Character Counts for Pali High Baseball Coach Mike Voelkel
You will not meet a more competitive individual than Palisades High head baseball coach Mike Voelkel. He wants to win just as much as, if not more than, his team. However, the way his players conduct themselves on and off the field and the men they grow up to be is his No. 1 concern. Voelkel has coached the game he loves for 34 years and since taking over the Dolphins’ program in 2008 after the previous coach was fired, he has piloted Palisades to nine Western League titles and 12 City playoff berths. In 2019 he guided the Dolphins to the Open Division championship game—their first trip to Dodger Stadium since winning the Invitiational Division in 2003 under Russ Howard. He resigned in December 2014 after being told by school officials to reinstate a player he had removed from the program for violating the team’s code of conduct policy, but one month later he rescinded his resignation and returned along with his coaching staff in the wake of a public meeting at which players and parents voiced support for Voelkel, prompting the school’s board of trustees to back his right to enforce team rules. Now also the department chair of physical education at Pali High, Voelkel has been featured in the American Baseball Coaches Digest and created and patented The Bullwhip—the ultimate pitching and throwing aid for baseball, softball, football and other sports. Entering his 14th season as the Dolphins’ coach, he prides himself on playing by the rules, developing talent, injury prevention, running a clean program and emphasizing academics first. In this interview with Palisadian-Post Sports Editor Steve Galluzzo he shares his love of the game, coaching philosophy, what he has learned over the years and the challenges high school and college coaches face during the coronavirus pandemic:
PP: When did your love of baseball begin?
MV: I started playing when I was 8 years old living up in Washington, where I’m from. This was way back when the game was transitioning from wood to metal bats. I was about 10 years old when those bats—they were called “Thumpers”—came out and then the aluminum bats industry took off. Before that we’d always used wood. I played for Cascade High in Everett in the western part of the state, a little over an hour drive to Canada. I played season to season—football, basketball and baseball—because there was no specialization back then. In the summertime we’d ski, fish and hunt. We were always outside playing. We had a pretty good American Legion program and we won the state tournament two years when I was younger. We went to regionals and played Hawaii, which had future MLB pitcher Sid Fernandez, when we were 14 or 15. I played infield and outfield, but my strongest skill set was throwing.
PP: When and how did you get into coaching?
MV: I was Athlete of the Year at Centralia Community College and got drafted. I was a ninth-round pick. My hitting talents ran out and I was a pitcher only after that. I went to Gonzaga and that’s where I blew up my arm. I got my teaching degree at Central Washington University and I took the avenue of coaching in the independent leagues working with the accumulation of baseball talent. I was the pitching coach for the Grays Harbor Gulls and Western Warriors and the bench coach for the Reno Black Jacks and Feather River Mudcats. I was an adjunct professor in P.E. at Washington State University for six years and took night classes to get my master’s in one year from the University of Portland.
PP: What did you learn from your injury?
MV: I didn’t know if I’d be able to throw again. They didn’t have the medical technology back then that they do now. I was 21 or 22, this was in the 1980s and I believe I was the first person at the University of Washington on whom they performed scope surgery to repair my rotator cuff. Normally at that time they took the muscle out, knit it back up and didn’t know the severity of it when they got in there. The doctor I had was an innovator and going through that changed my outlook and how I coach today. I got out of surgery at 1 a.m. I watched the surgery as they had numerous TV monitors around during the operation. When finished they wheeled me back into my room, where 15 minutes later they hooked my arm up to a machine. I kept turning it off and the nurses got mad at me. The doctor said the healing process takes blood flow and movement. You have to throw in volume but at the time we only threw when we had to. There isn’t enough emphasis put on endurance and recovery in youth ball. One position I focus on for arm health is catching because you actually throw more than pitchers. We always have two catchers. One thing I’m most proud of is my kids will gain 20 miles per hour in four years with no arm issues. We try to have three main guys but many more pitch. A lot of other programs have one or two. It’s not just about pitch counts. The worst situation for a pitcher is an inning of 30+ pitches, giving up runs and a lot of traffic on the bases. A pitcher will use a level of maximum effort beyond run-and-guns to get out of the inning. It puts a greater stress on the arm versus a pitcher who threw a 90-pitch complete game shutout.
PP: How has your coaching approach changed over the years? Are you always evolving?
MV: When I first got to Palisades we had two summer teams. Now we have zero. With showcases, travel ball, private coaches, I quickly realized I needed to start modifying for the kids’ benefit. There are thousands of variables. Coaches try to put players in challenging situations because if you’re comfortable, you’ll never make mistakes. It’s really all about how you deal with those situations in your arsenal of counter measures. It’s about learning split-second problem-solving.
PP: What is different about coaching here than in the Pacific Northwest?
MV: Two things stood out to me right away. First, the academic rigor and importance of academics at Palisades was more advanced and challenging than the schools in Washington. Up there I constantly had meetings with kids and parents who were on the bubble of eligibility. The other big difference here is the weather. The first time it rained, everyone started leaving. When I said there are things we can do in the rain the kids looked at me like I was off my rocker. In Washington, weight training is huge. I remember one kid in my weight training class who is now a famous WWE wrestler, Bryan Daniel, and I had another kid named Ben Seath who set the world record for 18-year-olds by bench pressing 480 pounds! Most of the kids there play at least two sports. In Washington weight training was part of the school day. With multiple sport athletes you had to make accomodations for the kids. I had a kid who played football at 220 pounds then wrestled at 180 pounds and won the state title. He lost all that weight in three or four weeks. When he came to baseball his energy was completely gone. He made me change my thinking. So at Palisades I had researched and implemented appropriate nutritional plans from my experiences in Washington. We’re constantly eating and drinking during practice. I’ve also had to construct and implement a weight training program and make it a part of our practices instead of it being in the academic school day.
PP: What were some of the obstacles you faced when you first got to Palisades?
MV: Perhaps the biggest one was fundraising. I’d meet business people and pick their brains for things we could do. I was also in a race from the beginning to learn the differences between the CIF and City Section. I introduced things to foster team building like an egg toss, and American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, where the kids make up their own theatrical skits. We started a mentoring program where an older player is like a big brother to a younger player. Both are learning—the older one how to articulate and be a leader, and the younger one from his mentor’s advice. Baseball, like life, is a sport where you’re going to fail. The key is trying not to allow the same mistake to happen twice.
PP: Why do your teams consistently have one of the highest collective GPAs of any sport?
MV: It’s no secret. We stress the importance of academics and being a quality individual, not just a good baseball player. As a coach you have to know when to pat the players on the back and when to give them a stern talking to. Our program typically one of the highest GPA on campus and we’ve won the City GPA title twice. We don’t recruit. I have very few transfers and most of them are kids who chose to go to another school and came back. I’ve got to be loyal to kids in the program. We’ve only had two kids transfer out. That’s it. I measure my program based on what college coaches and scouts tell me about it. Kids control their attitude and effort. Coaches control how hard and how unselfishly you play. I’ve been coaching for a long time and you have to develop a thick skin. In my career I’ve had a kid die in my arms and I’ve had to save a kid’s life. My outlook is always more on the cautious side with concerns to player health.
PP: What is it like having to share the field with other teams?
MV: I’d love to have three teams but we don’t have space. We have to share the field with other programs and as a result I’ve had to invent ways to practice whether we have space or not. I have experience in this area from running practices in gyms, on blacktops, tennis courts and covered eating areas. The daily maintenance of a baseball field is paramount. I used to take care of a baseball field that a professional team played on. When we construct our mound there’s a science that goes into it. How it’s contoured, how we slope the mound in order to decrease the impact on one’s arm. Visiting coaches always compliment us on the mound and condition of the batter’s boxes. I’m out field there year round working on the infield. That alone is a full-time job.
PP: How hard is it to handle always being second-guessed?
MV: As coaches we’re used to being analyzed and scrutinized. If you’re not tough enough to endure it, you shouldn’t do it. At the end of the day I have to do what I think is best for my kids from my experiences. The high school game is much more sophisticated now. In the past shifts that take us out of position were negatives. Now, we use them and we’re teaching the hitters what to look for depending on the count, the tendencies of the pitcher and the game situation. So much focus now is placed on how hard you can throw and how far you can hit. I still think all of the little details are vital to baseball. I use the measurables of the five tools when I talk to coaches. They’ll ask ‘Is he a showcase player or a baseball player?’ They need free thinkers. So I teach my kids to study what’s happening during the game. When you’re on deck, look at the pitcher and get a feel for his release point and his pick-off move, etc. Taking any advantage you can gain is valuable. Our players are always adjusting, on every pitch. It’s not an exact science, but it holds water.
PP: The baseball field has become your labor of love. What improvements have you made?
MV: Outfield fence, warning track, scoreboard, the constant leveling of dirt and grass areas. The rodent infestation causes the digging of ditches and trenches over a foot in depth. The kids use wheelbarrows and dirt to fill them in over the years. We redid our infield which was laser graded and we put in new turf. We restructured the mound. The dirt is the most important area for playability and safety. We practice sliding to minimize broken ankles and broken wrists and we teach how to run correctly with gloves. There’s a means to the madness. You want the diamond to look pretty to the eye, but more important is the safety of how it plays—that’s part of our responsibility. We have new L-screens and batting cages and we give our old use stuff to programs that can’t afford it. We’re fortunate to have a system and people willing to donate time and money for the improvement for all of the kids. Other teams have tried to replicate what we do. We hung nets around the field and put in new bleachers. We installed a second set of batting cages and replace the pitching rubbers and bases every two years.
PP: Why do you think the annual ‘Traditions Dinner’ you started has been so successful?
MV: Primarily because of the guest speakers we’ve been able to attract and the countless volunteers in organizing the venues and structure of the entertainment. We’ve had two scouts in “Moneyball” and some of the best college coaches in the country like John Savage at UCLA. We honor people who have been integral parts of the program. There’s no way I can do it myself, so we always make a point to recognize our contributors and we’re very appreciative. Along with the fundraising, we have a list of priorities for field and player development as a goal before we construct our fundraising. We’re transparent as far as where the money goes. We’ve raised 99 percent of the monies that are used for field equipment and player development.
PP: How tough is it to make time for your wife and family?
MV: When I first got to Pali I was there every single day. We lived two blocks away so over the summer I’d walk to the field and just start working. Fortunately, my wife understands that when I go there I’m not avoiding her. This is something my boys understand too. My older son works for the Army Corps of Engineers in Germany and my younger son does finance for the deli division at Costco in Redmond. I apologize to my sons because so much of my time during my career has been spent with other kids and families. The normalcy of family is different for a coach. When they were younger I could bring them on road trips. I remember one time I was coaching at Feather River up in Marysville and there was a bench clearing brawl… maybe 12 or 15 guys. We’re pulling guys off one another and suddenly another scuffle breaks out. It took 45 minutes to resume the game. That’s the first time as a father I had to find out where my kids were. Brandon and Ryan were still sitting on the bench smiling and laughing while saying ‘That was the coolest!’ They hadn’t moved. Another time Ryan was still in a stroller, maybe 10 months old, and we were doing field work. My older son takes a worm and feeds it to Ryan. Boy was I in trouble! Any chance I get to spend time with my wife [Norma] I take advantage of it. She has a healthy understanding of athletics since she was a sprinter and ran in Mexico’s version of the Olympic Trials in Mexico City. She’s vicious when we work out!
PP: Several years ago you decided to schedule more City teams. Why did you do that?
MV: I’m old-school so we always tried to play the best available teams. I didn’t care if we won or lost. Sometimes in tournaments you can’t control everything, like who you play. I tried to do that, but I saw that what was happening is it was hurting our seeding in the City playoffs. One of the main factors they use is head-to-head. For years, we didn’t play many City teams in tournaments and got seeded lower so I recognized that and made an adjustment. Now we mostly play quality City teams. The other issue was that we were league champions getting seeded behind a third-place team and having to play at their field. That was the last staw! After we lost to Chatsworth in the semifinals I said I’ve got to do something for these kids. Since the current playoff format is single elimination, who you play, but more importantly where you play, is important. Home field advantage and umpiring can play a major role in your advancement. Especially with the new Open Division, you really want to be in the top four because it means one less game you have to play.
PP: At the start of the 2019 season, did you think you had a good enough team to make it to Dodger Stadium?
MV: Yes, I had a feeling we’d be in the mix, but after coaching 34 years at three different levels you learn things rarely play out the way you think they will. Some teams exceed expectations while others fall below. There are many factors involved, like injuries, that make a real difference too. I’m always playing the ‘what if’ game. What if this guy gets on? What if a pitcher gets tired? I’m trying to think three innings in advance and be mindful of of the roles everyone has. Every year I have one kid who plays more than I expect and one who doesn’t play as much as I thought for whatever reason. Two players who stepped up and surpassed their season’s abilities were catcher Julian Jacobson and pitcher Lucas Braun. Many other players played significant roles in our advancement through the tournament. Winning the City title has always been our objective and that’ll always be the case. I’m my own worst critic. You always tend to second guess yourself and wonder what you could’ve done differently. That’s human nature.
PP: Is COVID-19 changing the coaching landscape?
MV: Of course. Academics in this time of COVID are online, thus videos become even more vital as learning tools. Two things in baseball a lot of college coaches watch for are how players practice and how they act on the bench. What kind of culture is being created when it’s not face to face? What are you doing when you think no one else is watching? College coaches are relying more on high school coaches for feedback since they can’t get out and see these kids as much. When they used to go to showcases they could see all of the players in one weekend. I’m getting contacted a lot more now than I used to.
PP: What has changed the most since you began coaching?
MV: The biggest thing I see is that players’ ability on the field isn’t valued as highly as abstract numbers like exit speed, throwing velocity and running times. As a result, instinct and baseball IQ isn’t where it once was. In high school more runs are scored on errors than are batted in. Right now for high school athletes if you’re in the top three percent theyll find you but that’s not going to build a whole roster. Now they have the transfer portal and more kids are choosing the junior college route.
PP: What is most rewarding about coaching high school?
MV: It’s still seeing these young men develop into successful adults. In baseball and in life it’s all about the intangibles. The world is a competitive place. You need to show up on time, do quality work and develop people skills. Whether you work at a law firm or McDonald’s the same principles apply. It’s the willingness to work extra that makes the difference. We like to say that practice is the bare minimum. Work ethic and social skills become paramount. Fortune 500 companies look fort those traits. That goes for baseball too. As a coach I’m just a stopping place in the progression of life. I try to get them as much experience as I can. Every year I’ll get a kid who comes back after landing his first job or having his first child and says I didn’t understand the value back then but now I do. What’s important is what kind of fathers, husbands and community members they become. Athletics is a great forum to learn the reality of the world.
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