What was left of a baseball lay on the grass. Its ripped cover was dirty brown, the red seams unraveled. An ugly gash exposed twine. It seemed as if the boys from Gahr High, renowned for vicious attacks on horsehide, had gone too far.
Derek Dehdashtian, the first baseman with a bull-like 195-pound body, was a prime suspect. He looked at the ball but denied any wrongdoing.
"Lawn mower got a hold of it," he said.
But a mower could hardly inflict more damage to a ball than this team, whose hot aluminum bats have scorched all but two rivals (West Torrance and Long Beach Wilson) this season, producing almost nine runs a game.
Nine Titles Since 1968
Gahr (23-2) is the No. 1-ranked 3-A team in the Southern Section and has won the San Gabriel Valley League title for the ninth time since 1968.
Dehdashtian, a senior who is batting .446 with an area-leading 31 runs batted in, is one of four Gahr players with averages above .400. The others are junior right fielder Pat Redaja (.489), senior shortstop Brett Barberie (.425) and junior third baseman Vern Hildebrandt (.404). Senior second baseman Ron Hauczinger is batting .397.
But they hardly resemble a Murderers Row. At 5 feet 11, Dehdashtian is the tallest of the regulars.
"Because we've got a small team, people sometimes underestimate us," Dehdashtian said.
They are a close-knit little band of kids who were born to play ball, to get down in the dirt and fight the wind and sun, who get itchy in the classroom in the early afternoon when the diamond beckons. Sandlot rats who play until dark.
No 'Convenience' Players
"We get the serious kid, guys who will hustle and be at a Saturday practice," Coach Tom Bergeron said. "These aren't 'convenience' players who are just playing because they have nothing else to do."
Of the 14 players, only three play other sports.
The soul of the team is Barberie.
"He'd play 24 hours a day," said assistant coach Ken Bush of the smooth-fielding shortstop. "He loves working on cars too. He'd be happy working as a mechanic. Girls love him, but don't have a chance between baseball and cars."
Barberie is a sight. He's a throwback to a time when players looked like hell but played like it too. He crams his cap over his short, sandy hair so that the bill almost covers his eyes. His pants are always dirty and one sock is usually up and the other one down.
"Last year the sides of his pants had big holes in them," Dehdashtian said. He's like a little kid playing in the dirt. We call him 'Baby.' "
Barberie shuns the crowded locker room. He changes on the parking lot in his aqua microbus, which he's always working on.
Bergeron says not to expect Barberie to turn up at some fancy university next year because auto shop hasn't exactly prepared him for it.
All he wants to do is play ball.
"I just love it," Barberie said. "I want to go pro."
"They just work, they are motivated," says Bergeron of his team.
Practicing last week for a big game with Cerritos, the Gladiators were not just swinging their bats, they were throwing them in a drill designed to make them hit to the opposite field.
After all the bats had landed, Bergeron yelled, "Go get 'em," and the players raced to retrieve them, came back and threw them again.
The idea, said Bergeron, was to get them in the habit of extending their arms and throwing their hands at the ball so a right-hander could hit to right field or a left-hander could hit to left.
A hitter has to be versatile to be successful at Gahr's ballpark.
The left-field fence is only 320 feet away but the wind is always blowing in. The right-field fence, which is way out near where cars and trucks rumble by on the Artesia Freeway, can be seen by squinting.
Although practice drills are rigorously conducted, this is not a boot-camp atmosphere, and the pleasant-mannered Bergeron is not a drill instructor.
"We try to be kind of casual," said Bergeron, glancing at Hauczinger, who wasn't wearing socks.
Bergeron, 46, a former UCLA player, has a 14-year 269-106 record at Gahr but has yet to win a Southern
He doesn't fit the mold of a career baseball man. His jaw holds bubble gum instead of tobacco. He prefers jogging pants and sweat shirts to a baseball uniform.
But Bergeron does have the proper amount of sternness to get his points across.
Players who make mistakes (Bergeron calls them "rock heads"), are disciplined with extra running.
When Bergeron loses his temper, it's usually over mental errors, Bush said. And then, "You can probably hear him from Norwalk."
But usually he is low key. Before a practice, he quietly warned his team: "There is no place for drugs in sports. Now that football and basketball are over, people might ask you to go to parties where you could get involved in something. Don't go."
Gahr in gold versus Cerritos in black. The big rivalry between the teams that have long dominated the league. A couple hundred fans sat in the stands and 50 or so stretched out along the foul lines.
Steve Vernola, Gahr's main pitcher--regulars Dehdashtian, Barberie and center fielder Keith Harrison also pitch--rubbed a ball as the wind swirled into the Gahr dugout and turned dust into daggers as it sought eyes.
Bergeron warned his team about the wind, but in the first inning. Redaja let a fly ball blow over his head in right field for a triple as Cerritos took a 1-0 lead.
But the Gladiators tied the game when Redaja redeemed himself by hitting a triple of his own, going to the opposite field as he had practiced all week.
Barberie shined. He scooped up every ball hit to him, stirring up eddies of dust that were swept to first base almost as quickly as his throws.
In the fifth, with the score still 1-1, Vernola, trying for his ninth victory without a loss, got in trouble. A Cerritos man was on third with one out.
"C'mon Steve, you're better than that, battle this guy RIGHT NOW!" Bergeron yelled in a voice that probably could be heard in Norwalk.
Vernola got the batter to hit to Barberie, then used his thin right arm to strike out Wade Caron on three curveballs.
In the last of the fifth, Barberie tripled to drive in two runs, then slid into home plate to score on Dehdashtian's grounder.
Barberie returned to the dugout as a hero. Dirt was all over his pants, his socks were bunched up and he looked like he couldn't wait to race back onto the field.
Dehdashtian (also 8-0) took over for Vernola in the sixth and saved the 4-2 victory.
"Good job," Bergeron said after the game. "Super defense, and we made contact when we needed to."
But it was left to Barberie to sum up the day and the Gahr baseball team.
"Under control, coach," he said.