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The joy of softball coaching

For unbeaten Shanahan's Ron Savastio, it has been a new lease on life.

Ron Savastio, Bishop Shanahan’s 79-year-old softball coach, laughs while high-fiving his players after a practice drill Thursday (4/12/12). (LOU RABITO / Staff)
Ron Savastio, Bishop Shanahan’s 79-year-old softball coach, laughs while high-fiving his players after a practice drill Thursday (4/12/12). (LOU RABITO / Staff)Read more

It was 3:10 p.m. last Tuesday when Ron Savastio began to lean against the Bishop Shanahan fence - the giveaway that the fun-loving 79-year-old coach might turn serious, according to catcher Claudia Boggi.

Savastio chewed and spit out a handful of sunflower seeds. He popped a piece of gum into his mouth and began chewing some more. Practice was supposed to start at 3:15, but only six girls from the undefeated Eagles had arrived, chatting and giggling.

Wearing a white "Eagles Softball" shirt tucked into khaki pants, Savastio already had carried two buckets of balls to the empty dirt field and walked the 500-some feet to the outfield bleachers and back to check on the junior varsity team.

"Where is everybody?" he wondered.

"I don't know," one of the girls answered. "We were helping somebody get asked to prom."

As a hard-nosed hardball coach for more than 30 years, Savastio used to scream and holler until umpires tossed him out of games. Now, the former building inspector and major-league scout has found his calling coaching a group of teenage girls in a game he barely knew 11 years ago, when he joined the Shanahan staff as an assistant.

"I wish I could've done this 50 years ago," said Savastio, who took over as coach in 2007.

Shortly after he arrived at Shanahan, the South Philadelphia native learned he had diabetes. Three things helped him change his lifestyle: eating more healthfully, drinking less, and coaching softball.

"I have 10 times the energy that I had before. It's amazing," he said.

The coach they call "Pops" started practice Tuesday in Downingtown by hitting three to five ground balls to each of his eight infielders, depending on how many begged, "Can I get another?" after weak tappers or fielding errors.

Then he hit three more rounds for plays at first, second, and home. As always, he used his black Louisville slugger bat, half covered in green tape, because the girls think it's lucky.

For 45 minutes, the softball field became a comedy show. The running monologue came from the old man at home plate - "Bend down! Little shrimp like you!" "Get out of the road!" "Who's at two? Jeez!" - and the high-pitched laugh track echoed from the infielders.

"They were so giddy last week. I said to them, 'Sitting up there [on the hill] and watching you girls, I'd wonder how you ever won a ball game,' " Savastio said.

The Eagles are 11-0, having allowed just seven total runs. Last season, they went 16-0 and won the school's first-ever Ches-Mont League title.

"We have Ron as our coach, we have fun, and we win," centerfielder Erica Keen said. "Everyone else has mean, serious coaches and they lose."

It's easy to play for a coach who lets his captains run in-game huddles and fills out lineup cards with nicknames: Cheese, Princess, Squeaky, and so on.

And coaching softball, Savastio said, is "so much easier" than coaching baseball. He realized that on his first day as Eagles head coach, when he experimented by watching his players from the hill before practice.

Unsupervised boys, he knew, would be climbing fences or throwing rocks. The girls were stretching and running.

When he saw them gather in a circle, he finally walked down: "What do we got, a tea party going on here?"

"We're not allowed to throw until a coach is here," they told him.

Goofiness quickly took over because of Savastio's grandfatherly nature, though he is older than most of their grandfathers. At this point, his players catch him in senior moments as much as his five grandchildren do.

"He calls all of our third basemen Allison," said Boggi - a.k.a. "Speedy."

Yet he's become more of a friend than anything else. The girls line up for high-fives after fielding practice - shortstop Alyssa Lewis gets a fist-bump - and laugh at his incredible ability to evade batted balls as third-base coach.

Tabatha Kerr, a 2006 Shanahan graduate, came back to coach the junior-varsity team. "I had to," she said. "He's Pops."

The boys from the Babe Ruth League still tell him he is the best coach they ever had.

In Savastio's five decades of coaching, no player has amazed him more than senior pitcher Kate Poppe, who has struck out 136 in 74 innings this season.

Last April, Poppe - a.k.a. "Riser" - threw the first perfect game Savastio had ever witnessed from the bench. At the next practice, he brought her a laminated copy of the score sheet, and she cried.

"You did this for me?" Poppe asked Pops.

"You realize what you did for me?" he answered.