He was a baseball man to the very end

Publication Date: Friday Apr 9, 1999

He was a baseball man to the very end

Veteran Menlo-Atherton coach Frank Bettencourt lived and loved the sport until his death this week

by Keith Peters

The last time Plato Yanicks saw his good friend, Frank Bettencourt, their meeting was painful. Yanicks knew Bettencourt's days were limited as the two retired Menlo-Atherton High coaches talked that day. To make their final moments together as light as possible, Yanicks turned to Bettencourt's life-long love--baseball.

"I asked him who he thought was the best baseball player of all-time, DiMaggio or Mays," Yanicks recalled. "He said Mays. He said Mays was a better basestealer, speedier and made more spectacular plays. Then he named his all-time major league baseball team, three deep."

This was a long and painful process for both men. Bettencourt could barely speak, his strength sapped by the cancer that was taking his life. Yanicks, who coached with Bettencourt at M-A for 23 years, could only hold his friend's hand tight and listen.

"It was incredible," Yanicks said. "What an experience."

It was the last time the two talked. On Tuesday morning, Bettencourt passed away at his Mountain View home at age 74. He is survived by his wife, Ruth, and their son, Mark. A vigil will be held at St. Nicholas Church in Los Altos on Sunday at 3 p.m. A Funeral Mass will be held Monday in the church at 10 a.m.

"It's ironic," said Yanicks, "that on the opening day of the baseball season (for the San Francisco Giants) he died."

Bettencourt not only loved baseball, but he dedicated his life to it.

"He took two weeks off in the summer to go to Tahoe," Yanicks remembered. "Outside of that, all he did was coach baseball."

Bettencourt performed that task at Menlo-Atherton for 38 varsity seasons, as head coach from 1957-94. Despite retiring from teaching in 1988, he stayed on until current coach Tim Bowler took over in 1995. Bettencourt then moved on to South Francisco High to assist his longtime friend, Bob Brian.

"Frank was a great trouper to the end," Brian told the San Mateo County Times. "He was last with us for a game only three weeks ago and he could barely walk. The kids got a lesson in how brave someone could be and how much someone could love coaching and the game."

In addition to his days at Menlo-Atherton (1953-94), Bettencourt coached the East Palo Alto American Legion team for nearly 40 years. He had one of his best seasons last summer.

"He is an icon to this community," said Bowler, whose office at M-A is filled with memorabilia from Bettencourt's days there. "He loved baseball and gave his life to it. It's a tragedy to the baseball world . . . he's left a legacy here for us to follow."

Bowler has boxes filled with statistics, old uniforms and equipment--dating to the 1950s--and promises not to throw anything out. Everything is a reminder of Bettencourt, who was a walking encyclopedia of baseball and equally knowledgeable about other sports.

"He had a very keen, sharp mind," Yanicks said. "Although baseball was his love, he know a lot about other things."

Like his students. Bettencourt's No. 1 priority, in fact, was for his players to have fun and hopefully learn something about baseball along the way. Everyone played throughout the year and it was a tradition for seniors, no matter where they were on the depth chart, to start in the first game of the season.

Bettencourt also used some traditional, old-fashioned methods to teach his players the game. He used an old "Iron Mike" pitching machine for batting practice to save arms, insure strikes and not waste time. He used a pivot plate to practice rotating the back foot when hitting, to open up a player's hips. There were practices with a wooden glove (a piece of wood on the glove hand) to get players used to catching with two hands, and the practice of using a machine that automatically threw wiffle balls in the gym when it was too wet outside.

Nobody had a bad word against Bettencourt and he never ranted about umpire calls, realizing they had a job to do and that his players had to make their own breaks.

Bettencourt helped produce dozens of college players, with several playing in the minor leagues. One player, catcher Bob Melvin (Class of '79), played a decade in the major leagues for various teams, including the San Francisco Giants in 1987. Melvin is now a coach with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Kevin Dunton (Class of '81) played for Santa Clara University and still holds the school's all-time record for career home runs.

Despite having some of the best talent in the Central Coast Section, Bettencourt never won a section title and never was a win-at-all-costs coach. He was a teacher first.

When his 1980 M-A team earned a berth in the CCS tournament, the team gave Bettencourt a license plate (80 CCS) that he proudly displayed for years. Bettencourt, too, was generous. Every Christmas, for example, he sent out cards to every player who ever put on an M-A baseball uniform.

Sadly, those special times have come to an end. On Tuesday, the staff and students at Menlo-Atherton High saluted Bettencourt with a moment of silence.

"He was a nice man," said Pam Wimberly, M-A's athletic director who had known Bettencourt for more than three decades. "He did a world of good for baseball and M-A." 

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