Jim Lawler officially stepped down from his duties as Mingus Union’s pitching coach before this season.
These days, you’ll find him hanging out behind the fence during games, enjoying conversation with friends and watching the action alongside his wife, Cindy, the team’s scorekeeper.
In a way, though, Lawler is still the patriarch of the Marauder bullpen. He’s worked with all four starters — his son Pat, Eli Arnett, Chris French and Albert Rodriguez — for several years. He coached them on summer and fall traveling teams, and until this season, had them in the spring as well.
He remembers well their "Bad News Bears" beginnings years ago when they struggled against stacked teams from Phoenix. He remembers how they began to develop confidence and skills — and began winning against that tough competition.
He remembers watching each of the four develop his own pitching trademarks, from Pat’s fire-hot fastball to Eli’s crazy curve to Chris’ deceiving change-up to Albert’s knuckler.
All the while, Lawler kept this year in mind – the time when all four would have the chance to make a huge impact for the Mingus varsity.
"Those guys heard it from me all the time," Lawler said. "I told them in the Sandy Koufax League, you guys are working now for when you are juniors and seniors."
In his more relaxed role as dad and fan this spring, Lawler has enjoyed the fruits of his and his players’ labors.
The Marauders entered this week’s Grand Canyon Region tournament with a 24-4 overall record. Of those wins, 23 are credited to the "Big Four" pitchers.
Mingus held the number one ranking in the state for a several weeks in April and dethroned Sinagua as the region regular season champions. The Marauders are listed as one of the favorites to capture the state 4A title next week along with elite teams like Chaparral, Greenway and Tucson Santa Rita.
Mingus has definitely been blessed with talent up and down the line-up. One glance at the stat sheet will tell you that – seven regular starters have a .366 batting average or better and some of the reserves are hitting in the .400s.
But in many ways, the younger Lawler, Arnett, French and Rodriguez have been the driving force from the mound. It’s hard to argue with a 23-4 pitching record and a combined ERA of 2.16.
"It’s real nice because you know if any of us four pitch, we’ve got a good chance at winning," says Arnett, who threw a no-hitter in March and came within one play of a perfect game.
Baseball has been a lifelong love for the foursome. They all began their careers wanting to be pitchers, one of the scariest positions on the field.
Rodriguez’s father played the game, something Jim Lawler recognized when he first started working with him.
Pat Lawler has had plenty in his family go before him on the hill. His older brother, Jimmy, pitched for Mingus, Yavapai College and Colorado School of Mines. Jim Lawler had a successful high school career. Pat’s grandfather, also named Jim, pitched in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and played semipro ball in Minneapolis.
"We’re a pitching family," Jim Lawler says.
At many schools, each player would have the chance to be a number one starter. Together they give coach Brad Grauberger and new pitching coach Bob Young a plethora of options.
If you need heat, enter Pat. If you’re facing a good fastball hitting team like Chaparral, French’s "cheddar change-up" or Rodriguez’s curve or knuckler might do the trick.
"If someone is having a bad day, I can go quickly to someone else, and they can pick up the slack," Grauberger says. "And if not, I can go quickly to someone else."
Those bad days, fortunately, have been few and far between. The only real letdown came in the season finale against Sinagua. Three of the four pitchers struggled in the 10-4 loss.
But each has enjoyed plenty more highlights than lowlights.
French recorded a key save in the first meeting with Sinagua, striking out the last two batters to preserve a 4-3 triumph. His last pitch – ye olde cheddar ball. Rodriguez kept Page guessing throughout the second half of a double-header with his deceiving moves. Lawler overpowered several teams with his fast balls near 90 mph.
Arnett’s no-hitter against Sunrise Mountain drew statewide attention. A walk in the seventh was all that kept him from his perfect game. Arnett faced just 22 batters, striking out six.
"I knew going into that last inning that I had it going, so I was pretty pumped up," Arnett said.
Grauberger and Young had tried to keep things quiet as the game progressed, as is customary in baseball circles when a no-hitter continues past the first few innings. They just looked at each other and smiled at the magical moment.
"We didn’t have to say a word," Grauberger said.
Pat has the strongest arm of the bunch, but coaches will tell you he doesn’t have the "perfect" build to be a fastball pitcher. He does have the passion and work ethic, however.
"The thing Pat does so well is that he uses his whole body, not just his arm," Jim Lawler says. "That’s how he’s been able to throw it so well."
Rodriguez, a three-sport star, has added 3-4 miles per hour to his fastball this year. That makes him even more dangerous – he can trick you with the curve or blow it by you with his power.
"Basketball is his first love, but he’s a great baseball player," Jim Lawler says. "The kid’s got a great arm. He’s got the right build and the right genes."
While Pat and Albert are juniors, Arnett and French will graduate this May. They’ve already signed on to continue their baseball careers at Yavapai College. They'll be welcome additions.
But first there’s the matter of the state 4A playoffs. This year’s format favors a pitching-rich school like Mingus. Twenty-one teams advance, action begins Monday and concludes with the title game next Saturday.
A team with one ace might win the first round but will struggle the next day. A group like the Marauders, though, have the depth to make a run through the week if all the other pieces fall into place.
Mingus will likely start on Tuesday with a home game. The next round is Wednesday in Tucson. The Final Four is Friday, also in Tucson.
Mingus earned a Final Four trip in 1999. Rodriguez and Lawler were on the freshman team that year. French and Arnett, one year ahead of them, played on the varsity – Arnett at third base and French as an understudy.
"I got to sit the bench," French jokes. "But I was there."
With another deep playoff run possible this spring, you might think Jim Lawler would have been eager to stay on as an assistant coach. But he stepped aside, leaving pitching duties in good hands with Bob Young, after working with the players once a week this fall.
"I decided I wanted to be 'Dad' and not 'coach,'" Jim said.
That decision has opened up a new relationship between father and son, he says. The two talk more about life and the game they both love, and Jim can be more of an encourager rather than the instructor seeking perfection from his pupil.
"Now, I can just talk to him and he shares with me," Jim says. "Subtly, I kind of throw him little things (to work on), but I’ve learned to praise the things he does. What I try to do every game is to make it exciting for him. He’s got a lot of promise."
The elder Lawler gets to play that role for all four of the Marauder prodigies. He’s watched with pride all season as the group has matured even more – and now stands on the doorstep of the state playoffs.
"My goal for them was that they would one day have the chance to play for a state title," Jim says. "It would be really, really cool if that happened."