same page in a ball game, so there’s not too much you don’t see. It’s meant the world to me to have that comfort zone.”
It’s the same for Montanez, who couldn’t imagine being another where else other than being Romano’s right-hand man.
“We’re like brothers,” he said. “It’s not really about baseball, but our friendship, which started when I played here.
“He’s my best friend, other than my wife. He works hard and teaches this kids a lot of good values. He instills that in these kids, who go on to become productive human beings. Nothing comes free in life and they get that value from him.”
It’s the same for the 2013 Nobles, who could be one of Romano’s better units, which is coming off a Valle Vista League title and has won its first four games.
“They’ve been playing well,” Romano said of the group led by pitchers Erik Gonzalez and Adrian Guzman. “They take the game serious and their approach is positive.”
As does Romano, who with a chance to bask in the glory of becoming the second Valley coach to win 600 games (San Marino’s Mickey McNamee is the leader at 607), reflected it to fellow coach’s Rich Remkus at Gladstone and Smith at South Hills.
“You’re interviewing me about 600 games, but you could very easily be interviewing Remkus or Smith for winning 600 games,” he said. “Both of those guys chased their dreams and coached junior college for 5-7 years. If they had stayed, they are probably talking to you and not me.
“I just happen to stay at one place for a long period of time.”