Marcia C. Smith Register Columnist
Less than month from now, Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher and bench coach Rob Picciolo will wake up just before the desert sun and head to work — and to learn — at the San Diego Padres spring training facility in Peoria, Ariz.
No Padres, no Angels or any major league players will be there. No one with a chance of even being a Padre, an Angel or a major leaguer will be there. And that’s part of the draw that keeps Butcher, Picciolo and about a dozen major league coaches returning to the Pro Ball Baseball Clinic for four days every January for the past decade.
A fantasy camp, this is not.
The adult students — some 50 professionals in all things other than the baseball — won’t care about autographs, photo ops or elbow-rubbing with former big leaguers who hobble around the bases on two bad knees.
They are seeking out the experts to help them with their curveballs that never curved, their mighty swings that haven’t yielded extra-base hits and their gloves that they would like to trust more.
So these lifetime amateurs who played baseball in high school or college and continue in weekend-warrior beer leagues or on more organized Men’s Senior Baseball League teams will each pay about $2,800 to get an intensive big league education from Jan. 13-16 — dawn to dusk.
“I see major league players all year, and these guys might not have the talent but they are really serious and motivated to learn and have a real passion for the game,” Butcher said.
“I have a great time teaching them. It’s re-energizing, getting me ready for Angels spring training.”
The clinic was started in 2002 by John Rubinow, a Los Angeles-area doctor, voice-over actor and MSBL pitcher who searched for adult baseball coaching but found a variety of youth instructional camps and private coaches available.
“There was a gap in the market for older players like me,” said Rubinow, 56, who sent out 50 letters on his M.D. stationary asking for guidance from major league coaches.
He got one call — from then-Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone. “I think you’re onto something,” Mazzone told Rubinow.
Mazzone, who had helped develop John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddox, called on fellow five big league coaches, among them then-Padres infield instructor Picciolo and then-Angels bench coach and future Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Maddon, to hold the first Pro Ball Baseball Clinic for 17 players on one field at the Padres facility in 2002.
“We didn’t advertise but with word of mouth we grew over the years to having 14 coaches and 50 students who take up four fields for four days,” Rubinow said. “It’s a tough four days that you won’t ever forget.”
Angels fan Scott Dunkleman, a former semipro ballplayer and a longtime youth baseball coach who owns a McDonald’s franchise in Orange, has attended four Pro Ball camps. He brought his teenage son, Steven, to camp twice.
They spent four long days together: stretching at 7 a.m., working in the batting cage at 8 a.m., taking notes in chalk-talk mechanics classes with coaches at 9 a.m. and doing drills in hitting, pitching, fielding and base running from 10 a.m.-7 p.m., with a short break for lunch.
“We even played a couple games, and my favorite was catching for my son who I got to see pull off an unassisted triple play,” Scott Dunkleman, 59, of Tustin, said. “It was such a great father-son experience and — don’t get me wrong — hard work.”
They shared a clubhouse with doctors, lawyers, a police officer, a Texas farmer, a New England batmaker, even some men who hadn’t laced up spikes in 30 years. After a long day of baseball (and, for some, a long soak in an ice bath), the players often held a makeshift study hall, reviewing the finer points of what they had learned from the coaches.
Six-time All-Star shortstop Alan Tramell, the bench coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, joins the 2012 staff, which also includes Dodgers hitting coach Eric Owens, Texas Rangers pitching coach Danny Clark, Diamondbacks bullpen coach and catching instructor Glenn Sherlock, Chicago Cubs outfield coordinator Lee Tinsley and Toronto Blue Jays bench coach Don Wakamatsu.