By Travis Atkins
Late one evening on a school night, after Bowie baseball coach Rudy Alvarez got done raking the field to get it ready for the next day after it had rained, he sat down for this interview and reflected on his career of 40 years coaching high school baseball in the Austin Independent School District.
Raking the field is less of a chore and more a labor of love for Alvarez, who knew he wanted to coach baseball since the seventh grade and has practically lived on the diamond his whole life.
On Saturday morning, February 11, the Bowie baseball booster club will hold a ceremony honoring Alvarez’ 40 years in the district, followed by junior varsity and varsity scrimmages as part of opening day festivities to welcome the 2012 baseball season.
Having spent most of his 64 years playing and coaching baseball in south Austin, Alvarez has seen all of the hits, misses and curve balls that a baseball life can throw at you. He’s won numerous awards, made the state championship game, worked under the best baseball minds, seen bad umpire calls that still bother him to this day, coached talented young players who have gone on to sign professional contracts, and dealt with tragedies of losing former players and a coach.
Through it all, Alvarez has built and maintained relationships with countless former players and coaches and, of all the accolades and wins accumulated, those relationships are what stand out most for Alvarez.
Assistant coach Sam Degelia is one of those relationships he has built and maintained.
“Every year we go to the high school coaching convention in Waco,” Degelia said. “We can’t walk more than ten feet without someone stopping him and talking, he knows everyone.”
Modern technology has helped Alvarez track down even more players he’s coached, dating all the way back to the early 1970’s at Travis High School.
“I joined Facebook a couple years ago and within 3 days, I had like 60 friend requests from former players,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez had visions of playing professional baseball growing up. He was little league and high school teammates at Travis with Ken Boswell, the second baseman for the 1969 Amazing Mets team that won the World Series. The two were quite the double play combo, as they both played shortstop and second base.
Alvarez played at Blinn Junior College, where he was all set to transfer to the University of Texas before blowing his knee out. He still was able to walk on to UT and played in a handful of games for Coach Cliff Gustafson.
The knee injury was still an issue though and he knew he couldn’t run like he used to, so rather than play as a backup infielder at Texas, Alvarez transferred to St. Edward’s where he finished out his playing career.
He came back to Texas and worked as a field director under Gustafson at his baseball camp. Alvarez would be a staple at the Texas camp, as he went on to work under Augie Garrido after Gustafson left. Now Alvarez has his own camp at Bowie.
As a kid, Degelia attended Gustafson’s baseball camp where Alvarez was one of the coaches. The two formed a bond and Degelia transferred high schools just so he could play for Alvarez and his renowned program at Travis High.
“When I played for him, he was feared,” Degelia said. “You’re expected to win, you’re going to win district and go to the playoffs, that’s it.”
In 1994, after Degelia’s father died, Alvarez, the best man at Degelia’s wedding, immediately consoled him.
“Baseball aside, he’s a very reputable guy,” Degelia said. “My dad passed away in 1994. I hadn’t seen coach in years, and that night, he shows up at my house to see if everything was okay. That’s just him.”
A couple of years later, Degelia was coaching at Reagan High School when Alvarez called asking him if he wanted to coach with him at Travis. Degelia jumped on the opportunity and they have been coaching together since.
In his 25 years at Travis, Alvarez made the playoffs 19 times and won district seven times. When asked if he could point to one player as the most talented he’s ever coached, Alvarez said he’s coached far too many great players to single out just one, but the question did bring to his mind an outfielder he coached in the mid 80’s at Travis.
“When I was coaching at Travis in 84 or 85, we had a center fielder,” Alvarez said. “That guy could run down any ball hit. When a ball was hit out there, you knew it was going to be caught. He didn’t even end up playing after high school.”
Alvarez also had one of his most talented teams during that time period, a Travis team where two of his pitchers and his catcher went on to sign professional contracts.
When the Bowie job opened up, both Alvarez and Degelia went together and are now in their fourteenth year there.
In 2002, they assembled Alvarez’ best team to date, a senior class that went 100-12 dating to their freshman year according to Alvarez. They made it all the way to the state championship game to face the number one team in the country, Fort Bend Elkins, a team that featured current Dodgers first baseman James Loney.
In his 40 years of coaching, Alvarez can point to the day of that game, June 2, 2002, as both his greatest achievement and most tragic day of his career.
Assistant coaches Sam Degelia and Gary Fowler spent the previous day scouting Elkins out in the hot sun. That morning, Fowler, Degelia’s roommate at the hotel in Round Rock, woke up and couldn’t feel his legs.
“We woke up and (Fowler) said ‘coach I can’t feel my legs, I can’t get up,'” Degelia said.
Degelia at first thought he was joking or Fowler’s leg was asleep, then quickly realized it was more serious. He told Coach Alvarez and they called an ambulance to rush Fowler to the emergency room. MRIs revealed Fowler had a cancerous brain tumor.
“It was the best day of my career and it turned into the saddest day of my career,” Alvarez said. “Having one of my best friends go to the hospital—and his son was a bat boy. Things happen in baseball and in kids’ lives that put everything in perspective. Baseball is not the end of the world.”
An emotional Bulldogs team lost 11-4 to the number one team in the country and a little over a year later, Fowler passed away from brain cancer.
Every year, the team holds the Annual Gary Fowler Golf Classic to raise money for the baseball team, and one player from the varsity team is selected to wear Fowler’s number eight in his honor.
Other than the state title game, two particular games stand out as the most memorable of Alvarez’ career.
In 2001, the Bulldogs played rival Austin High in a winner take all game to go to the State Championships at the Dell Diamond. The stands at neutral Toney Burger Field were evenly packed with screaming fans from both schools. Bowie was winning late in the game, when Austin High had the bases loaded with one out and their power-hitting catcher Jason Pyle came up to bat. He hit a ground ball to third; the third baseman stepped on the base and threw to first for an apparent double play. When both teams were jogging off the field, the third base umpire called them back, saying the ball hit Pyle’s foot and was therefore a foul ball.
“They showed it over and over on the news that night, talking about how it was a bad call,” Alvarez said, the moment still fresh in his mind. “That ball bounced ten feet in front of the plate.”
Given another chance, Pyle cleared the bases with a hit and Austin High went on to win in extra innings and advance to the state finals.
The next year, when Bowie met San Antonio Reagan in the playoffs, the number two or three team in the state according to Alvarez, the Bulldogs went up against a set of brothers who were both highly touted pitchers and who were signed to play big time college baseball.
Bowie won the first game of the series 1-0 without getting a hit the whole game. They got their run across when they got a couple runners on base, and ran a trick play they had been working on to score. Bowie pitcher Terry Killion threw a gem of his own, allowing no more than a few hits.
They went on to beat the other brother and eventually advance to the state championship game against Elkins.
As a player, Degelia only really saw the stern side of Alvarez, but now, especially in recent years, he says Alvarez has softened somewhat.
“He’s always been focused, always baseball driven,” Degelia said. “He’s a hard worker, just goes and goes and goes. I never really saw a funny side until now. He laughs all the time and tells jokes. I think he’s finally starting to loosen up a little.”
After 40 years, 31 playoff appearances, eight Coach of the Year awards, a state runner-up trophy and numerous district titles, Alvarez says he still has as much passion and is having as much fun as ever.
“I know he’s said he’s going to coach four or five more years, I hope he goes longer,” Degelia said.
One thing is for certain, Coach Alvarez, who lives across the street from Bowie, will not be coaching anywhere else.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Alvarez said, laughing. “I’ve been coaching for 40 years, high school baseball is where I belong.”