Before still another victory, senior second baseman Chris Gill sat in the Blair Field dugout and tried to describe Coach Dave Snow, who has been mainly responsible for the startling turnaround Cal State Long Beach’s baseball program.
“He’s real quiet, a hard person to explain,” Gill said. “He’s got this aura. He doesn’t say much, but when he talks, everyone shuts up. Whatever he says, you take away with you.”
Under Snow, the 11th-ranked 49ers are 27-4. Last season, they were 14-45. After coaching four years at Loyola Marymount, Snow was asked last June to raise the Long Beach program to respectability.
When Snow talks, it usually is about hard work and fundamentals. Almost 39, Snow is known for his ability to teach the sport he once played as a third baseman. Low-key and modest, he can be seen before games with a hose or rake, grooming the field, a task he doesn’t want his players to feel above either.
“I want them to be humble,” he said.
The 49ers, who have not had a winning year since 1983, have acquired an aura of their own.
“It’s been a storybook season,” Snow said.
It started with an 18-game winning streak, during which the 49ers were ranked as high as fourth in the nation. The first defeat was to Loyola Marymount, two came at Arizona State and the other was at San Diego State. Among the victories were two over perennial power Arizona at Tucson.
Long Beach has a .327 batting average, a 2.72 earned-run average and has averaged fewer than one error a game. Except for Gill, most of the 49ers are community college transfers.
“When we started I thought it wasn’t going to work,” said Gill, who is hitting .354. “With guys from different JC’s, there were different cliques. But we all just kind of merged. I feel like I’ve been playing with these guys for four years.”
The melding came quicker than Snow had expected, and occured, he believes, because of the confidence gained from a half-dozen come-from-behind victories.
It is an unselfish group, he said, one that rallies around its opportunity to be known for changing the image of 49er baseball.
The winning streak had also been surprising because, until they moved into Blair Field last week, the 49ers had in effect been exclusively a road team. With the campus field unplayable because of irrigation problems and Blair’s availability delayed by field conditions, they had to play their early home games at Cerritos College and Long Beach City College.
“That was extremely difficult, but through all that the players didn’t complain,” Snow said. “They just said, ‘Coach, where are we going to play today?’ That kept me going.”
Practices were held at an old Pony League diamond, whose lack of grass the infielders accepted with a humor that enabled them to call one another Dirt Bags.
“Every time we came off that field, someone had blood on them from a bad hop,” Gill said.
Gill had already been left rather bloodied from the last three seasons, during which he had experienced more than 100 losses. “I had to keep myself up,” he said. “It hurt me to be around guys who didn’t care. I kept telling myself I’m a winner.”
The 49ers seemed to be facing a bleak future under John Gonsalves. Fatigued and frustrated, primarily because he was able to give only five scholarships, Gonsalves resigned last May after 19 seasons.
Snow, who was 162-81-1 at Loyola Marymount and had the reputation of an effective recruiter, was hired by Athletic Director Corey Johnson. Once an assistant athletic director at baseball power Miami (Fla.), Johnson gave Snow 10 scholarships and a promise to soon reach the maximum of 13.
By the time Snow arrived, most of the best high school players had already signed with colleges, so he concentrated on recruiting community college players. The result was a class of recruits that the publication Baseball America ranked eighth-best in the country.
“Mainly, these guys were overlooked by big schools,” Snow said. “Yeah, I want horses too, but you can get caught up in big name players. This is a hungrier group; it shows up in their dedication and how they pay attention to things. Good players going good can be arrogant, and when they go bad, they can be a pain.
“But they are on an even keel,” he added, while watching the 49ers take batting practice.
Snow said his two best hitters are center fielder Darrell Sherman (.392, 20 RBIs) and first baseman Todd Guggiana (.339, 36). Both came from Cerritos College. Others hitting above .300 include third baseman Deryk Hudson (Fullerton College), outfielder Daniel Berthel (El Camino College) and outfielder Todd Lloyd (Rancho Santiago College).
“The most consistent part of our game has been pitching,” Snow said.
The staff is led by junior left-hander Kyle Abbott, a transfer from UC San Diego who is 8-1 with a 1.71 ERA, and Andy Croghan (4-0, 2.51), a freshman right-hander from Servite High School in Anaheim.
Of his philosophy, Snow said: “The big key is to keep things simple. The challenge is the game itself, not the opponents. If you play catch (not make errors), throw strikes and put the ball in play, you have a chance to win any game. Baseball borderlines on being boring. Once the fundamentals are down, it’s repetition. You’re constantly teaching and re-emphasizing. (Sometimes) you’ll add a wrinkle here or there.”
Sherman, who bats left-handed, is a good example of a player who has been made better by Snow.
“He was an outstanding junior college player, but he could not pull the ball to the right of second base,” Snow said. “We wanted to get him to learn to pull the ball. He has. Now he has another dimension and is catching the attention of pro scouts, where before he might not have been considered a prospect.”
There are a lot of victories in the 49er dugout. Wally Kincaid, one of Snow’s three assistants, won 80% of his games in 22 years at Cerritos College.
“He’s the master teacher,” Snow said of his former coach. “When I come up with an idea, one I’m not sure about, I always go to him for advice.”
The 49ers’ success has not bred cockiness.
“We try not to get too emotional,” Snow said. “In basketball and football you can get psyched out of your mind. But baseball is made to be played everyday. We don’t try to get pumped up for one game. We’re not too high when we win or too low when we lose. We focus on how we play.”
Unlike teams such as Stanford, whose players constantly stand and cheer, the 49ers sit back in their dugout during games.
“Our attitude is relaxed intensity,” Gill said.
In the past, 49er baseball drew scant interest. Games were attended by a handful of parents and friends.
But as the 49ers sprayed hits around Blair Field during a recent Sunday afternoon game against Utah, a crowd of about 1,200 watched from the grandstand. Gill said it seemed more like a million.