EDUCATION IS HIS GREATEST PITCH FORMER MAJOR LEAGUER MAGNANTE PURSUES HIS REAL PASSION: TEACHING.
AGOURA HILLS - Students at Agoura High started showing up to class with baseball cards this semester. Before and after classes, they love to talk to the man pictured on those cards about the 12 years he spent in the major leagues. In between, they listen to him give a math lesson.
Mike Magnante is following his career as a major-league baseball player with a job he calls his real life-long dream: Being a high school math teacher. The former pitcher earned his teaching credential in January and is in his first semester as an algebra and geometry teacher at Agoura, where he also serves as the pitching coach for the playoff-bound baseball team.
``I don't know who's doing who a favor,'' Magnante said. ``Me teaching them, or them letting me have this great experience. It's so great to be able to give back and do something you love. I always wanted to teach. I'm lucky, I'm doing what I want.''
Magnante isn't the only former major leaguer on a local campus. Bret Saberhagen is the head coach of Calabasas and Rich Rodriguez is the pitching coach at Moorpark. But what sets Magnante apart is that he is also in the classroom.
``He is exactly what we look for in a teacher,'' Agoura vice principal Dave Jackson said. ``It's just a bonus that he's a coach and a former major leaguer. He's great. ... I knew what kind of person he was, so when he got his credential, we snatched him up.''
Magnante, 39, expected to start his teaching career years earlier. As the son of teachers, he appreciated the value of education and knew at an early age he wanted to follow in their footsteps. He called himself ``a freak who always loved school.''
When he graduated from Burroughs High of Burbank and headed to UCLA, he figured his days as an athlete were finished. Basketball was his favorite sport, and he was a self-described ``small, slow, white guy.''
``I never thought I'd be a baseball player,'' Magnante said. ``After high school, I was done as far as I was concerned. My dad kept telling me to go out for the baseball team. The week before school started, I changed my mind. I had to change all my classes. I just never believed I could play baseball in college, much less professionally. I was set on being a teacher.
``My parents were teachers, but they actually didn't want me to be a teacher because of how little it paid. They wanted me to go into something with a little more financial security. But as I played more and did all right for myself and was able to put away some money, I knew I wouldn't have to let money dictate what I did for a living. As I got toward the end of my baseball career, I knew this is what I wanted to do, I could go into it for all the right reasons. I enjoy being around the kids and helping them.''
Magnante spent his freshman year on the UCLA junior varsity team, but by the time he graduated with a degree in applied mathematics, the left-hander had developed into a pro prospect who was selected in the 11th round of the 1988 Major League Draft by the Kansas City Royals.
Magnante made his major-league debut with the Royals in 1991. He played in the majors with four organizations, including the Angels, before finishing his playing days as a Dodgers minor leaguer in 2002.
There are few reminders of Magnante's playing days in his classroom. Although he did show his students a video tape of some humorous commercials he did with the Oakland Athletics, baseball is rarely mentioned during class time.
Students respond well to Magnante, saying they like his laid-back style and the way he takes an interest in their lives, and they appreciate his patience when they don't understand something.
``He's a cool teacher,'' said Agoura shortstop Nick Farinacci, who is in one of Magnante's algebra classes. ``He definitely knows what he's talking about. Not only is he a genius in baseball, he's just as smart off the field.''
Others would agree with that. Magnante's parents remember him knowing his multiplication tables by the time he was 6, thanks to board games he played with older neighbors. Magnante was an academic All-American at UCLA. His reputation as the studious type was the source of good-natured teasing during his playing days.
``You hear about the dumb-jock image,'' Magnante said. ``But there are those of us that might be called nerds. ... Everyone knew I was a more intellectual guy. They'd tease me about it sometimes. Like when it would rain, they'd ask, `What's the velocity of a rain drop?' I'd wear glasses when I wasn't playing, so they'd call me the librarian.''
Agoura's baseball players are more likely to call him the perfect fit for what has turned into one of the region's most successful pitching staffs. Led by Jason Stoffel, Robert Stock, Greg Gelber and UCLA-bound Jason Novak, the Chargers have a 2.62 staff ERA and enter today's regular-season finale in contention for just their second Marmonte championship.
Magnante is a stickler for low pitch counts. He teaches his pitchers to make each pitch count so they can stay in games longer. That approach has led to 11 complete games for Agoura's staff this season.
Magnante also lets his players call the pitches during games.
``He has so much knowledge he shares with us constantly,'' Stock said.
Added Stoffel: ``He teaches us things we'd never think about or have access to. He's just taught us so much about pitching. He's helped me a ton with my mechanics.''
Magnante, who enjoyed giving tips to Burroughs players when worked out there during his pro offseasons, joined Agoura's coaching staff last season while he worked toward his teaching credential. But Magnante said he now considers himself a teacher first.
``I'm exactly where I want to be,'' Magnante said. ``I hope I don't change. I love what I'm doing and I hope that feeling doesn't ever wear off. I totally enjoy going to work every day. I'm so lucky, this is my dream.''
(color) MIKE MAGNANTE
Andy Holzman/Staff Photographer