BY JEFF FALK
He is one of the last of a dying breed, an old-school coach. But the game never passed Mike Capriotti by.
That’s because he always stayed true to his morals, his beliefs, himself. And he always tried to adapt and change the best he could.
Capriotti recently retired after 34 years as Annville-Cleona’s baseball coach, 31 of which were served as the Little Dutchmen’s head coach. Along the way there were wins, championships, fostered life-long friendships, conflict and of course, change.
“I’ve coached teams one way,” said Capriotti. “When I was young I was really over-reactive to certain things. But I learned to react in a different way. I tweaked my game a bit. I did adjust. I had to adjust or I knew there would be outside pressure.
“Dedication to the sport you’re playing has changed,” continued Capriotti. “These kids are so torn. Family vacations are important, and as a coach I’ve been told you can’t hold that against them. When I played I was dedicated to the sport. When kids are in a slump today, they don’t put in the extra practice. Some of today’s athletes are callous to losing. Anyone from my generation took losing very hard. Losing is part of life, but you’ve got to ask yourself if you did the best you can.”
After contemplating for years, the man affectionately known as ‘Cappy’ officially made his decision to retire in March, after an emotional deliberation with his wife. The move coincided with his retirement as a health, physical education and driver ed teacher.
“My wife and I discussed it many evenings, and it was emotional walking away from something I loved,” said Capriotti. “I always said when I retired from teaching I was going to retire from coaching. It’s just time for me to step down and walk away. As a head coach, you need to have day-to-day contact with kids. And I wouldn’t have that if I was retired as a teacher.
“I loved it,” added Capriotti. “I love coaching the game, being part of the game. What I love most is the strategy. I truly believe that when kids get to the varsity level, they should already have the fundamentals down. I believe there should not be league standings or trophies given until you get to the high school level. You need to teach kids the game on the lower levels.
“When they get to the varsity level, they should have to brush up on strategy and repitition. I now need to teach them strategy, a higher level of thinking. When I talk to certain kids about strategy, they say, ‘What?’. Why? Because kids today don’t watch enough sports. And if they do it’s for entertainment, not to study it.”
Capriotti’s record speaks for itself. 345-328-2. His Gavin Osteen-led Little Dutchmen won the state championship in 1986. There were also a District Three title, four other appearances in the district title tilt, two state final four berths and a string of four Lancaster-Lebanon League section crowns from 2002-2005.
“The game has definitely changed in the area that surrounds it,” said Capriotti. “The game itself hasn’t changed. Parent pressure on their kids to succeed and parent pressure on the program has increased. When coaches are hired it’s to make decisions that are best for the program. Kids have pressure because parents want them to succeed. And when they don’t, they (parents) lash out at the coaching.
“There are so many intangibles with the game of baseball that affects how much kids play,” Capriotti continued. “Yes, kids have definitely changed since the 70s, that’s four decades. They’re definitely bigger and stronger, which makes the game faster. But kids are told at a young age they’re great, and they think because they were good at the midget level they’re going to be great at the next level.”
At the time of his resignation, Capriotti was the senior baseball man in the Lancaster-Lebanon League. He is one of the final links to a Lebanon County faternity of baseball coaching legends that included Lyle Krall of Elco, Bill Dissinger of Cedar Crest, Ed Ludwig of Northern Lebanon and Craig Rothermel of Lebanon.
“You never, ever know everything.” said Capriotti. “And you learn by watching. Now I’m done too. I have people come up to me and say, ‘How did you do it?’ I’m not sure.
“Getting the job was a no-brainer for me,” Capriotti added. “I was at the right place at the right time. Networking is important. It’s who you know. No, I had no clue I’d do it this long. For most of my years, I worked with people who allowed you to coach.”
A proponent of the old-school three-sport athlete, Capriotti had his share of run-ins with other Little Dutchmen head coaches who wanted kids to practice their sports during the off-season – most notably some of A-C’s upwardly mobile boys’ basketball coaches.
“The day of the three-sports athlete at Annville-Cleona has gone by the wayside,” said Capriotti. “You rarely find a three-sport athlete at our school any more. Coaches come and go, but look who’s dedicated to our district. We do not use Annville-Cleona as a stepping stone.
“I was in it for the kids, as most coaches are,” Capriotti continued. “In the world of coaching, there is partialism. But kids are kids. Let them have fun. I am one of those old-school coaches, and maybe this is the time for me to get out of it and let some new blood run the program. But I’m going to miss the kids.”
Now 57, Capriotti’s career goals were simple at the outset, and he achieved what he set out to do. A native of Annville and a graduate of Annville-Cleona, Capriotti went off to college at East Stroudsburg with the express intent of returning home, teaching and becoming the Little Dutchmen’s head baseball coach.
In the fall of 1978, Capriotti, who was already on the A-C staff as an assistant football coach, fell into the job when his predecessor, Jim Sprecher, resigned.
“I don’t regret anything I have done in my career,” said Capriotti. “I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to wonderful young men. That’s the reward you have in coaching, seeing these boys become young men.
“I’ve done my time. I’ve done my tenure as a head coach,” added Capriotti. “I’m not in it to see how many years I can do it. I wanted to come home and be the head baseball coach at Annville-Cleona. That was my goal, and I achieved that goal. How many coaches win state championships? I was fortunate to have a team that got hot at the right time. Don’t you think that’s the pinnacle of any coach’s success? But it’s not the only thing. You need a lot of luck when you play baseball.
“I would like to be remembered as a coach who cared about the kids, not the almighty ‘W’. There are people out there who won’t like you as a coach. I’d like to have people believe that I wasn’t in it for myself. I played the sport since I was eight years old, and I had a lot of good role models to look up to.”
Not unlike most great careers, Capriotti’s ended more with a whimper than a bang. This year’s version of the Little Dutchmen went 7-13 and failed to qualify for the District Three Class AA postseason for the fifth straight year.
“When I walked off the field against Lancaster Catholic, I walked over to my wife,” said Capriotti. “And she said, ‘Are you OK?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m OK.’ It was the last time I was going to walk off the field as a head coach.
“We did not lose a lot of games by a big score,” Capriotti added. “We were really in every game. The goal was to go for a .500 season. We finished 12th in Class AA, and they took ten (for the District Three playoffs). A win here or there and we’d be playing district baseball.”
Capriotti insisted that the Little Dutchmen’s cupboard is not bare and that the program he is leaving behind is in good health.
“Last year we had four wins,” said Capriotti. “This year we were young and we kind of turned the corner. There’s a lot of talent coming up. I look at that talent and think, ‘Geez, mabye I should stay.’ But that would be the wrong reason.
“We’ve gone through a little bit of a drought,” added Capriotti. “We are a small school. There are going to be peaks and valleys. At our sized-school, it’s all about the numbers game. We don’t re-load every year like some big schools. We re-evaluate. It’s cyclical. The kids will bounce back. The program will bounce back.”
As a man in his late 50s, some would say Capriotti is too young to retire. He insisted he will encounter no difficulties filling his new-found time.
As long as there’s a baseball game being played somewhere.
“When I retire, I’m going to do things I haven’t done in years. Hunting, golfing, fishing,” said Capriotti. “As a home owner, there’s always something to do. I can visit people I haven’t been able to spend time with in awhile. It gives me an opporutnity to see a ball game.
“Baseball is my passion,” concluded Capriotti. “I’d like to go see it in a third-person situation. I missed that part of it. I watch baseball. I love baseball. My wife and I are Phillies fans. I love the game. It’s the most pure sport. I have no immediate plans to work in the future. My mind is racing just thinking about things I’d like to do.”
And sooner or later, Capriotti always catches up to his mind.