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PETALUMA - Nice thing about having a conversation with Paul Maytorena, it’s like watching an octopus. Eight legs going everywhere. In this case, in this interview, a trombone, oral cancer, Cardinal Newman football, parking cars, human remains, hugging parents, a boat in the water and, oh yes, baseball came up sooner or later.

Casa Grande’s Maytorena, coach of the state’s sixth-ranked Division 2 baseball team and the No. 1 seed in its North Coast Section division playoff, prides himself on flexibility, the unquenchable thirst to learn, to grow, to make himself a better person, and in no way is that desire more evident than this — his ex-wife, Casey, lives with Maytorena and their two daughters, Tatum, 16, and Brooke, 14.

“People shake their head and wonder how,” said Maytorena, 46. “But Casey and I get along better than we ever have. We are there for our kids. It’s working out great.”

So said the Control Freak, er, the former Control Freak. For the first 10 years after he took over the Casa baseball job from Bob Leslie, Maytorena was fueled by the unquenchable thirst to control. Intense, passionate, wanting to live up to the trust Leslie placed in him, knowing an off-campus coach doesn’t have the security blanket around him that an on-campus teacher-coach has, Maytorena pushed hard against that insecurity. Oh, and he was only 24.

Sure, OK, he knew the game. He was named Athlete of the Year in 1998 at Homestead High School in Cupertino. Wore No. 32 in tribute to Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum. Got a baseball scholarship to Colorado State, finished at Sonoma State under John Goelz, a baseball man. Spent three years under Leslie, another baseball man. Sure, he knew the game. But the ground is littered with baseball men who know the game but deliver that knowledge with a hammer.

Ten years into it, with never a losing season and averaging 20 victories, Maytorena began to release his grip on that hammer. The game needn’t be a forced march. It could be more fun. He didn’t have to mute his passion. He could redirect it.

Like this: Once a year Maytorena asks his players to perform a Random Act of Kindness. He asks this on a Monday. He wants an example on Thursday. He spent more time getting to know his players as people. He went out of his way to do that, realizing a basic human truth.

“No one cares how much you know,” he said, “until they know how much you care.”

So all that baseball knowledge is a thunderclap, direct, understood but delivered with all the subtlety of megaphone, unless there’s a human being behind it, not Thor.

“Hug your parents for no good reason!” Maytorena tells his kids. He tells his kids two other things, two things before each season, two things that aren’t warm and fuzzy, two things at the core of Casa baseball.

“Don’t do anything to embarrass the program, the PROGRAM, not the team,” Maytorena said. That mandate is easy to accept — Maytorena has averaged 20 victories a year for 20 years.

Continued Maytorena, “Then I tell them what their role is. I tell them ‘this is how I see you now. It can change but right now this is how I see you.’ Then I give them 24 hours to think it over and then come back with their answer. I tell them ‘Once the ship leaves the dock I don’t want anybody to jump off.’ I’d rather have a player tell me ‘I think I’ll be a better trombone player.’ I would really respect that.”

The players respond because of all that and for another reason: Maytorena avoids a major pratfall all too common — he doesn’t give his best players a wink and a nod if they misbehave. Example: Spencer Torkelson, bound for Arizona State, is his best player but finds no wiggle room because of that.

“In the four years Spencer has been here,” Maytorena said, “I’ve had three, maybe four times, I had to correct him. But I work on him as hard as anyone. The players notice. It’s like cattle. They fall in line.”

Maytorena is so interested in learning how to deal with human beings that he talks to Newman football coach Paul Cronin once a week. They coach different sports but they coach teenagers, that commonality transcends everything, including the joke of jokes, that Cronin is from that “evil” Newman.

With a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology Maytorena wants knowledge even more than knowing if Casa will win its next game. It’s his security blanket against threats, real or perceived. So his three assistant varsity coaches are all former players of his: Spencer Finkbonner, Whitey Markovich and Greg Bridges. He knows what they know because he taught them. One of them is the uniqueness of their enterprise.

“All 13 baseball coaches are off-campus guys,” Maytorena said. If that’s not a record for a high school sport, who has it? Not likely, anymore than Maytorena is 403-135. No other public coach in the North Bay has won more. Fifty of his players have been all-league. Sixteen of his players have or will go on to play college baseball and another eight were MLB draftees.

Numbers follow Maytorena around like an entourage. He’s won three NBL titles in five years. He’s got SCLs. He’s won six NCS titles and is the odds-on favorite to win No. 7. You ask Maytorena about those numbers and he responds with a blank stare. You might as well ask him how many grains of sand are on the world’s beaches. Gordie Wirtz, who’s been at the school for 25 years, supplies the numbers and one other thing.

“His practices aren’t cookie cutter,” Wirtz said. “He locates the weaknesses of the team and works on him.”

Maytorena won’t volunteer, either, that he loves coaching Casa baseball so much he almost lost the job, as odd as that reads. A few years ago a health club closed, the one he ran that gave him the flexibility to coach. A coach’s stipend of $2,000 doesn’t pay the bills. Maytorena’s good fortune landed him at the Graton Casino where he’s Valet Leader, the guy who parks cars. Does that embarrass him? Nah. He has too many other things in his life that offer an overwhelming counterweight.

Like the ashes in the third coaching box at Casa’s field.

Bob Leslie wasn’t just his friend. He was Maytorena’s mentor, inspiration. “He was the reason I’m at Casa,” he said. “I was going to be his assistant forever.”

In 1998 Leslie died of oral cancer. Leslie’s father, Rich, suggested his son be cremated and that his ashes be spread inside the third base coaching box. Terrific, said Maytorena. And the new head coach decided he wouldn’t desecrate the affection he has for Leslie by standing in the box.

So since 1998 Maytorena has never stood in the box at Casa or, for that matter, in any third base box. Other coaches who don’t know the story complain to umpires that Maytorena is trying to steal signs. If the umpire doesn’t know, he questions Maytorena. Maytorena explains. The explanation has never been rebuked.

“Bob always told me that I need to coach my way, not his,” Maytorena said.

Maytorena didn’t know it at the time but he never thought one day he’d ask his kids to hug their mom. It might be the one development that makes him the most proud. He’s not just making them better baseball players. He’s making them better people. Which, in the long haul, is really the whole point, isn’t it?

To contact Bob Padecky email him at bobpadecky@gmail.com.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story contained incorrect ages for Paul Maytorena's daughters.