Life was too short for Eric Pintard and Nick Johnson to become fathers, but they have achieved a sort of paternal influence over their own fathers.
Before he became manager of the Santa Barbara Foresters in 1995, Bill Pintard watched Eric pitch for the summer baseball club. The youngster’s playing career was cut short when he was diagnosed with ependymoma, a rare and deadly type of cancer. He survived for 10 years, during which he was the pitching coach and a cheerful presence on his father’s staff.
“It is a special day,” Bill Pintard said last Sunday, on Father’s Day, after the Foresters completed another 3-0 weekend at Pershing Park by defeating the Orange County Riptide, 10-4. “There’s two things I loved being called: Dad and Coach. I got be [Eric’s] dad, and I got to coach with him.”
The elder Pintard wears his son’s No. 19. “He’s with me every game,” he said. He could imagine Eric, who was 31 when he died in 2004, becoming head skipper of the Foresters. “I’d be his assistant,” he said. “He was smarter than I was anyway. Eric was amazing because he had such feel as a pitching coach, even when he was in a wheelchair.”
Eric inspired the Foresters to become advocates for children with cancer. The program is called “Hugs for Cubs” and includes hospital visits and outings. “Hugs for Cubs keeps me going,” Bill Pintard said. “I still have a passion for coaching.”
Nick Johnson was only 19 when he died in a tragic drowning accident five years ago. The oldest of Karen and Berkeley “Augie” Johnson’s four children, he was an exemplary son, student, and athlete, a water polo player at UCSB.
“He wanted to be a rescue swimmer, and I’m convinced that’s what he’d be doing today,” Augie Johnson said. “I try to live in a way he would be proud of.”
An adventurous streak runs through the Johnson family. Nick took frequent hikes up Cathedral Peak, one of the most challenging destinations in Santa Barbara’s front country. His father was preparing to lead a climb of Mount Whitney, the highest peak (14,505 feet) in the lower 48 states, after receiving six coveted one-day permits through a lottery last month. Nick’s younger brothers, Samand Cooper, were eager to go along.
“What say you, oh great ones?” Augie asked in an invitation to his friends. “Shall we sit on our couch drinking beer and watching Cops reruns or cast our lances at nature’s greatest windmills?”
But a week before their May 30 expedition, snow was falling in the Sierras, adding to an already substantial snowpack that was covering much of the steep Whitney Trail. The elder Johnson, who had previously hiked the trail in midsummer, was told that crampons and ice axes would be needed to prevent slipping and falling on an icy slope. A search-and-rescue expert recommended they carry beepers in case of an avalanche.
Johnson called off the trip two days before their planned departure. “I felt a big weight off my chest,” he said. “There was a reverberation from Nick, like maybe he’s telling me something. If somebody slipped and fell, if I lost somebody on this hike — I listened to that. If you never had a significant loss, you retain that bulletproof feeling. Now, doing things together with my children, I don’t have to take a huge risk to make it satisfying. Cathedral Peak is risky enough. We can always sign up [for Mount Whitney] again.”
Another experience amplified Johnson’s sense of foreboding. He’d seen enough of avalanches after the night of January 9, 2018, when the massive Montecito debris flow surged into his house. Miraculously, his family was unharmed.
“We were so amazingly lucky in that mudslide,” Johnson said. “So many things had to happen for us to get out of there. If I hadn’t woken up, I would have died. If my wife and kids hadn’t gone upstairs….
“I feel so many things occurred; wow, there’s something there. We were guided through a matrix of decisions, every decision the right one, down to finding that baby boy in mud.”
Johnson decided to check on a neighbor’s house and heard a cry, leading him and a firefighter to pull a 2-year-old toddler out of the mud.
Just as Nick would have been, he was a rescuer.
WONDER WOMEN: While U.S. soccer stars like Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, and Julie Ertz make headlines in the Women’s World Cup, in the smaller world of water polo, the U.S. has a squad that has been quietly winning almost everything in sight since 2012. The women’s national team has won the last two Olympic water polo championships and will be going for a third next year. The Americans punched their ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Games by defeating Italy 10-9 in this month’s FINA World League Super Final at Budapest, Hungary.
It was their sixth straight Super Final crown, and three Santa Barbara athletes played a part in it: Stanford graduates Kiley Neushul, an Olympic gold medalist in 2016, and her younger sister Jamie Neushul; and Paige Hauschild, a USC junior. The Neushuls were Dos Pueblos High standouts, and Hauschild ruled the pool at San Marcos.