By Neil Taylor
Class of 1988 Agua Fria
Let’s talk about Agua Fria baseball and Arizona Hall of Famer Mr. Wayne DesCombes. 79 years old, Wayne took it hard this month when he was found incapacitated, then diagnosed with a brain tumor, went to surgery and then what transpired from there. Then after a few days in Hospice he died on July 17, 2014 around 9:30PM. His longtime pal Frank there pre-surgery and for all the time in the hospital, I must salute Frank for all the effort and time spent watching his friend exit the world. We won’t get to see Wayne anymore but the evidence of his work on Earth is all over the place.
I can tell you that even though I am an outdoor writer and spend a lot of time publishing things: I am not very good at this. I would rather be talking to him on the phone instead of taking on the past tense when talking about the man. Reasonably certain I would be better off sitting back and watching instead: It is my duty to say what I have lived with Wayne as my teacher, coach and for more years than either of those: A trusted friend.
Larger than what I will talk about most: Academics. A minority of the students played for Wayne but learned Geometry and Algebra from a guy who taught sports and mathematics but instilled discipline on and off the field. Structure good for everyone at that age, anyone out there put their homework paper in the wrong pile in Wayne’s class? That would create problems. He wasn’t there to be liked. He was going to teach math and he was going to create winning teams.
Many will say “basketball”. I gave up that sport after 8th grade, otherwise I would have had him as Junior Varsity coach in that program as well. Those around at the right time will tell you he also held a whistle as a football coach too.
Wayne DesCombes was a formidable man: Particularly as a teacher but as a coach, he was a tough hombre. If he had some kind of weakness, I never saw it. He was known to “throw chalkboard erasers” and even jump onto the filing cabinet and say “You people make me climb the walls.” For those who did not understand him they were intimidated. What so few people knew about, the lengths he went to make sure the guy with fewer opportunities still had the chance to walk on the field. He created those opportunities for some very appreciative men who came through the program. It is probably where the phrase “Daddy DesCombes” arose.
The memories from the past: I lived for baseball. That was not much of a secret. I was all about baseball from my first memories. What a terrible shame that I didn’t have that much talent in the sport. Good enough to make the squad, I was pleased to be a part of it and those experiences helped me out moving forward on a professional baseball field and in life.
As a player on one of his teams he did not accept mediocrity (unless mediocrity was overachieving for that person, which was sometimes the case). He would not tolerate blatant laziness. And he helped a lot of guys who needed it, on and off the field. Those who didn’t need help, they just felt that constant “pressure” from coach to be the best they could be. He was harder on those he expected the most from.
I will never forget many things with my years around Wayne and some people saw some of what I did, some of it I had to myself. One of the best stories was during a preseason practice and taking “infield” someone threw the ball the wrong way and it hit coach right above the eye. He went down in a heap in the dirt at home plate. It was bad. Ricardo Moreno, the first one on the scene ran up and said “Coach, are you OK?” Wayne, still on the ground after he just took a missile to the head, amazing that he is talking at all-But if you ask anyone who was there it was nearly impossible to not laugh during a non-laughing moment when the coach gave his reply: “No God—— I’m not all right, I just got hit in the head with a ——– baseball.”
He was dedicated to his profession as both a teacher and a coach. That dedication was so obvious in so many ways but to me the thing that was so impressive was how much knowledge he had about everyone. He could spout out information on people and their years at Agua Fria, their sports, their family connections, everything and anything he seemed to have it all filed away. For me, the youngest of four, he actually called me “Mark” until my junior year but he has always asked about Stuart and Les because he followed them too during their years at Agua Fria and it mattered to him to keep track of them. I was the only one who went through the baseball program.
My career in pro baseball as an umpire, something that makes me happy for what it gave to Wayne. He enjoyed the insight just as much as my success. I know he liked it how relaxed I was about doing the job but he definitely enjoyed the very unique viewpoint I gave him as someone with specialized training as an umpire. It was amazing how much he knew about umpiring but I filled in a few gaps for him from the insider perspective.
Fact: My umpire career began because of Wayne. June 1989. I am back at home after my first year at the University of Arizona. Wayne called and asked if I could do him a favor. Legion baseball, his umpire had to cancel on him and he wanted to know if I could fill in. (I remember saying “Hell no. I can’t think of a worse job.” Then he said “It pays 50 bucks.” Henceforth, my umpiring career began). The coach of the other team was Jim Caruthers, who was the assigner for collegiate umpires in the Phoenix area at that time and he came up to me in the third inning to compliment me on my strike zone and asked how long I had been umpiring. (I looked at my watch and said “35 minutes.”) That was the first taste and from there, more opportunities arose and I knew that I was going to pursue it professionally by the time I still had two years left to go at Arizona.
My playing career? Probably something to show as an instruction video on how to persevere even when you aren’t very good at something. My culmination of hard work was supposed to come through my senior year. I worked for it and with experience and everything else, mentally I was “there” to be better than I was any other year and have a strong year. It was my time. It was also not going to happen. The day before the season opener, after a great pre-season of practices Wayne was hitting balls to us and I was in my position in left field. I had been on stroking the ball in earlier practice, I was running down fly balls and firing them back toward the infield. I was feeling pretty good about the season starting. As Wayne later told the story “I was going to just hit you one more.” Off the bat, a ball that was in front of me and I went for it, choosing to dive straight forward to make a play (again, in practice), a decision that did not work out well for me.
The severity of my injury, I had a pretty good idea. For Wayne, I didn’t know how upset he was about it until I was long gone from high school. He didn’t beat himself up on it but he did make mention one time of this day and my injury where I had to tell him “I was the ——— who dove that way in practice” and he didn’t smile or laugh and although I think he enjoyed the levity he was still pretty emotional about it.
In the spirit of not being a quitter: My story, I rehabbed enough to get back to play again and I hit the ball hard, including my only home run- with almost my entire family watching. Unfortunately, on the follow through of the swing, I felt the mending muscles tear again. Which may be my lasting memory of Wayne: I was around first base when the baseball was landing past the fence, he was clapping and had a smile….until he looked and saw that I was running with my right shoulder down. I got to third base where he was and as I passed by I said “That’s probably it for me.” My teammates greeting me at home plate for the last time in my career, Wayne DesCombes did nothing bad to my playing career. Quite the contrary. I had enough talent to make the team. It was the insight of the years in baseball as an umpire where I told Wayne I peaked too late. If I knew what I did after a couple of years umpiring, I might have put up some better numbers with the abilities I had. Water under that bridge, my umpiring career went better because of what I learned about the game in my years playing for Wayne at Agua Fria. He studied the game of baseball and he taught it.
My bad ending to a three year Varsity baseball career was a great preparation for life, and Wayne was right there as a supporter never once making me feel less for my failures during that time. I actually healed up to make it back to play when we made the state playoffs but I sat on the bench to watch the end in the state playoffs, something I didn’t “like” as a competitor but when he started to talk to me about it after it was over I said “I wouldn’t have played me either.”
I think he figured out what I felt at that time years later. On pride I would have been a tough out. On pure condition, he made the right choice to have someone else in there. The goal was to win. He was a good coach, intelligent and a competitor. He made solid choices, good for the team.
I was last in line of four who went through the school. His favorite was probably my brother Mark. Wayne made extra efforts to stay connected with Mark when things worsened for my brother and it was difficult for Wayne to watch that unfair situation get worse. It was just another example of Mr. DesCombes keeping a watchful eye over his guys. So much the same, Wayne’s passing was like Mark’s: It alleviated both of them from the challenges life threw at them. I felt relief for both of them when the news came through.
As my friend, things became easier. I think a lot of that was easy because my life went an easy path after those early years. When I was post high school and college, my decision to be an umpire wasn’t necessarily popular with others but Wayne was on the bandwagon. He loved it. He watched as I worked my way steadily up to be a contender to become a major league umpire. He came to see me my second year in baseball and saw me almost every year after that. His last visit in 2004, he came to Louisville, KY. He saw games in nearly half the International League cities those last three years. He had fun with umpires, he had fun in general. It was when I was in Double A and he watched me work the plate and there were two good pitchers and a challenging game to call but absolutely no disputes, Wayne went out with us and said “It looked like you had a really good game.” It might have been the hardest I ever heard him laugh when I said “Yea, I always could see that ball, I just couldn’t hit it.”
What is also gone that we will miss? The Wayne’isms. Wayne was from Missouri and pronounced it as such. There are so many stories that will be told and retold. So many of them laced with humor. Anyone ever hear any of these phrases?
“Get on the stick”
“Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way”
“Pull your head out babe”
“It ain’t that hard.”
And “$hit Fire!” (I haven’t heard anyone else quote that one this week but always like that one. When he was pretty demonstrative about something $hit Fire was one that came out a lot)
As I have said to others who are somewhat stunned, shocked or even upset that Wayne has left us: “He got his swings in.” It would be better to still have him in the lineup but we have to be happy about the time he spent on the field. There are not too many people where it has been important that I have their approval. He was one of them. I am glad that I was not so much of a disappointment where I did not get it. Several of my teammates expressed the same sentiment with one who said “He screamed at me for three years but it sure was nice when he was smiling because he liked what I had done.”
If you are going to make judgment on someone after they depart, there are a lot of things to consider. Some people contribute more than others. Wayne was in this category. I remember being somewhat bothered when he retired and left the field as coach, because somehow that didn’t seem right. After watching him enjoy his retirement and seeing him nearly every year, I was so pleased that he did all the work he did over decades and then had one absolutely fantastic time in retirement.
I have to admit it. I am so disappointed to see you go. But I also have to concede, I couldn’t be happier to have known you!
I would like to end it with Wayne having the last words. Wayne’s address to the school after more than three decades at Agua Fria:
“It’s not just the big wins and championships, although those are of importance, and easier to remember. We’ve had a lot of fine young men in our program over the years, many of whom were great players, but being a good person is of most importance. I have really enjoyed my 34 years with Agua Fria, 31 of those as a head baseball coach and as the Post 61 American Legion coach in the summers. There have been many good times. The continuing friendships with past players and the opportunity to see them go on to have success in their lives makes coaching very rewarding.”