He is deeply engrained in its past. And his presence in the present has assured a bright future.
John Mentzer recently passed from present to past when he resigned as the manager of the Myerstown American Legion baseball program. He leaves behind a legacy that would make his predecessors proud, and give his successors something to aspire to.
Following 16 season at the helm, Mentzer stepped aside as Myerstown’s head coach. He turned the reins over to two trusted companions, assistant coaches Derek Fulk and John Paul Mentzer, his son.
“I don’t know if you ever have enough of it,” said Mentzer, 48. “I still enjoy it. The competive edge is still there. The time to step aside is now. It’s a new generation of ball player.
“It’s not that I couldn’t continue,” he continued. “I think it’s the right time for them to take over. I know the program is going to continue as it has been, and get better. I’m excited to see where Myerstown baseball is going to go.”
Mentzer, who starred for Myerstown as a player in the early 1980s, has been mulling the move for some time. He said what made now the right time was that John Paul Mentzer and Fulk were ready to take over.
“Well I’ve sort of been talking about it for the last two years,” said Mentzer. “The timing was right, as far as the other guys being ready. Derek and my son John showed a lot of interest in coaching. My son is just about done with his master’s degree. It’s been about two years in the making.
“On a day-to-day basis, it didn’t affect myself or the team at all,” Mentzer continued. “It was a matter of going there everyday and going about my business. I enjoy the kids. That’s what makes it tough. So it sort of made this season bittersweet, this being my last year. But when the kids were between the lines, they were serious and wanted to win the game.”
While Mentzer felt he had a good repoire with his players all the way to the end, he did concede that the new, younger coaches might be able to relate to them better.
“I am 100 percent comfortable with them taking over,” said Mentzer. “They probably have a little more competitive edge at this point. I was kind of calming those guys down, like ‘Just relax. It’ll be OK.’ These guys are going to pick it up and that’s going to be good for the kids. They’re ready. They’ve been around baseball for a long time.
“Well, yeah, I am old-school,” Mentzer added. “I’m about commitment and kids committing to the baseball season over the summer. These kids are so busy during the school year it puts a pinch on summber baseball. In that way, I understand. When the game is on the line, you want kids to be committed to the team. I think society has taken that commitment.”
Mentzer sees himself leaving, but not going far. When a person has been involved with youth athletics as long as he has, weening is a much more comfortable process than ‘cold turkey’.
“Yes, I’m going to be there,” said Mentzer. “I’ll probably get the field ready some days. I’m not just going to totally walk away from it. It just won’t be an everyday thing. It’s been 18 years since I had a summer off or maybe even longer because my kids were involved before that.
“I regard it (coaching) as a big mutual team effort, all the way through,” added Mentzer. “That’s the way it’s always been. I never considered myself the top dog. ”
Despite his commitment and a solid pool of talent, Myerstown never captured a Lebanon County American Legion baseball championship during Mentzer’s tenure. But that’s not to say that old Post 55 wasn’t competitive.
“Basically, every season the goal was to make the playoffs,” said Mentzer. “The goal was to teach kids something about the game they didn’t know. I don’t know if I ever won a league championship, but we were competitive. We were in the playoffs 80 to 85 percent of the time.
“This season was the least amount of kids I had, 12,” continued Mentzer. “It was disappointing in the beginning of the year. But the 12 kids who were there wanted to be there.”
Mentzer was a role model in hundreds of boys’ lives, at a time when they needed it most.
“I still think baseball needs to be a part of their lives,” said Mentzer. “In the future, I see this going back to school-district baseball. But the bond that developed between Elco and Cedar Crest kids was fabulous. I wouldn’t have it any other way in that aspect. I think it’s building friendships with other kids they’ll have for a long time. A lot of what it was for me was teaching respect for the game and respect for other people. Basically, turning men into boys using baseball. It’s great to see and it’s great for the kids.
“It’s all good,” Mentzer concluded. “There’s no bitter feeling or bad feeling or anything. Who knows, maybe I’ll say to myself, ‘What were you thinking?’ And I’ll be back coaching full-time.”