SAN BERNARDINO, California -- Steve Hernandez, first base coach for the Inland Empire 66ers, is a baseball lifer.
"This is my 47th year in a baseball uniform," he said, speaking at Inland Empire's San Manuel Stadium prior to Thursday's game against the Visalia Rawhide. "From little league to high school to college to head coaching in high school and now in the Minor Leagues."
This trajectory is an odd one. Rare is the Minor League coach who never played professionally, and rarer still is a coach who didn't make his professional debut until well into his 50s. Hernandez, described to me by 66ers front office members as a "local legend," followed a path all his own.
"I taught [high school] for 36 years and I was a head baseball coach for 26 of those 36 years," said Hernandez. "I was at Fontana High School from 1980 to '99, and I was fortunate to coach Greg Colbrunn and Chuckie Carr there, who both played in the big leagues."
In the early 2000s, Hernandez transferred to Redlands East Valley High School. There, he played a role in nurturing the talent of three more future Major Leaguers: Tyler Chatwood, Matt Andriese and the late Tommy Hanson. ("God rest his soul," said Hernandez upon mentioning Hanson, who passed away in 2015 from an accidental cocaine overdose).
Hernandez made his first inroads into the world of professional baseball in 1998, when he began working for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as a volunteer scout. (The 66ers, then as now, are the Angels' Class A Advanced affiliate.)
"At the time, Darrel Miller was the [Angels] scout in the Inland Empire, and he ran the scout team. He asked me if I'd like to help and have a couple of my [high school] players maybe play on the team. And from there it just kind of grew. I became a volunteer scout and then part-time and now I'm full-time."
Hernandez retired from high school coaching in 2008 but still devotes much of his time to coordinating scout ball leagues, games and tournaments (scout ball provides area scouts and college coaches an opportunity to view top amateur talent). But when Hernandez first operated in this capacity, he discovered newfound gaps in his baseball knowledge.
"When I would talk to potential high school draftees in my area, I found that there were some questions I couldn't answer," he said. "I didn't play Minor League Baseball, but parents would ask me what it's like and I just really felt that was a shortcoming on my part. I couldn't answer those questions."
Abe Flores, then the Angels' director of player development, assigned Hernandez to the organization's Rookie-level Arizona League affiliate so he could learn first-hand what it is like to live a Minor League lifestyle.
"I helped out as the bullpen coach, lived in the same hotel as the players and went through the routines," he said. "But I live 15 minutes away from [San Manuel] stadium. Tom Gamboa was the [66ers] manager then, and he said, 'Why are you going all the way to Arizona to help out when you're 15 minutes away?'"
Long story short, Hernandez was assigned to the 66ers coaching staff in 2011 and has been with the team ever since.
"I've learned what the word 'grind' really means," he said of life in the Minor Leagues. "Pro ball, people think it's this glamorous world. And it is if you get to the big leagues, but you find that in order to play in the Minor Leagues, and coach in the Minor Leagues, you've got to really love the game of baseball.
"When you're dealing with high school players for 26 years, and parents, and people like that, you learn to communicate a little better than maybe most people," he continued. "I try to help guide these kids. I'm here as a listening board. They're away from home, they're not playing very well, so I kind of get a feeling of who's who and why this is happening and then I end up trying to help them."
Hernandez is able to do this within the area he's lived and worked his entire life.
"People have seen me at the high school level and now they see me coaching first base here [with the 66ers]," he said. "So I guess people kind of give you that term -- "local legend" ... "the living legend." Well, I'm glad I'm the living legend and not just the legend!"
And like any baseball lifer, legendary or not, Hernandez plans on staying in the game as long as he possibly can.
"I tell you what. There are thoughts that someday, because of my body or mind, I won't be able to handle the grind of 140 games," he said. "And I'm dreading the time of that happening. But for a 64-year-old man, I'm still going out to first base and dodging foul balls that are hit at me. And it keeps me young. It keeps me young."