WATSONVILLE — After more than two decades of coaching at Watsonville High, James Gomez has decided to step down from both of his lead positions, he confirmed with the Pajaronian on Saturday.
Gomez, 43, was far and away the longest tenured baseball coach in Santa Cruz County, leading the Wildcatz’s baseball program for 19 years, and also served as the head coach of the boy’s basketball team for the last five years.
One of the most influential men in the Watsonville sports landscape, Gomez said his decision to stop coaching was the toughest call he’s had to make since he agreed to take on both programs in 2012. But, he said, his perspective on life had changed over the last three years.
In that time, Gomez lost his mother, Mary Ann, and grandmother, Anita Haduca, while his father, Joe, had his second stroke just three days after his son, James Jr., graduated from high school.
“I sat down and talked to my wife and things changed,” Gomez said. “My perspective on everything changed. I’m 43 years old; that’s still pretty young. I want to go travel a bit, do some things, be with my family. I think it’s the right time to go out and take some time for myself and my family.”
Watsonville Athletic Director Marcus Northcutt said he heard rumors that Gomez might step down after last baseball season but was under the impression that he would return after talking to him at the conclusion of the school year.
Gomez turned in his letter of resignation on Friday and had a long, emotional conversation with principal Elaine Legorreta about his time there.
Northcutt said Watsonville is losing one of the best coaches in the county.
“We lose someone that the kids trust and a person that they look up to,” Northcutt said. “Some of these kids have had him as a coach since the youth baseball days… You know how people call baseball players a 5-tool player? Well, we’re losing a 5-tool coach in James.”
Northcutt said both positions would be open to candidates within the Pajaro Valley Unified School District for the first five days before they become open to the public on Monday. The A.D. said the school would welcome an on-campus coach but that would not be the sole determinant of the hire.
“To find an on-campus coach or someone within the district is always the goal but that doesn’t trump finding a great character person that will fit with our kids,” Northcutt said.
Gomez has been a fixture at Watsonville since his days as a two-sport student-athlete. He starred in both basketball and baseball before graduating in 1992. He went on to play baseball at Cabrillo College and Cal State Stanislaus.
Following his college graduation, Gomez returned home and served as an assistant for two years before taking over the program in 1999. He was also an assistant coach for the boy’s basketball team for several years under now-retired head coach Bob Linney before jumping ship to Pajaro Valley High to help his brother, Robert, for two seasons.
He earned coach of the year honors for baseball in two leagues (Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League in 2006 and Monterey Bay League Pacific in 2015) and led both programs to the Central Coast Section playoffs a handful of times. He also coached at the youth level for both sports for numerous years.
Aside from a recent explosion of success, Gomez’s teams did not always produce winning records but he was still beloved and respected by the vast majority of his players.
Chris Rivera, who played for Gomez for four years at Watsonville before graduating in 2015, said he’s sad that his former coach stepped down but that his impact on the Watsonville baseball community would live on through the hundreds of kids he coached over the years.
“It was a matter of time but you still hate to see someone go from the game, especially someone like him,” said Rivera, who is now an ace closer for Long Beach State. “I think he’s at a point in his life where it was the right time to go. Family is really important to him and he always preached to us about that. He’s put so many hours and so much energy into the program. I think it’s an honor for the guys, myself included, to have been a part of his legacy, so to speak.”
Ruben Ibarra played baseball for Gomez in some shape or form for the better part of a decade. The St. Francis High alumnus said he remembers meeting Gomez for the first time at tryouts for a youth baseball team at the age of 10.
“Meeting him, I could tell he meant business and he really knew his stuff,” said Ibarra, who is set to play baseball at San Jose State this school year. “Even then, he was trying to teach me the game the right way — from the ground up. Fundamentals were always first… It was like hearing it from a professor.”
Gomez said he holds plenty of memories near and dear. Coaching his son at the high school level, winning league championships in 2008 and 2015, leading both teams to the playoffs in the same school year and the numerous upgrades to the baseball stadium are all highlights.
“There are so many things,” said Gomez, who also thanked longtime assistant coach Phil Gomez for being a “tremendous” help over the years. “I think what I’m most proud of is the support from the community. The fact that everyone chipped in and really helped this be a success is something I’ll never forget.”
Gomez said he’s already had a handful of coaches from the county reach out and offer him assistant coaching positions but that he would try to take at least a full year off.
Over the past few days Gomez said he reached out to Linney and legendary Watsonville wrestling coach Gary Garcia, who retired in 2014 after 35 years of coaching, to pick their brains about their experience. At the moment, Gomez still does not know if he might be back on the sidelines in the future or if this is his proverbial ride into the sunset.
“They all said, ‘you never know until you step away,’” Gomez said. “So maybe I’ll be back in a year or two or maybe it’ll be more. Coaching is something you can never get away from. All I know is that having a summer off felt pretty nice.”