The State of the State: These Two Guys Know the Score

Times Staff Writer

Mark Tennis doesn't consider his job to be risky. But the nature of his business puts him on the hot seat 10 months of the year.

The co-founder of Cal-Hi Sports operates the only publication in California that offers statewide rankings in high school football, basketball and baseball.

Since few can agree on the best teams in Southern California, picking the top teams in the state is obviously fraught with problems.

So, it isn't any surprise that many sportswriters in the southern portion of the state question how two Northern California men with limited resources can accurately rate teams statewide, particularly since two-thirds of the state's high schools are in Southern California, 400 miles down Interstate 5.

"Lots of papers have been skeptical," Tennis admitted.

But Margaret Davis, associate commissioner of the California Interscholastic Federation, said: "The Cal-Hi Sports rankings have caused comment and debate in the state, and that's what top 10s are all about."

According to Tennis, there really is no science to the selection process. The selection process is often influenced more by subjective forces, such as gossip, than by on-field performances, he said.

"Polls are just consensus of other people's ideas on who is good," he added.

Criticism aside, in its nine years of operation, Cal-Hi Sports has been credited with pulling state boundaries a little closer together. It ranks California high schools into top 10s and documents top athletic accomplishments on a consistent basis. The eight-page digest has been widely quoted in national publications.

"(Cal-Hi Sports) is quite beneficial (to this state)," Davis said.

This fall, Cal-Hi Sports will print a statewide record book. The project is believed to be the first independent venture of its kind. In what Tennis terms "a make or break year for us," he hopes the record book will increase credibility and lead to major sponsorships and additional subscriptions.

Cal-Hi Sports is about as grass-roots as anything can get, two people's reach for the American dream. It is the biggest love in the lives of Mark Tennis and his uncle, Nelson, and at the same time, their biggest challenge.

"I'm not looking to get rich on this," said Tennis, who writes, edits and publishes the publication. "You never can on something like this. But if I can make a living on high school sports, that will be fine with me."

Mark's modest three-room apartment here has been Cal-Hi Sports headquarters since he resigned as sports editor of the town newspaper, the Press, last spring.

A dog-eared business license hangs by a single thumbtack on a nearby wall. Tennis reads at a worn dinette table, hunched over dozens of handwritten notes. In a rickety chest of drawers, hundreds of long-hand documents hide behind a smudged "I Love USA" sticker glued to its top drawer.

Materialism has not played a part in the life of either Mark or Nelson Tennis. Mark's housing is testimony to that. The brown two-story stucco complex is well maintained, but unspectacular.

In a bedroom, newspapers from around the state are stacked on a cinder-block shelf. A few paintings by a deceased grandmother and several baseball pennants have been tacked to the walls.

Dressed in old slacks, tennis shoes and a faded polo shirt with "Cal-Hi Sports" screened over the heart, Tennis said his only goal now is to polish the reputation of his publication.

"If we continue to do the job we're doing, people will notice and the money will come in," he said.

Cal-Hi Sports has shown steady growth in the past four years, although last year was the first time it turned a profit. The publication will have more than 500 subscribers this fall, and Tennis says he expects to reach 700-800 by next spring. A yearly subscription costs $33. In the fall, the newsletter's budget will be almost double its $12,000 level of a year ago.

Tennis gets results mostly from unpaid correspondents and sympathetic sportswriters. Prep coaches are his biggest clients, followed by reporters and school administrators.

Tennis, who hopes to move his operation to Sacramento in the fall, said that through hard work he is shedding a small-town image and gaining statewide recognition.

"Nobody has done a job like we have on state ratings," he said. "I think people have become convinced that if anyone can do it, it's us."

Nevertheless, Tracy isn't everyone's idea of a state hub. It's better known as one of those seemingly endless San Joaquin Valley towns along Interstate 5. The California aqueduct cuts a path nearby, and the town plans to hold its first dry-bean festival this fall.

The legendary Altamont rock concert just west of town in 1969 brought the Rolling Stones through here, but the town never capitalized on the publicity. City fathers probably don't care for that kind of recognition, anyway, preferring, instead, to remember the time in 1972 when Robert Redford filmed parts of the movie, "The Candidate," during a homecoming parade through downtown.

Mostly, this is a quiet town in transition. Fertile fields and housing tracts of earth-tone stucco sidings and red tile roofs share the gentle plains but Tracy is being slowly sucked into the urban sprawl of the East San Francisco Bay, a bedroom community with affordable homes for workers in Oakland and Livermore to the west, and Stockton to the north.

High school athletics are "sports in their purest form," Tennis says. He also says that Tracy embodies that feeling. It's a one-high school town that packs the bleachers each Friday night for Bulldog football games.

That feeling inspires Mark Tennis and he says he will miss its motivation if he leaves.

Nelson Tennis, Mark's uncle, grew up in Grass Valley, a peaceful town at the base of the Sierra Nevada on I-80 between Reno and Sacramento. The shy, 51-year-old recluse and former government chemist coined the name Cal-Hi Sports in 1975 to augment his favorite hobby: compiling state high school football records. He first put together state top 10s for the Sacramento Bee in 1975.

Nelson loves to research. He spends hours reading newspaper clips. He doesn't like to discuss his personal life. His background, much like that of his nephew's, has not been burdened with materialism.

"Nelson is sort of different," Mark said. "Some people would find him a little odd. He likes to be a phantom. He lives through the numbers."

Nelson, a life-long bachelor, does not work. He rents a studio apartment in an older section of Sacramento, within walking distance of the state Capitol. He is noticeably uncomfortable in the presence of visitors, even in his favorite spot, the third-floor microfilm room of the state library adjacent to the Capitol mall.

"This is my office," he says of the building, in which he has been viewing microfilm of a 1913 sports page from a defunct Oakland newspaper.

Mark Tennis never played sports in high school, but he did share his uncle's love for prep sports. Shortly after Nelson took up his hobby in 1969 in San Francisco, Mark showed an interest in journalism. They would get together whenever they could and talk high school sports and attendant trivia.

Nearly 10 years later, Mark, a student at San Jose State, experimented with his first publication. He called it the Santa Clara Valley Edition of Cal-Hi Sports. It was published every two months and included facts and trivia compiled by Nelson. Mark raised a few bucks from advertising but paid for most of it out of pocket. It was distributed free.

"I had big ideas for it but I had no idea what I was doing," Mark said. "I'd never sold an ad in my life."

Having gone through a microfilm library in the Bay Area, Nelson Tennis moved to Sacramento in 1981. In that same year, Cal-Hi Sports published its first state football record book. Two years later, the publication went weekly.

A turning point followed a year later when Mark returned to Sacramento from San Jose. Mark said that Cal-Hi Sports evolved from there as Nelson's research expanded.

"It's almost like a technical journal," Mark said.

The record book reflects that, perhaps carrying prep trivia a bit too far. The final publication is expected to contain such tidbits as: The Portola High junior varsity football team won 18 consecutive coin flips at the start of games over a two-year period.

The book will carry negative statistics, as well, such as most consecutive passes had intercepted by a quarterback.

It will contain some sentimental favorites, too. Reading from Nelson's handwritten rough draft, Mark points out that former Ram running back Dick Bass, at Vallejo High in 1953-54, gets his vote as "the greatest, most prolific player in California history."

Bass averaged 218 yards a game and scored 67 touchdowns in just 18 games. Those numbers still rank as some of the best in state history, according to their research.

Mark Tennis defends the depths of some of the information.

"Stats and records are the No. 1 reason we have been successful," he said.

Cal-Hi Sports' key feature has been its weekly ratings. They get the most attention but have given Mark Tennis both headaches and recognition. Some reporters in Southern California charge that they are inaccurate or that Mark manipulates them for his own good.

Not so, says Mark, maintaining that objectivity is his "No. 1 goal."

Some also say he is slow in getting out the information and that once it arrives, it is old news, something daily papers don't like.

Tennis acknowledges that he has been slow in getting information to daily papers, particularly in Southern California, where competition between suburban sections and local papers is intense.

This fall, he will get his mailings out on Tuesday, rather than Wednesday of each week, Tennis said. A system is in the offing and he hopes to persuade a wire service to carry his ratings every Tuesday. He added that reporters have always been encouraged to call his office each Tuesday to get the rankings over the phone.

"We make a good team," Nelson said. "Mark provides the know-how, and I do the research."

Indeed, their publication provides the excitement in their lives.

"I love California," Nelson said. "I don't know what I'd do if I wasn't doing this."

And then he pointed to the viewing screen where the Oakland sports page beckoned. He had discovered rowing results from a 1913 high school regatta. He gestured to the screen with glee, then uttered a muffled chuckle. A smile crossed Mark's face. He shook his head in disbelief.

It made their day.

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