Softball won’t be the same without ‘Coach Mac’

By Jim Hague

Observer Sports Writer

He wasn’t a very big man, but his stature was larger than life. He didn’t serve as a head coach in the sport of softball, but he was the premier coach when it came to the art of softball pitching. If you wanted to improve your pitching skills, you went to Jim MacDonald, affectionately known as “Coach Mac.”

The Lyndhurst resident was without question the foremost knowledgeable person when it came to pitching a softball. No one knows the origin of his brilliance, but everyone now knows that if you wanted to be a good softball pitcher, you took lessons from the genius.

“He knew so much about softball,” said former Lyndhurst High School standout hurler Casey Zdanek, currently pitching at Drew University. “I learned so much from him. I’ve been going to him since I was 10 years old.”

Jim MacDonald died last week after a brief illness that caught everyone who knew him totally by surprise. The obituary about Mac- Donald’s passing listed his age as 78, but no one could fathom that idea, because he had more fire in his belly and pep in his step than most men half his age.

The litany of successful high school and college pitchers who went to MacDonald for private pitching lessons would astound anyone. Over the last 30 years, it is believed that close to 1,000 prospective hurlers went to MacDonald for pitching advice.

MacDonald received a few pence for his private lessons, which were supposed to last just 30 minutes, but more than likely, were extended to an hour. He worked day and night with softball hurlers, teaching them how to mix up their pitches, how to locate pitches, how to dominate in the circle.

“Honestly, for me, it’s like losing my grandfather,” Zdanek said. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much I learned from him. Not just only about softball, but about life. He always had these little life tales. No matter what was going on in my life, I could go to him. He knew so much about softball. He also always had little stories. He had such a good sense of humor.”

Zdanek still uses what she learned from the pitching guru.

“The main thing is go after the batter,” Zdanek said. “You have to stay ahead. Show them early that you have a changeup. That’s important to have. He made my changeup so good and taught me how to use it. He taught me to use it as a weapon and to not let them know when it was coming. He told me to face the first batter and throw three changeups in a row, so the other team knows I had a good one. It keeps them off balance. Added Zdanek, “If someone is crowding the plate, throw the screwball, so you let them smell the seams of the ball.”

Lyndhurst High School viceprincipal Frank Venezia spent 16 years with MacDonald at St. Mary’s of Rutherford, where Venezia was the head softball coach and MacDonald a volunteer assistant.

“We were very close,” Venezia said. “We were close until the end. He’s going to be missed. People don’t realize the magnitude of how many people he touched in his lifetime.”

Venezia recalled how he became paired with MacDonald.

“A pitcher Mac worked with named Donna Recker was pitching at Wood-Ridge and later Seton Hall,” Venezia said. “Mac was working with Donna and she was a real nice young lady. Well, she was diagnosed with cancer while at Seton Hall and she had to stop playing. I asked her to see if she was interested in helping me out at St. Mary’s and she came on. Mac was very close with her, so he came aboard.”

Recker succumbed to the cancer soon after, but MacDonald and Venezia remained close.

“We were together with several different teams, like the New Jersey Shilohs and the Clifton Charmers,” Venezia said. “Mac was a phenomenal instructor. The biggest thing with him was to make sure mechanics were sound. He emphasized with kids that learning how to pitch wasn’t simply throwing hard. It was about analyzing batters, changing speeds. Whatever you could do to help a kid get better, that’s what he was all about.”

Venezia stopped coaching when he became an administrator in the Lyndhurst school district in 2004.

“There were a lot of games together, a lot of good memories,” Venezia said. “He touched so many kids. It’s going to be difficult for us to see someone who is like Mac, the way he dedicated himself to the game, to the kids, was exceptional.”

Bloomfield resident Rob Stern has been coaching softball for the last quarter century, including a long run as the head coach at Cedar Grove. Now helping to run the successful program at Mount St. Dominic, Stern also has fond memories of his relationship with Mac.

“I spent many a night taking my girls to get lessons from Mac in Lyndhurst,” Stern said. “I’d watch a few lessons, then a few more. Next thing you know, it’s 9:30 and Mac says, ‘Let’s get something to eat.’ And we’d hang out at the IHOP on Rt. 3 just talking softball.”

Stern also learned life lessons from “Coach Mac.”

“Mac was always about the kids,” Stern said. “It was all about teaching kids the right way. He just had a way about him that he would give a kid a lesson and always made that kid leave with a smile. He was able to get the best out of people. The knowledge he left me with, just being around him. So many little things, Mac things. He just had that Grandpa feel about him. Everyone loved him. I can’t find anyone who didn’t love him.”

MacDonald also coached kids no matter where they came from. For example, he worked with Zdanek pitching for Lyndhurst, knowing that Zdanek would eventually have to face his St. Mary’s team. The rivalry never mattered. It was all about the kid. “

He would stop by my house and sit with me and my parents on my porch,” Zdanek said. “He would drive back and forth to see if we were there. He’d then stop by and give me something to work on, some strategy. No matter what, he always came and talked to me. Even when I did good, he had a little critique to make me a better player.”

Zdanek was asked what she will remember most.

“His adorable smile and laugh,” Zdanek said. “It really was contagious. His smile would make anyone’s day. I’m very sad.” Stern was also asked what he’ll remember.

“He always looked the same,” Stern said. “He didn’t age. He was like Dick Clark. He always pitched and caught with kids. He was doing that three months ago. He was a great guy. He’s always going to be with us. His knowledge, teaching kids about doing the right thing. That’s what I’ll remember.”

One thing is for sure. No one will ever know more about softball and pitching like Jim MacDonald. Coach Mac’s legacy will live on with the many pitchers and coaches he worked with over the years. A one-of-a-kind gentleman, Jim MacDonald, a.k.a. “Coach Mac,” will be missed but never forgotten.

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