George Kostal leans forward in the bleacher behind Ashland's junior varsity baseball field at North Mountain Park, his Ashland Grizzlies jacket flapping in the wind. He's telling a story, one of a million stacked like a pile of old mitts in the dugout of his brain.
George Kostal leans forward in a bleacher seat behind Ashland's junior varsity baseball field at North Mountain Park, his Ashland Grizzlies jacket flapping in the wind. He's telling a story, one of a million stacked like a pile of old mitts in the dugout of his brain.
The air is sweetened with the smell of freshly cut grass and in the distance, baseballs are smacking leather — pop, pop, pop "¦
He was pitching for the University of Wyoming one day in 1951 while his wife, Marianne, labored through the birth of their first child. Glancing into the stands, Kostal noticed Marianne's doctor, apparently enjoying the game along with everybody else.
"And I'm wondering what he's doing there, he's supposed to be helping my wife," Kostal said.
No, the doctor explained, the labor is over and Kostal is now the father of a baby boy. Relieved, Kostal went back to the mound and finished the game, but the distraction proved costly.
"I think we lost 9-7 or something," he recalls.
The birth of Mike, now 53, is just one example that shows how Kostal's baseball life and personal life have become interwoven. There are countless others. Kostal, after all, has been involved with the sport, either as a coach or a player, since The Great Depression.
This spring, as he nears his 83rd birthday, Kostal is at it again, working as an assistant coach for the Ashland High junior varsity team. Head JV coach Josh Leedy is Kostal's grandson, and another grandson, Lee Dodds, plays for the team.
Leedy, a teacher, said he probably wouldn't be involved with the sport if not for Kostal.
"He was my first coach," Leedy said. "I didn't want to play baseball for some reason. He finally talked me into signing up for Little League.
"He made it really easy for me. I never remember it being boring or static. I've been doing it every year since."
Born and raised in Omaha, Neb., Kostal says he first started playing baseball in 1933 at age 7. It was in the genes. Kostal's dad, Shorty Guinotte, played in various city leagues throughout Kostal's childhood and one of Kostal's two-inch thick scrapbooks includes a newspaper clip that he's particularly proud of. His dad can be seen in the 1927 shot kneeling in the front row with the rest of his Omaha Printing Co. teammates. In the back row, standing shoulder to shoulder, are Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Kostal had is own brush with greatness. Getting ready for a practice one summer, Kostal learned that his innings may be reduced with the addition of a new pitcher, an up-and-comer who everybody seemed to think had a bright future. The hype for Bob Gibson turned out to be understated. He signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1957, made eight All-Star Game appearances, won two World Series MVP awards and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1981.
Kostal started coaching in the early 1960s. He took on a Little League team that included his youngest son and has been teaching baseball fundamentals to kids ever since. He's gone on to coach both softball and baseball, including a stint as an assistant varsity coach at North Valley High.
All that experience, said Leedy, is paying huge dividends for the Grizzlies.
"He coaches fundamentals like no other, and he knows the basics like nobody I've ever seen," Leedy said. "We all go around after practices saying little tidbits and he always has real spot-on observations. He doesn't say a lot, but he always has the kids' ears."
Leedy would know. He was encouraged by Kostal to try pitching at a young age and, even though he resisted at first, Leedy ended up falling in love with the sport from the perspective of the mound.
"I'm just glad that he put a foot to me," Leedy said. "Some kids need a little push and he saw that in me and pushed me in the right direction, and I'm eternally grateful for it."
Kostal moved to Grants Pass in 1978 and to Ashland about five years ago in order to watch Lee's older brothers, Wes and Ben. While in Grants Pass, Kostal help build the junior varsity field and the snack shack.
Here, Kostal's been a fixture at Ashland baseball games, whether in the dugout or in the stands.
Though he loves watching games, he'd rather be playing. He finally put away his cleats two years ago, but hedges when asked if he's done with senior softball leagues for good.
Regardless, Kostal says the game will continue to be a big part of his life. How big?
The Kostal's 50th wedding anniversary was celebrated on a baseball diamond, a memory he can't describe without flashing a huge grin.
"At the end (of the game) they said, 'Here, put this on,' and I wondered what the heck they were doing," Kostal said. "They bought a red sweater for me that had all fancy stuff and stars on it and everything. And they said, 'Come on out,' and I looked over and here comes my wife out of the other dugout and she had a veil on. They took us up to home plate and (the umpire) said, 'With the power vested in me as the home umpire "¦ I now pronounce you man and wife for the second time.'"
Now, Kostal is looking to see Lee Dodds through high school — Dodds is a sophomore. After that, Kostal is considering moving back to Grants Pass and saying goodbye to coaching.
Leedy isn't so sure. Coaching is in Kostal's blood, he says, and after all, another grandchild, Gracie, is starting to get into softball.
"I think as long as there's a grandkid around or a kid that he knows, he would do it until somebody locked him in a room and wouldn't let him anymore," Leedy said.
"He just has a tireless passion for the game."
Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or firstname.lastname@example.org