Edwin Leal began teaching what he considered the basics when he took over the Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School baseball program in Tampa three seasons ago. Leal realized quickly he had his work cut out for him. His team’s fundamental level was even further behind than where he had expected it to be.
“To be honest with you, I went back to the basics, and they were still vague,” the 47-year-old Leal said. “Kids were just lacking general foundation stuff. They didn’t have bunt defense. They didn’t have first and third plays. They had played some baseball. Some of them had recognized it, but at different levels. You had to bring everyone to one starting point.”
Leal wasn’t afraid of that. He took over Brooks-DeBartolo not looking to build a successful team in the short run, but rather to build a successful program in the long term. And to do that, he knew it required many steps, none of which could be skipped.
“It’s not just the fundamentals, it’s changing the culture of coming from nothing to something, which is kind of a challenge,” said Leal, whose youngest son plays baseball at the University of South Florida. “That’s what attracted me to it. I realized the amount of work. They’re improving. It’s not at the pace one imagines, but they’re getting better. The reasons I know that is other coaches tell you. They’ll say, ‘You’re not the pushover you were.’ We’re excited about that.”
Leal took over the program prior to the 2014 season and had about 15 kids come out to play. There was also only a varsity team then. Entering the 2016 season, he has a junior varsity team to go along with the varsity and has a total of about 35 kids playing.
Leal credits the growth in numbers to word of mouth, him getting more involved in the baseball community and just overall running a program the right way. He believes kids flock to good baseball.
One of Leal's philosophies in building the program was developing consistent baseball mentalities throughout the teams. For example, he’s preached for his players to be aggressive with first-pitch fastballs in the strike zone. It’s something all of his players regardless of age practice all the time.
“It’s a basic foundation of the game, but it’s repetition, repetition, repetition and making it part of the mentality,” Leal said. “I try to teach philosophies across the board. I’m not changing their stances or anything like that. It’s a mental approach of everyone being on the same page in certain situations in games.”
Leal has witnessed those lessons being embraced by his upperclassmen, and those upperclassmen are now teaching those same lessons to the underclassmen.
“I would tell you this freshman class is picking up this stuff at a more rapid pace,” Leal said. “It took two years to mold the junior class. The junior class has only known me, and they know my expectations. They know what I’m looking for. They start telling the freshmen even before I arrive.”
Progress is being made in that respect, but it’s also being made in wins and losses. Brooks-DeBartolo finished a few games under .500 in Leal’s first season and improved to .500 last season. The school has moved into a tougher conference this season and it may be more difficult to improve on last season’s record, but it’s something Leal thinks will be good for the program.
“They’re solid programs that recruit well that we’re going up against,” Leal said. “I look forward to it because the competition is going to be great. We’re going to be tested and see where we’re at.”
As for his ultimate goals, he has a couple on and off the field.
“My goals are kind of parallel,” Leal said. “I want to see them graduate and be the best they can be. If they become good young men and contribute to society, I’ve done my job.
“As a coach, I’d like to get to the point where we’re a competitive program and when teams play us they know they’re going to get a clean game. We want to play hard, and it's going to take a team game to beat us.”