Who's the best catcher in San Pedro High history?
The question was posed to Jerry Lovarov, the Pirates' coach since 1961 and the man responsible for developing five All-L.A. City Section catchers, including two major leaguers.
Lovarov said it's impossible to pick one who stood head and shoulders above the rest. Instead, he rated his finest catchers in three categories: hitting, receiving skills and arm strength.
He says the best hitter was Brian Harper, San Pedro's catcher in 1976-77 and one of the major league's most durable utility players. Originally drafted by the Angels out of high school, Harper has spent 10 years in the majors with six clubs, playing catcher, outfield, first base and third base. He now plays for the Minnesota Twins.
At San Pedro, he batted .490 as a senior and earned All-L.A. City honors.
"Harper was really a tough out," Lovarov said. "I remember once we were playing at Narbonne and Harper was up with the bases loaded. (Former Narbonne Coach) Marlon Strong was contemplating walking him, but he didn't and Harper hit a grand slam. Every time I see old Marlon he remembers that."
Lovarov rates Nick Castaneda, a three-year starter in 1978-80, as San Pedro's best power-hitting catcher. The 6-foot-5 Castaneda reestablished his pro career a few years ago in the Mexican leagues and now plays first base in the Kansas City Royals' farm system.
Castaneda hit .480 as a senior in 1980 and was named All-L.A. City.
"Harper could hit the ball hard, but Nick could hit the ball longer because of his size," Lovarov said. "He's the only kid I can remember who thumped the ball out of a lot of stadiums."
As a receiver, Lovarov says no San Pedro catcher compares with Ashby. He started for the Pirates in 1968-69 and has enjoyed a 17-year career in the major leagues, the last 11 with the Houston Astros. Ashby was in the news this week when he vetoed his trade to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
As a senior at San Pedro he batted .350 and was named All-L.A. City and the Marine League Most Valuable Player.
"As far as defensive skills, Ashby was the best," Lovarov said. "He just had a knack for receiving the ball. It's something you can't put you finger on. He spent a lot of time concentrating on it. He just had the good hands. Everything flowed easily for him."
Lovarov says junior Dale Johnson, San Pedro's current catcher, has a stronger arm than any of his talented predecessors.
"He can throw out the runners," he said. "Very few people have tried to run against him this year. He's thrown out most of the ones who have attempted it."
Harper, Castaneda, Ashby and Johnson represent the elite catchers in San Pedro history, but there are many others who enjoyed successful high school careers.
The Pirates' two most recent All-L.A. City catchers were Ricardo Tamayo (1985), who went on to play for Harbor College, and Derek Alkonis (1982), now a science teacher and assistant coach at San Pedro.
And old-timers remember Marco Guglielmo, a 6-2, 215-pound catcher who batted .360 as a senior in 1947 and shared first-team All-L.A. City honors with Paul Pettit, a Narbonne sophomore who became one of pro baseball's fabled bonus babies.
After Guglielmo, the next great San Pedro catcher was Fred Bower in 1954. Named All-L.A. City as a senior, when he batted .390, Bower shared first-team honors with San Pedro pitcher Bob Chagnovich, who was 7-0 in 1954. The same season, Don Drysdale of Van Nuys High was 3-1 and a second-team pick.
Other San Pedro catchers who distinguished themselves include Horace Evans (1938), Darrell Dudley (1959), Richard Cherney (1961), Elias Gomez (1962), Tim Ursich (1970), Howard McKnight (1973) and Randy Galosic (1987).
"We've certainly had a lot of good ones," Lovarov said. "I understand there's a kid on the junior varsity who's a pretty good prospect."