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Ex-big leaguer can still teach the long ball

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He watches quietly from the dugout when the opposing team is at bat. When he's in the third-base coaching box, he calls an occasional phrase of encouragement. Otherwise, Nate Colbert doesn't do much to attract attention.

Which doesn't mean he has nothing important to say.

Colbert isn't loud; loud is for those who aren't convincing in a normal tone. With Colbert, it's a different situation entirely. As the old Merrill Lynch commercials used to say, when he speaks, people listen. He has tutored big league players such as Tony Gwynn and Wally Joyner on their hitting.

So it's safe to say the Cedar City American Legion team isn't above taking advice from a guy who hit 173 major league home runs, either.

Colbert is in town this week for the annual state American Legion Tournament, helping coach the Cedar City club. A 10-5 loss to perennial power Taylorsville on Tuesday dampened hopes. Still, as a lifelong baseball man like Colbert will tell you, strange things happen. He was playing in San Diego when the 1969 Mets morphed into the Amazin' Mets.

Cedar City winning the state Legion title, then, isn't out of the question. The southern Utah team came back to win 2-0 over Lone Peak on Wednesday.

What a former major league player and coach is doing in Cedar City, naturally, is the Who-Wants-to-Be-a-Millionaire question of the week. Answer: Enjoying himself. Immensely.

"This," he says, "is probably the most fun I've had coaching a team — ever. I have 17 of the finest young men I've ever been around. I have great coaches in Mark Johnson and Tony Santas, and they've made it really easy for me."

Or vice versa.

Even at 54, Colbert looks like he could still put a lot of Sky Miles on a baseball. He proved as much by parking one in the second deck at an old-timers' game two years ago. He modestly explains that home run by saying baseballs today are juiced and the bats better than ever.

Whatever the case, Colbert has never been a slouch at the plate. He launched 38 home runs twice in the major leagues, where he played for San Diego, Houston, Detroit, Montreal and Oakland, in an 11-year career. Those numbers weren't lost on the other Cedar City coaches, who didn't need to ask for references when Colbert came calling. The man spent over 15 years in coaching capacities, most of them on the major league level. It's like getting a call from Linda Ronstadt, offering free voice lessons.

Once he joined the Cedar City team, it wasn't a matter of getting used to his style, it was a matter of trying not to stare. When you're 17 years old, and one of your coaches has hit against Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson, you've got a few questions. Like, for instance, what he's doing coaching you.

"I love it here in Cedar City," he says.

Case closed.

Colbert, along with the other two coaches, have a team with a reputation for determination. In the southern region playoffs against St. George, Cedar City was down 6-1 but came back to win 11-10. It trailed 7-0 in the second game and won 20-7. Even against Taylorsville, Cedar City rallied from an eight-run deficit to score three runs in the seventh inning on Tuesday.

Not a player in the bunch called "no mas."

Colbert's journey to Cedar City is a rather otherworldly tale. He spent most of the last 30 years in San Diego. His wife, whom he met years ago on a visit to Salt Lake, is a Utah native, and they had been through Cedar City before.

They were living in San Diego last year, when she — an ordained minister — said she felt it important to move to Cedar City and establish a ministry. Since he, too, is a minister, he agreed. They were going to answer the call.

Truth is, it wasn't a hard call to answer. They weren't moving to Ecuador. In fact, they both loved the town to begin with. "We believe we were divinely inspired to go to Cedar City, and we were waiting on the right time. Last year, we came and found a place that we liked, so we made the break," says Colbert.

If you're wondering if this is a temporary deal — like a six-month mission of sorts — forget it. He's planning on being there at least as long as the university. He and his wife also own baseball developmental and sports marketing businesses, which they can operate from Utah.

Last spring, Colbert got back into coaching by helping with the Southern Utah University team. When summer came around, he took two months off his day job to help with the Legion team. Before long, it was headed to the state tournament, Colbert in tow.

"I'm there," he says of Cedar City. "I've moved there. I'm retiring there. This is where I'm going to stay."

He isn't planning to leave the team anytime soon, either.

"I'll coach them as long as they'll let me," he says.

As long as he can still tell — and show — them how to hit 'em out.

E-MAIL: rock@desnews.com