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Corky : Former Tucson High star steps down as baseball coach at UNM

Rich Alday ended his college baseball coaching career the same way he started it.

Nothing but class.

The Tucson native, former star athlete at Tucson High School and the first baseball coach in the history of Pima Community College, has stepped down after 18 seasons as head coach at the University of New Mexico.

All told, his coaching career at the two schools covered 35 years, and at both places he made something out of nothing.

“I’ve been blessed and I have nothing but great memories,” Alday said.

He enrolled at Arizona after Tucson High, but transferred to Emporia State in Kansas, where he graduated.

The dull commercial liturgies of modern intercollegiate athletics – about going in “different directions” – bounce off this man’s character like sunflower seeds on the concrete floor of a dugout.

He is one of those happy warriors who has enriched college baseball with a reverence unmatched in any other sport – and undeserved, frankly, in the NCAA.

The governing body would like nothing better than to see the college game go off somewhere and die a quiet death. It hands out 11.78 scholarships with the same warm enthusiasm Ebenezer Scrooge dispersed Christmas bonuses. It allows schools in the cold country of the North and East to shut down programs in the sunbelt until it’s warm enough for everybody to start at the same time.

The NCAA barely tolerates the national pastime.

But in spite of that, college baseball has more than its share of incredibly gifted coaches, dedicated, hard-working men who develop the kind of talent that holds professional organizations together.

One of them is Rich Alday.

The first to call was Jim Wing, his junior varsity coach at Tucson High School and the man he played for in American Legion ball in the summertime. Wing wanted Rich to know “I’m proud of you and I’m proud to have you as a friend.”

Said Alday: “Winger was a mentor to me, an unselfish man who gave so much to the game and to the kids who played it.”

Mike Gillespie, the retired Southern California coach, also called. So did Al Ferrer, former head coach at the University of California-Santa Barbara. And Gene McArtor, the ex-Missouri coach.

“I’ve had a lot of e-mails and phone calls,” Alday said. “I’m honored that so many people I’ve always looked up to cared enough to get in touch.”

He’ll miss the players most. Watching them develop their skills, grow as young men and go off to better teams and brighter futures has been the joy of his baseball life.

Rich, first and always a Tucsonan, followed the Arizona Wildcats softball team through the championship game of the Women’s College World Series, cheering like any other fan.

“You know Cyndi Duran’s father, Armando, played for me at Pima in ’81,” Alday said. Cyndi was a junior outfielder this season on Mike Candrea’s Wildcats team.

“Seeing your guys become successful as parents and in business and professions is a thrill like you wouldn’t believe,” Alday said.

He’s done OK at player development, too.

“At New Mexico we had Scott Strickland, who was up for a while with the Mets,” Alday said. “Jamie Villmeryea, a right-handed pitcher from Sabino High in Tucson, went back and forth from Triple-A to the Toronto Bluejays.

And we had Jimmy Cerano, another right-handed pitcher, who was with the Expos and Royals.”

Oh sure, there were “bumps in the road,” as Rich put it. But, hey, that’s baseball.

In his first season at New Mexico, Rich coached the Lobos to their greatest one-season turnaround in school history. They finished 25-31 in 1990, representing a 15-game improvement over the previous year. And in the final week of the season, New Mexico, picked to finish at the bottom of the Western Athletic Conference, still had a shot at qualifying for the WAC tournament.

He won more than 500 games at New Mexico and, combined with his victories at Pima College, more than 1,000 in his career.

At Pima, his Aztecs won five state championships (Arizona Community College Athletic Conference) and went to three Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colo.

The first five years at Pima, the team didn’t even have a ballfield. “We played at city parks and various places,” he said. “It was tough but I had great assistant coaches and great kids playing for me.”

Before he went to Albuquerque, New Mexico had decided at one point to shut down its baseball program. “But the alumni stepped in and said, ‘You can’t do that,’ ” Alday said.

Two years later, he arrived and built a competitive program.

Alday will be reassigned at UNM, probably in game management or some other important phase of athletics. Norma, his wife, is art director and a teacher at Sunset Mesa, a private New Mexico school for kindergarten through fifth grade.

He plans to stay at UNM for a couple of years, qualifying him for retirement with 20 years.

And then?

“Eventually we think we’ll come back to Tucson, with all our friends and family there,” he said.

The fret and fury of competition, the innings advancing with numbers in square boxes Alday will miss, of course. “But most of all,” he said, “I’ll miss the players developing on the field and growing as men.”

The game and the players will miss him, too.

Retired columnist Corky Simpson writes a column every Saturday for the Citizen.

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