TAMPA — Jefferson baseball coach Pop Cuesta has always been a stickler for details. He’s a man with unmistakable conviction about how the game should be played, and even how it should look.
His players’ uniforms are straight out of a Cooperstown exhibit. The Dragons still wear stirrups, their pants falling no lower than the bottom of the knee. The rules aren’t unique to game days. Even at practice, they must wear identical shirts and shorts.
“I’m old-school,” Cuesta says convincingly. “That’s the way I grew up. That’s the way we play. That’s us. That’s the way it should be. We’re a team. We work together. We dress alike.”
If they don’t, the cost is extra running at the end of practice. Cuesta keeps a notepad of infractions for being out of uniform, being late to practice, missing practice and not wearing a mouthpiece.
Cuesta, 67, heads into this week’s Class 4A-9 district tournament at a critical point in his 40th season coaching at Jefferson (20-4, 16-2 in district). At the Dragons’ modest field near the corner of Cypress and Trask in West Tampa, high school baseball history and hard work intersect.
The facilities are named to honor major-leaguers who played here — the clubhouse is named after Tino Martinez, the batting cages after Fred McGriff and Luis Gonzalez. But the bleachers are old junior high football stands. The press box was a school carpentry class project from the 1970s. Inside the clubhouse, old chalkboards make up the ceiling and back of the lockers.
Just like he has put together the Dragons’ field with resourcefulness, Cuesta has gotten the most out of his players with a focus on fundamentals. A sign hung above the home dugout reads, “Play as you practice.”
“When you leave Jefferson, you’re going to know how to play the game,” said Gaither coach Frank Permuy, a longtime friend (Permuy is godfather to Cuesta’s daughter). “Pop’s always going to tell it like it is, but he’s a great coach of fundamentals. And he’s most interested in getting his kids ready for the next level, whether it’s pro ball or college.”
Seven of his players have gone on to play in the majors, but Cuesta is equally proud of ex-players who have gone on to success off the field.
“I have lawyers, dentists,” Cuesta said. “I have a ball girl who is a judge. I even have one player who turned down a pro contract to be a model.”
One of his top on-field success stories was McGriff who, despite playing for Cuesta three decades ago, remembers the 40-page notebook the coach gave his players that went over how to handle every situation.
“What I learned from Pop in high school helped me once I got into the pros,” said McGriff. “Baseball is universal. It’s pretty much played the same way everywhere. A bunt is a bunt. It helped me later on because I already knew how to do those things.”
Over his 40 years, Cuesta has seen his share of highs and lows — most coming close together. Take last year, when the Dragons entered the 4A-9 district tournament as the No. 3 seed, but won a district title with an upset win over top-seeded and nationally ranked Jesuit, only to lose their region quarterfinal at home to Lakewood Ranch.
He took the Dragons to the state tournament once, back in 1985 with a team that included Martinez and Gonzalez. Despite five trips to the region finals since, most recently in 2007, he’s never been back to state.
A son of Ybor City, Cuesta grew up the son of parents who worked in the cigar factories. He played second base, and in American Legion ball, his shortstop was current Cardinals manager Tony La Russa; the leftfielder was Lou Piniella.
He received his first high school coaching job as an assistant at then-segregated Blake High under the legendary Abe Brown. When Blake closed because of integration, he went to Jefferson, becoming the head coach in 1972.
Jefferson played against West Tampa rivals Tampa Catholic and Jesuit, private schools that had more money, better facilities and nicer uniforms.
This season, the Dragons won 11 of their first 12 games heading into the Saladino Tournament championship. But the favored Dragons lost to Newsome in the final.
“It still hurts,” Cuesta said. “I have old players say I haven’t aged a bit. But it does wear on you. I have high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes. After a loss, I can’t sleep at night. I stay up all night, replaying games in my mind, wondering if I should have done some things differently.”
At this point Cuesta has no plans to get out. He knows this year’s team is the best he has had since his last trip to the region finals. It could be one of his last opportunities for a state title.
“It’s not about winning, it’s about being out here with the kids,” Cuesta said. “I think the times we didn’t do well motivated me to come back and work a little harder. I feel like I can still help them. I enjoy it. When I first got this job, I told them the day I didn’t want to spend time here, he wouldn’t have to fire me. I’d just quit and say it’s time to get someone else.”
That was 40 years ago.
“He’s still always pushing us,” Jefferson third baseman Corbin Olmstead said. “It’s all about respect for the game.”