I’m taking some time away from MLB for this blog entry, not just because I don’t like interleague play–that’s a topic in and of itself–but because something much more exciting is going on in baseball right now. And while I do have a bit to say about a couple of National League pitchers who are making names for themselves, I will get to that later.
I figured out I’ve been to almost 70 baseball games so far this year, because I’ve averaged close to four a week since February began. From Dodger Stadium to Petco Park, to the CIF championship game, to Tony Gwynn Stadium and Jackie Robinson Stadium, Cunningham Stadium, and of course Camelback Ranch–I’ve seen this great game played at many sites over the last four months. Except for a brief day trip to Arizona for spring training, unlike some people I know, I haven’t taken any real “road trips” this year. But that’s okay, because I haven’t really had time to get away!
But with a recent passing of a legend, and another SoCal team winning a championship, there has already been enough to talk about in the City of Angels this month. Congratulations to the Lakers, who clinched the franchise’s 16th NBA title last week, and have established themselves as the team of this millennium, so far, with five NBA titles since 2000. Can they pass the baton to the Dodgers? In 1988, both teams won championships just months apart–but that’s the only time they’ve enjoyed the ultimate success in the same calendar year. The Dodgers and Angels played an interleague series during the NBA finals, and all eyes of fans from both teams have been on the team in purple and gold. I’ll say a few more words about basketball, shortly.
Back to baseball, though, for now, it’s all about UCLA! The Bruins are in the College World Series!
Whether you are a college baseball fan or have never followed it, read on because I have plenty to say about its impact. And although I still love my Bums, UCLA is playing with a lot more heart now than the Dodgers are. Watching the “other” team in blue over the last couple of games has been more rewarding and satisfying than witnessing the Dodgers’ interleague sweep.
This has been a great season for the team from the West Side of Los Angeles, which finished 48-14. They roared out of the gate with 22 consecutive wins to open the season, establishing themselves as a dominant pitching team. The Bruins’ great run began back in February when the cross-town rivals in the Pac-10 faced each other in the Dodgertown Classic at Dodger Stadium. This was appropriate because, as is the Dodgers’ tradition, pitching has been the hallmark for UCLA and the biggest factor of their success. They beat USC that afternoon, and despite a mid-season struggle while losing to Arizona State, haven’t really looked back since.
And how is this for a twist? UCLA happens to reside in the same city of the team with the most CWS championships of all–USC. Although they haven’t won it all since 1998, the Trojans are much like the Yankees of college baseball. And they’ve fallen on hard times in recent years. Several college teams can claim a great baseball legacy, but none like the University of Southern California. Since the College World Series’ inception in 1947, the Trojans have won 12 titles. In fact, USC plays its home games at Dedeaux Field, named in honor of their late coach, Rod Dedeaux, the most successful in the history of college baseball.
When I was growing up, USC won seven CWS championships in an 11-year period (1968-78), with Dedeaux leading the way. But, no matter that Dedeaux was a great coach. UCLA plays its home games at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Think about that, what a legend! Most of my baseball fan friends and I have enjoyed watching games at this facility many times over he years, but I still can’t believe I have a few friends who have never been to Jackie Robinson Stadium. (Ironically, baseball was considered the multi-talented Robinson’s “worst” sport at UCLA.)
Starting with the great Robinson, UCLA has produced a few very good players over the years. Another great second baseman currently in the Majors, Chase Utley, excelled on this diamond in his pre-Phillies days. A few recognizable names since the 1990s include Troy Glaus, MVP of the 2002 World Series with the Angels, who’s now enjoying a successful year with the Braves; all-time Los Angeles Dodgers home run king Eric Karros; and another one-time Dodger, Dave Roberts, who had a fleeting moment of fame with the 2004 Red Sox. These are just a handful of players who had decent careers in the majors who wore Bruins blue and gold. The list is much longer on the USC side, and it includes many big names over several decades.
UCLA has also won the most sports championships, overall, of any Division I school (106, at this writing). But they have never won one in baseball! Now, factor in that UCLA’s women’s softball team just won the College World Series, beating Arizona earlier this month. Can the men match that feat?
Much of the Bruins’ success in the last half-century was due to their basketball legacy. Which brings me to this: Their great hoops coach, John Wooden, passed away at age 99 1/2 on June 4. And Wooden was a huge baseball fan! In his younger years, he was often seen at both Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium. Wooden was a long-time friend of Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, whose touching tribute during the Dodgers-Braves broadcast on the evening the Coach died had me in tears. Scully and Wooden had been neighbors when the Dodgers first moved to California in 1958, bringing along their young announcer. Over the next couple of decades, both men would become legends in Los Angeles. Concurrent with USC’s reign atop college baseball, between 1964-1975, the Bruins were busy winning basketball titles in 10 of those 12 seasons.
So, between Coach Wooden and Coach Dedeaux mentioned above, it’s an amazing fact that during the 1960s and ’70s in Los Angeles, there were 21 NCAA titles won between just baseball and basketball, all in the same city! All of this just so happened while I was cutting my teeth on sports over those years, but I didn’t realize at the time I was witnessing dynasties the likes of which would never again be seen.
But, back to Bruins baseball, circa 2010. UCLA breezed through the Regionals; I attended one game of that tournament (in which UC Irvine eliminated the defending College World Series champions, LSU), and watched the rest on TV. Another team I was following closely, the University of San Diego Toreros, were sent home in the first round. In the Super-Regionals, again held at Jackie Robinson Stadium–with UC Irvine having been ousted from further competition–UCLA was matched up against Cal State Fullerton, a perennial contender in the CWS, in a best-of-three series played over the weekend of June 11-13. Fullerton is another baseball program which has been very successful in SoCal, having won four national championships in Omaha since 1979, most recently in 2004. In baseball-rich SoCal, it’s located about 30 miles from UCLA in Orange County; yet, several of UCLA’s key players also come from OC.
CSUF won a tight Game 1, 4-3, and the Titans had the Bruins reeling on their own field–when in Game 2, they were one out away from clinching a trip to Omaha. But, what an exciting finish! UCLA came back to win, 11-7, in ten innings, then bested Fullerton decisively, 8-1 in the rubber game, an
d began packing for a trip to Nebraska.
Sophomore RHP Trevor Bauer pitched the Bruins over Florida, 11-3, on in their opening game in Omaha on Saturday, striking out 11 Gators in the process. Facing TCU two days later, UCLA ace Gerrit Cole shut out the Horned Frogs through six, gave up a bases-loaded triple in the seventh, then shook it off and proceeded to win, 6-3. Cole struck out 13 over eight nnings. The Bruins’ pitching depth is amazing; Rob Rasmussen and Garett Claypool have yet to pitch in Omaha, and hopefully being “rusty” won’t be a factor once they do take the mound, because UCLA gets a few days off now. Arizona State, the top seed in the Pac-10, has already lost twice and been sent home.
Beyond sports, UCLA is a proud school with developments that have impacted the world. In fact, you wouldn’t be reading this without the Internet, the origins of which were born over 40 years ago on the UCLA campus, with absolutely no help from Al Gore. But for all their accomplishments and production, the Bruins have no longstanding winning baseball tradition. Perhaps that will now begin to change.
One more thing, the Bruins are honoring Coach Wooden’s memory throughout the College World Series. Both their caps and batting helmets feature the initials “JW.”
Do I wish college baseball would use wooden bats? Yes. Do I wish they’d do away with the DH? Of course. But baseball at this level still provides some thrilling games, some of the best pitching around, and quality baseball played by young men who are getting an education–not getting paid–still playing for pride and passion for the game.
How can anyone not love that?
Major League Notes:
Props to two young pitchers I mentioned in my last post a few weeks ago, my hometown boys Mike Leake and Stephen Strasburg. As I had stated at the time, both kids graduated from San Diego area high schools in 2006, both went on to have excellent seasons in college, Mike at Arizona State, and Stephen at San Diego State. Both were selected in the first round of the 2009 draft. Now, one year later, both are playing in the Majors.
Stephen’s debut with the Nationals on June 8 was perhaps the most highly anticipated ever in Major League Baseball. (In fact, his opponent that day was the Pirates’ Jeff Karstens, another San Diego born and bred pitcher–hardly spoken of in the same breathtaking manner as Strassy is!) Washington won, 5-2, as Stephen, age 21, notched his first major league victory. In his first three starts, Stephen has struck out 32 batters. He was named National League Player of the Week two weeks ago. The last time I remember this kind of a buzz about a pitcher, it was 2003 and the pitcher was Mark Prior of the Cubs, a USC product, also a first-round draft pick. (Yes, he was also another San Diegan!) [EDIT: Stephen’s first loss of the year came on the same day I posted this entry, a tough 1-0 setback to the Royals. He struck out nine in that outing.]
Mike, who skipped the minor leagues altogether, has been in the Reds’ rotation since April. Now, he’s back in Stephen’s shadow again, just as he was the last several years. But let this fact be known: Mike Leake was the first pitcher in Reds franchise history to go undefeated after 11 major league starts.
Who did his first loss come at the hands of? My Dodgers, of course!, who scored five runs off him in a game played in Cincinnati last week. The only time I’ll be rooting against him.
By the way, don’t mention DH to this National League pitcher. As of this writing, he’s hitting .385!
Lesser known: Quietly excelling is a young American League pitcher who, like Leake and Strasburg, also graduated in 2006, but from Vista High. Trevor Cahill is not being talked about much outside Oakland, but he’s another young pitcher doing quite well this season. Cahill, 22, is 6-2 with a 3.21 ERA for the Athletics. I don’t follow the American League quite as closely as I do the National League, but I try to keep tabs as best I can, and I saw Cahill beat the Dodgers during interleague play at Dodger Stadium last season, his rookie year. Teammate Dallas “Perfect Game” Braden is the bigger name on the “A”s’ staff.
Congratulations to Rancho Bernardo High, who won the CIF-SD championship title on June 5, beating Poway, 9-5, at Tony Gwynn Stadium. RB over the past 15 years has become a baseball powerhouse in San Diego County, producing the likes of Cole Hamels and Hank Blalock as well as numerous others who’ve gone on to play professional baseball. This time, a new generation of Broncos is on top. Their title was the fifth for RB overall, and the first since 2005 (they won back-to-back championships in Hamels’ era). This was also the ninth championship for coach Sam Blalock, Hank’s uncle, who won four CIF titles at Mt. Carmel High. Will we be seeing anyone from this class excelling in the majors in a few years?