The Merced County baseball family mourned the death of longtime coach John Lema on Tuesday.
Lema coached for more than 40 years, helping out as an assistant at Atwater and Livingston High Schools and also coaching for over 20 years at Merced College.
“One of the best human beings I’ve ever been around,” said former Merced College baseball coach Chris Pedretti.
Lema went in for heart surgery on June 4, but his body never recovered from the surgery, according to his son Johnny Lema. He died on Tuesday. He was 90 years old and survived by his kids Danny Lema, Carol Sanchez and Johnny.
Johnny Lema said many of his father’s former players have reached out to him to tell him what his father meant to them.
“He was a really important person in my life,” said Merced College coach Nate Devine. “To go from being my coach to being a good friend over the years. He helped me through a lot of stuff in my life, both on and off the field. He’s just a special person.”
Many in the Merced County baseball community feel the same way.
Livingston coach Matt Winton played for Lema with the Atwater-Livingston Yammers American Legion team and later Lema coached with Winton at Livingston for five years.
“He meant everything to me, absolutely everything,” Winton said. “He came into my life just when I was developing a love for baseball. He was one of the most positive people I’ve come around. He just loved people and he loved kids. For me, what made him a coach wasn’t that he knew what he was talking about baseball-wise, it was he made you think positive. He made you feel like you were 10 feet tall and bulletproof.”
John Lema joined the Army out after graduating from Livingston and served in the Korean War. He returned to Merced County and became a successful dairy farmer.
Baseball was his passion as he coached in the McSwain Pony League for years and helped with the Yammers. Lema continued to play softball well into his 80s.
“When I first started at Merced College, he was helping out at Atwater High,” Pedretti said. “My fifth or sixth year, he started helping us out. He was out there for a good 20 years. He was a fixture out there.”
According to his former players and people who coached with Lema, he just had a way of connecting with players. Considering the time he spent at Atwater, Livingston and Merced College, Lema had an impact on thousands of kids.
“He never met a kid who he couldn’t work with,” said David Cardoza, who coached with Lema at Merced College. “It didn’t matter the skill set, he was willing to work with anybody.”
Cardoza says Lema always had a positive approach with kids. He took pride in helping players getting out of battling slumps. He would always find time to work with kids extra in the batting cage.
“I don’t think he ever changed anything,” Cardoza said. “He thought he changed something. Every time a kid would get out of a slump, he’d say, ‘I told you so. I fixed him.’
“You’d ask him what did you change and he’d never tell you.”
Cardoza says it was his positive approach with kids that helped boost their confidence.
Both Pedretti and Cardoza said when their fathers passed, Lema became like a father figure to them.
“He was someone I could talk to,” Cardoza said. “We would room together on the road. I was like one of his kids. He coached me when I played for the Yammers. He trusted the player I was and the player I could be. The guy taught us how to be better coaches and better people. He was definitely somebody I looked up to.”
With so many longtime coaches in Merced County, the baseball community is really a tight-knit group. The news of Lema’s death hit area coaches hard.
“Outside of baseball, he’s one of the most selfless men I’ve ever known,” said Atwater coach Jarrod Pimentel. “I’d put him right up there with my grandfather in terms of putting others before himself. It was anything you needed. It’s unbelievable the amount of time he spent — not only out at a baseball field — but helping kids out, and he never asked for anything.”
“I’m almost at a loss for words,” said Winton. “I know that man means a lot to coaches around here. We’ve all at some point have come in contact with coach Lema, whether it was playing against him or coaching with him.
“For me, it’s an absolute gut-punch and talking to some other people, they feel the same way.”
According to Johnny Lema, funeral arrangements haven’t been set yet.