A Baseball Cinderella With Fins
Blair Field, in the heart of Long Beach’s famed Recreation Park, is home to Long Beach State’s baseball team, the Dirtbags. Yes, I said the Dirtbags. I can imagine that this makes for interesting recruiting challenges. How do you start that conversation? “Mr. and Mrs. Kelly, we think your son has what it takes to be a Dirtbag…”
But there must be some pretty good brand equity there, because a quick tour of the exterior of Blair Field reveals a series of banners that celebrates the success of former Dirtbags: Names like Colorado Rockies All-Star Troy Tulowitzki and American League Rookies of the Year Bobby Crosby (’04) and Evan Longoria (’08). They also had a pretty fair pitcher named Jared Weaver. Hmmmm…I wonder whatever happened to him?
Recruiters for Long Beach State also have Blair Field as a pretty good value-add to offer. Meticulously maintained and dripping with authenticity, it is a better place to revel in baseball than any of the dozen or so Minor League professional stadiums that I’ve been to. The only thing missing is the magic cornfield in center field. Little wonder it’s a popular site for filming everything from commercials to feature film scenes.
If you are not a Dirtbag (well, officially, anyway) there is another way that you can enjoy the full Blair Field experience – play for one of the four teams that make up the semi-final round of the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section’s Division 1 tournament. Or, if your best playing days are long behind you but you want to take in the ambiance anyway, you pay $8 to watch the next generation of MLB wannabes play for the right to go to the “SoCal State Championship”. Which this Sports Fan happily did.
About 26 hours, 2,700 miles, and at least 20 degrees removed from the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship in a sweltering Baltimore, I reveled in the hum that is high school baseball and thought about how different it was from softball. Same basic game, but entirely different trappings. At both the college and high school levels I had recently witnessed an elaborate set of softball rituals, including songs and chants customized for individual players, 8-to-10 part “handshakes”, group exercises, and my favorite – between-inning deep breathing exercises in center field. Now, as I watched El Dorado and Dana Hills High Schools warm up in relative silence, only their motions were rehearsed. This carried over to the game, in which neither team engaged in anything more elaborate than random shouts of encouragement, proving once and for all the theory that – write this down now – girls and boys are different. I’m also working on a corollary theory with a working title of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, first postulated some time ago by a noted expert in the field, Cyndi Lauper.
The game before me involved, from a legacy standpoint anyway, a huge mismatch. El Dorado High School is a high school baseball factory. The proud owners of four CIF Championships, their graduates have logged countless cumulative games in Major League uniforms: Dan Petry (’76), Kevin Blankenship (’81), Bret Boone (’87), Phil Nevin (’89), Brett Tomko (’91). Not surprisingly the design of their uniform bears more than a passing resemblance to those of the New York Yankees. They carry themselves like a college team, albeit a hungry college team, for it has been nine years since that last championship.
In the other dugout was Dana Hills High School of Dana Point, who have their own legacy of…well, of boats. A wealthy town perched above a spectacular yachting harbor, Dana Point is much more
than The Hood. Athletic prowess is not exactly the first topic at hand when Californians discuss Dana Point. But the Dana Hills Dolphins do have chutzpah, for even though they had finished fourth in their league with a 19-12 record, they successfully petitioned for an at-large spot in the Wild Card play-in to the CIF-SS tournament – which they won handily. Once in, they made like Brett Favre and refused to leave. In each of their first two tournament games they knocked off the champions of other leagues. Then in the quarter-finals they put up 14 runs on the team that finished second in their league to Royal High School, another of the semi-finalists. All while operating completely under the radar. “Excuse me, would you mind if we just scored a few more runs than you and then we’ll be right out of your way?” To be honest with you, I didn’t even think Dana Point had a high school – I thought everyone went directly from kindergarten to graduate school.
This was a match-up that I just had to see. And to see it was to immediately understand why it was taking place. Two words: Peter. Tago. As in Dana Hills pitcher Peter Tago, a 6’ 3” specimen who can best be described as… “un-lanky”- is that a word? Given his imposing physical presence, it wasn’t surprising to see him throw pure heat, but it was the way that he mixed his pitches and controlled the corners of the plate that enabled him to eventually strike out 13 batters. I found out later that he had already received a scholarship to Cal State-Fullerton, so he’ll be back to Blair Field again, this time to face the Dirtbags. That is if he doesn’t get drafted and go pro in the meantime.
Despite Tago’s impressive performance, you just had the feeling that El Dorado was eventually going to get around to ending the Dolphin’s Cinderella swim, er, run. While the Dana Hills defense was serviceable, they weren’t exactly a shut-down machine and Tago frequently found himself having to pitch out of jams that were not of his making. He did however, benefit from El Dorado’s combination of irrational exuberance and ADD on the basepaths. For example, midway through the game, an El Dorado base runner got a huge jump and had second base stolen easily. Except that there was already a runner there, looking understandably confused.
When at bat, Dana Hills was not wasteful, scoring on the few chances they had to cobble together runs. In the top of the sixth inning, they tied the game 3-3 when a batter reached first on a strikeout that sailed past the catcher, stole second, went to third on a botched pick-off attempt, and scored on a sacrifice fly. Another walk and a double made it 4-3. Two runs, one hit, two errors. “Pardon me, can I just get by you there to touch home plate? Thanks so much.”
Even still, when El Dorado came up in their seventh and final at-bat, there was a palpable tension in Dolphin-Land (Sea?). And as an objective observer, I couldn’t help but think how horrible it was going to be for those Dana Hills kids to come so close and then lose. Would it happen slowly and painfully via a collection of singles, walks and errors? Or would it be a surgical strike in the form of a three-run walk-off homer? And sure enough…wait, was that a strikeout? A ground-out to short? I’ll be damned – two outs and nobody on.
When the Dana Hills right-fielder made a nice running catch to end the game, his Dolphin teammates engulfed him in a full-fledged championship type pig-pile. That is until someone pointed out that “Hey, guys? That was just the semi-finals.” Forgive them. This playing-for-a-championship thing is all rather new. But here’s a warning for Mater Dei High School, their opponents in that title game. If on Saturday a bunch of average-looking guys pull up in a bus and say “Sorry to bother you, but could we park here for the afternoon?” just say no. That’s how it always starts with these guys.