Santa Monica College baseball Coach Marty Berson thinks his ace left-handed pitcher, Darrell Wagner, has a major league future. Wagner hopes he does.
Wagner is probably more realistic. He is 5-9, 150--not the size that big league teams are looking for.
In the majors, most pitchers, including relievers, seem to be either tall or wide--or both--like Tim Leary of the Dodgers, the former Santa Monica High and UCLA star, or Goose Gossage of the Padres.
Scouts who look at prospects in high school and college like the big guys who throw heat, have a fastball of better than 90 miles an hour. In the vernacular of baseball, they like pitchers who can “bring it.”
Wagner, a 19-year-old freshman, doesn’t seem big enough to do that. It’s more likely that “it” would bring him.
Although the former Westchester High School star strikes out a lot of batters (67 in 57 innings as of last Friday), he doesn’t overpower them.
Wagner says that he gets by--and gets the ball by batters--by throwing junk. He said his fastball has never been timed but that it is fast enough. He also has five other pitches: a curve, two kinds of sliders, a knuckler and a change-up.
“A lot of people tell me I have a good fastball,” he said. “When most of the batters expect a curve, I give them a fastball and it seems overpowering. But it really isn’t.”
With his wide variety of pitches, Wagner had a 4-1 record and a 3.1 earned-run average. His pitching, along with that of 6-3 freshman right-hander Chris Dominique (5-1, 2.8 ERA) and the hitting of sophomore third baseman Henry Campos (.446, 16 runs batted in) and freshman second baseman Howard Pechter (.448, 2 home runs, 10 RBIs), have enabled Berson and his Corsairs to mount a challenge to perennial power College of the Canyons in the Western State Conference.
At the start of the week, SMC was 14-8 overall and 7-3 in conference. The Corsairs have lost once to Canyons, undefeated in conference play, and that was at Canyons by a 13-11 score in 11 innings. The teams meet again at 2 p.m. today at Canyons.
Wagner says the challenge is real. “Canyons is the favorite,” he said, “and last year Santa Monica didn’t do as well as we’re doing this year.
“Other teams don’t expect us to do well, and I like being the underdog. We know in our hearts that we can win. I don’t think Santa Monica has had a team this good for a long time. We have speed, pitching, defense, hitting. We have everything.”
He is the first to admit that he doesn’t have everything that a big league pitcher is expected to have. “I think probably my biggest handicap is my size, and I’m trying to gain weight. I eat lots of meat and potatoes and take a protein supplement.
“I may grow an inch. I know there’s something against me because I’m small, but I’m trying. And once the odds are against me, I do my best.”
There aren’t many little pitchers who make it big in the major leagues. Whitey Ford of the Yankees and Bobby Schantz of the Philadelphia Athletics and the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela are among the the few pitchers who come to mind when one thinks of major leaguers who managed to become giants although not big.
A big league future for Wagner is definitely a long shot. He knows it. So does Coach Berson.
But Berson said, “Darrell is a lefty and diminutive, and little left-handers have a chance.” He said that former Cal State Fullerton pitchers Dan Boone and Ed Delzer “are both small lefties” who were drafted by major league teams.
“If Darrell is drafted, he would be a low draft choice. A team that took him would be taking a chance. But if he is not drafted, he is definitely Division I (the top level in college sports) material.”
Berson said that Loyola Marymount Coach Dave Snow, whose team went to the College World Series last year, had inquired about Wagner and Dominique and that Skip Berton, the coach at Louisiana State “would like to get him back.”
Snow confirmed this week that he had called Berson to ask how Wagner and Dominique were doing. But Snow added that he doesn’t “really know that much about him (Wagner). I haven’t seen him pitch.”
LSU Coach Berton saw Wagner pitch, but only in preseason practice. Wagner, who graduated from Westchester High in 1985, said he started as a walk-on at LSU two years ago because it had a good baseball program and so that he could live near his divorced mother in New Orleans.
But he said he stayed at LSU for only a couple of months, dropped out and didn’t play baseball. “I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t know anyone there. They also had about eight or nine lefties, and I figured I wouldn’t be playing for at least a year or two.”
His brief stay in Baton Rouge was still productive, he said. “Coach Berton showed me a lot about pitching. On my motion, I was throwing more sidearm, and I was dragging my (trailing) foot. He taught me to come over the top and to curl my leg over to keep it out of the dirt.”
He said he returned to his father’s home in Los Angeles and enrolled at Cal State Los Angeles but dropped out after trouble with studies.
At Westchester High he led the Comets to a Western League title in his junior year and was named all-league and All-Los Angeles City. But in the 1984 City 3-A championship game, he was on the mound when Venice and sophomore pitcher Duane Lortie upset Westchester, defending 3-A champion, 3-2. That was the first of Venice’s three straight 3-A titles.
At Santa Monica College, Wagner wants to help bring the school at least a league, perhaps even a state, championship.
In a brief appearance in one game of a double-header against Ventura College last Saturday, Wagner picked up two more strikeouts before he was ejected for protesting a balk call. The two Ks brought his total for the year to 69, far ahead of the pace set by Steve Stone in 1981 when he recorded a school-record 75 strikeouts. Stone later played triple-A ball for the Padres organization.
Wagner wants “to go for as many school records as I can, in strikeouts mostly,” and help spur the team to its best record under Berson. In 1981, the year that Stone set his strikeout record, Berson’s best SMC team finished 25-11 overall and shared the championship of the Southern California Conference with Golden West College.
After this season, Wagner hopes to be striking out more batters, perhaps in a rookie league for a major league club that is willing to take a chance on him.
“If I’m drafted, once I get up there and they (scouts) see me, I’ll do my best. I want to get a chance to prove myself instead of someone thinking that I won’t produce because of my size.”
Given a chance, Wagner might prove to be a small wonder.