It was a cold, gray day in March of 1975. The Cochise College baseball team, of which I was a member, headed for Tucson to take on the Pima College Aztecs. (Back in those days, there was a strictly enforced 55 mph speed limit on the Interstate and it took FOREVER to get anywhere for games.) It was the first year of baseball for Pima; they didn’t even have a home field yet. The game was to be played at Santa Rita Park on 22nd near Downtown.
I had gone to Cochise on a basketball scholarship and had joined the baseball team after hoop season finished up. I was a pitcher, but I had only been on the team for a week or so and hadn’t seen any action. When we got on the field to warm up, my coach asked me to hit some fly balls to the outfielders. I got out the fungo and went at it. I could hit them right up to and sometimes slightly over the outfield fence and it soon became a spirited contest among the outfielders.
I biffed and popped one straight up. One of the outfielders good-naturedly yelled, “Who taught you how to hit?” I responded with the obvious answer, “Your mama!”
Suddenly, from inside the Pima dugout came a voice, “Can you please watch your language?” I turned and saw a guy with oddly (for the time) short hair, combed perfectly to one side. I said, “Who are you? Richie Cunningham?”
Their dugout exploded with laughter and leading the way was their first-year coach, Rich Alday. We made eye contact and he gave me a little “Wassup?” head nod. Later in the game, I got to pitch the last inning. I was strictly a junk baller; my “fastball” couldn’t break glass. My knucklehead catcher kept putting down the one-finger signal. The first two batters hit screaming line drives at my third baseman, who caught them, barely escaping with his life.
Up to the plate strode Richie Cunningham. He was out in front of my first two “fastballs” and hit long foul balls. On the third pitch, I decided to defy my catcher and throw some junk. I’m not really sure how the Vaseline ended up on the baseball, but the ball squirted out of my hand perfectly and, when it got to the plate, it dove two feet straight down. Richie basically screwed himself into the ground for strike three. Coach Alday looked at me, smiled, and did a “Tsk tsk” motion with his finger. He didn’t say anything but I could tell that he was filing it away in case we ever faced off again in the future. (Fortunately, we didn’t.)
I’d see him every now and then and he was always gracious. He had a delightful sense of humor and he would chuckle “Richie Cunningham.” One time, we were with a bunch of other coaches and, staring right at me, he kept trying to sneak the word “lubricant” into the conversation.
Alday knew what he was getting into. The Arizona Community College Athletic Conference (ACCAC) was a hotbed for baseball; that year, Yavapai would win the national championship. But he plugged away at it and, in a few years, Pima became a powerhouse. In the 1980s, Pima won 368 games, won five Conference championships, and reached the national championship finals three times. He was so well-respected in baseball circles that he was a part of the coaching staff for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.
In 1990, he made the leap to the NCAA, taking the job at the University of New Mexico. Many thought it was a dead-end job, but he somehow managed to win 515 games with the Lobos. When the job opened up at the University of Arizona, Alday was one of the two finalists for the position. (It went to long-time assistant Jerry Stitt.)
It is said that a good coach can coach anything. The story is told of Vince Lombardi, fresh out of college, being asked to coach a high-school basketball team. After admitting that he had never even seen a basketball game before, Lombardi studied a basketball rule book and then proceeded to coach the team to the State championship game.
After coaching baseball for 40 years, Alday pulled a late-in-life switch and became the softball coach at Ironwood Ridge High School. All he did there was go 107-33 in four years, guiding the Nighthawks to Class 5A State championships in 2014 and 2016.
Alday, 71, had been battling cancer. He and his wife, Norma, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last July. In 1995, the couple lost their beloved son, Ambrose, to cancer at the age of 16. Rich is a Tucson legend. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. He will be missed.
Extra Points: We mourn the loss of long-time Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, who died at the age of 93. Lasorda represented a time when baseball was honest and fan-friendly and was actually cool…The University of Arizona men’s basketball team lost at McKale Center to USC and UCLA last weekend. You can probably count on one hand the number of times that the Cats have lost back-to-back home games in the past 35 years. Strange days…