Pete Saco’s voice halts as he tells the story. A defining moment of his youth and what shapes him today still tugs at his emotions.
The outgoing Sac-Joaquin Section commissioner takes you back to 1965 in South San Francisco. The setting was a Little League park for the city championship, fog spilling onto the infield. Saco was 14 years old, the scorekeeper, having played baseball for his coaching father, Pete Sr., two years earlier. The tension was as thick as the marine layer: Bases loaded, two out, bottom of the seventh and final inning. The batter slaps the ball down the third-base line, and Saco’s team wins 2-1.
Or does it?
The opposing coach argues that the ball was hit foul by an inch. Saco Sr. asks the umpire what he saw. The umpire says his view was blocked. Saco Sr. suggests, “Let’s put the runners back on base and do it again.”
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“People are booing and hissing Dad,” Saco recalled this week. “The next pitch is a flyout, and we lose 1-0.”
Saco’s father is forever his idol.
“He worked for Lockheed, shooting missiles into the ocean, but his passion was kids and coaching,” Saco said. “He demanded fairness. We got in the car after that game, and he put two fingers into my chest and says, ‘Remember, do what is right, not what’s popular!’
“That really stuck with me. Everything I’ve done in this job, I’ve tried to do the right thing, even though it hasn’t always been the most popular thing.”
Saco’s father died in 1984 from cancer. He watched his son coach high school basketball in Lodi, but he didn’t get to experience his son’s greatest body of work. The old man would have been proud.
Since 1993, Saco has been the most influential person in the section, the second largest of 10 in the state. Saco’s vision and voice will be a significant loss upon his retirement at the end of August. His creative leadership led to the CIF State Bowl football games and the basketball Open Division, among other innovations. He’s been a proponent of equality, ethics and sportsmanship. He vehemently stands for justice in high school athletics when it comes to undue influence, transfers or blatant recruiting and cheating. Without a governing leader like Saco, rules wouldn’t be bent; they’d buckle.
Saco’s job is unpredictable, never dull, equal parts uplifting and upsetting.
“Whenever I come to work,” Saco said, “I may have six or seven different issues thrown my way. Emails like, ‘How come you didn’t fire our football coach? You let him in the playoffs and they lost.’ Well, we don’t fire coaches. I’ve been called ‘Wacko Saco.’ I’ve been called the devil and many other profound things. You let it roll off your back but, yeah, some of it stings. We’re not the bad guys here.”
Coaches and administrators largely have called Saco fair and firm. Saco views the interscholastic athletics experience as a crucial part of developing young lives, no matter how big or small the school. He added extra playoff divisions through the years to allow small schools, some with enrollments under 100 students, to have a championship stage of their own.
“It’s absolutely brutal what Pete has to go through, and he’s the fall guy in people’s eyes if they don’t agree with realignment or a transfer, but he’s had a big enough personality and shoulders to carry that burden,” said Brad Gunter Jr., the basketball and baseball coach and athletic director at small-school Valley Christian Academy in Roseville. “I know this about Pete: He has everyone’s best interest at heart. He’s treated us small schools just the same as the larger ones, and we appreciate that. Without a doubt, to a lot of us, he’s the best commissioner in the state.”
Saco’s most trying time as commissioner came in the summer and fall of 2007, when he headed a six-month investigation into the recruitment of 15 football players from American Samoa to Franklin High School in Stockton. Saco and the section office, receiving nearly no assistance nor admission from Franklin, imposed a five-year playoff ban for all Franklin athletics. After meeting with Franklin and the Stockton Unified School District, the ban was reduced to two years. It was later viewed by a federal judge as a national landmark case.
“It had to be done,” Saco said. “It was a very tough investigation when you’re personally being followed, when you’re personally being investigated, because it’s always easier to throw it back on the individual who did the investigation. I get that. It was tough on my wife as well.
“If you don’t want to enforce rules, then you really can’t get into this line of work. We are a regulatory agency. That’s really what we do.”
The first person Saco acknowledged when he announced his retirement was his wife of 35 years, Barbara. They’re ready for a change of pace: Golf, travel, Giants games, dining.
“She’s my best friend,” Saco said. “We weren’t blessed to have our own children, but we have each other. We talk a lot, laugh a lot. I couldn’t have done this job without her. I come home with stories, and she blows me away with her stories as she worked in human resources for years. We can relate. Soon, it’ll be our time.”