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Calexico renames street in honor of ‘hero-benching' CHS coach Elmer Belcher

December 30, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE

Staff Writer

CALEXICO — To move over a runner, Elmer Belcher called for a bunt.

It was a "by-the-book" coaching call from the longtime "by-the-book" coach of the Calexico High School baseball team.

The Bulldog at the plate ignored Coach Belcher. Instead of bunting, the headstrong teen walloped a home run.

As the player rounded third base, triumphant, the kids in the dugout were beside themselves, remembers Belcher's widow, Herlinda.

Those Bulldogs knew what was going to happen to the home-run trotter when he returned to the bench.

"The kid thought he was the hero," she said.

Belcher benched the "hero" for the rest of the game.

To this day, people still ask her if the story of the "benched home run hero" is true.

Unblinking, she says, "You better believe it. That's how he was."

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Elmer Belcher died in 1998. He was 62.

On Saturday morning, one of Belcher's former players, Carl Monninger, climbed a ladder to unveil a new blue sign marking E. Belcher Street.

Earlier this year the City Council approved the renaming of a stretch of Ethel Street between Encinas and Andrade avenues south of Calexico High.

That stretch of Ethel was singled out for honoring Belcher because the house he lived in is across the street from the high school, where Ethel (now Belcher) connects with Encinas.

Mayor Victor Carrillo said Belcher walked the street that now bears his name every day in the 1960s during his time as the city recreation director.

The street served as a path between Belcher's house and the city swimming pool. Belcher would walk back and forth while supervising or organizing recreation activities for the city's children.

"That area carries his legacy," Carrillo said.

After the unveiling of the new street sign and a short ceremony, former players and his wife talked about the physical education teacher and former cross-country/baseball coach.

The man who would ask for Herlinda Rodriguez' hand in marriage in 1965 came to Calexico in 1960 to teach physical education classes.

Before driving into Calexico, Belcher had spent the vast majority of his life in Draffin, Ky. Draffin is just down a highway from Belcher, Ky. The town was named for George Belcher, a Revolutionary War soldier who settled in what would become Appalachian Kentucky.

Growing up in the sports tradition-rich state of Kentucky, Belcher became fascinated with the science of athletics. He would continue to be fascinated with athletic theory for the rest of his life.

"He was a voracious reader. He'd read about new training methods, nutrition, coach's books — yes, Pat Riley's book. He liked Riley because (the Miami Heat coach) went to the University of Kentucky," Herlinda Belcher said.

Whenever or whatever Elmer Belcher taught or coached in Calexico, he tried to pass on the information he had gleaned from all those books.

"That's why so many of his students went on to become coaches," she said.

Belcher coached Calexico High baseball from the early 1970s to 1988. When he stepped aside, he did so to let his former assistants and, then, players take over the program, she said.

Two of his former students, Carrillo and Councilman Gilbert Grijalva, went into politics instead of coaching. They too were affected by Belcher's encompassing passion for athletics.

"He paid attention to detail, fundamentals and commitment. Your word was your bond, as was his," Carrillo said.

Recalling moments similar to the "benched home run hero" game, Carrillo said, "(Belcher) could be your best friend off the field but on the field he was all business," he said.

Asked about Belcher before Saturday's ceremony, Grijalva said, "He made us work!"

He continued, "He wouldn't get on you for physical errors but mental errors he wouldn't tolerate."

In 1974 Grijalva and Monninger played on Belcher's Bulldog baseball team that won a share of the Desert Valley League championship.

"(Belcher) did it with smoke and mirrors. I don't think we had a guy hit .300 that year," Grijalva said.

He called that year's Bulldog team a scrappy version of the 1974 Oakland A's, constantly stealing bases and working the hit-and-run.

"He knew we were never going to hit a home run," he added.

Monninger was one of the driving forces for getting the stretch of Ethel named for Belcher.

During the ceremony preceding the sign unveiling, Monninger choked up at the podium. He stood silent for a short while and wiped his eyes.

When he spoke, he said, "I have a lot of feeling for him that just kind of continued.

"He was like a father to me — and not just ball players."

Belcher's wife said she hopes people remember her husband's work with the community's youth in addition to recalling his coaching success.

"Many young people that got close to him weren't involved in athletics. He was a sounding board, the teacher students could come talk to if they were having a problem," she said.

On one night she remembers opening the door of their Encinas Avenue home to a shaking former student who was going through drug withdrawals.

She said former students in their 40s still stop by the house to find out if "Mr. Belcher" is still around.

"Because of the sign, we're going to have to get the house fixed up," she said, smiling.

Closing his remarks and the morning ceremony, Monninger thanked the City Council for honoring his Little League and high school baseball coach with the street sign.

His eyes swollen with tears, he said in a hoarse voice, "There are going to be people who ask who Mr. Belcher was."

>> Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or claverie7@hotmail.com.

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