“Play ball!"--two words shouted time and again within the confines of Ventura County. Two words synonymous with baseball.
True, there are no professional teams in the county. And the last minor league team that did play in the area, the Ventura Gulls, stayed only a year. But folks around here aren’t exactly out of touch with baseball.
Consider the following:
* About 11,500 boys and a few girls play organized baseball in the county.
* Eleven boys who grew up playing baseball in Ventura County are now playing in the major leagues.
* More than a few ex-major leaguers also grew up in the county. The list includes Ventura’s Fred Snodgrass who, sadly, will forever be remembered for dropping a 10th-inning fly ball that cost the New York Giants the 1912 World Series. On the plus side, fellow Venturan Charley Hall was on the Boston Red Sox, the beneficiary of that infamous error.
* The nation’s No. 1 high school prospect to become a major league player is a student at Rio Mesa High in Oxnard.
* Dean McMillin, a pitcher for Ventura College, was drafted by the Houston Astros, and his brother Darryl, the third baseman on the Ventura College team, may end up going pro too. Then there’s their nephew Tony, who at age 12 is already throwing a tricky knuckle-ball as a pitcher for the Cubs in the Saticoy Little League.
Hold it. Time out. Take a seventh-inning stretch. Let’s start from the beginning--which, as it happens, would be around 1873.
That was the year, according to Ventura County Historical Society records, that the first official baseball team was formed in the county. Facing a shortage of competition teams, the Ventura Baseball Club’s first game was against local citizens and, not surprisingly, the team won, 56-17.
From that point on, the county was afflicted with baseball fever. It would be 74 years before a professional team came to the county, but semipro (adult baseball) leagues held strong.
“There were a lot of good ballplayers around here,” said Dalt Clements, a first baseman on the Zander’s Clothiers team from the mid- to late ‘30s. “In those days we took it very seriously. It was not only your recreation, it was pretty much your way of life.”
In 1947 the New York Yankees placed a minor league team in Ventura--the first California League Team in the county. The Ventura Yankees played at Seaside Park until 1949. After they folded, the Ventura Braves were here from 1950-1951, the Ventura Oilers played in 1952 and the Channel Cities Oilers from 1953 to 1955.
It would be 31 years before another professional baseball team took the field in the county. In 1986 three local men--two former big-league players and a businessman--tried to make a go of it with the Gulls, a minor league affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The team used the baseball field at Ventura College. There were no lights and no beer sales and thus not too many fans. So in 1987 the team moved to San Bernardino.
But the Gulls had attracted some true fans during their short stay.
“We went all the time. We’d sit out there and yell and scream and drink soda pop,” said Dottie Pas, a major financial supporter of the Gulls who paid for a dugout that was referred to as Dottie’s Dugout.
“It was a whole lot better than Little League. I don’t know much about baseball, but the part I liked is that they did make mistakes. They were human, funny things happened. When you get to the pros, they don’t screw up so often,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll get another team here unless they get their own field. I think there’s a place for it, but you know, this town can’t even support a good restaurant.”
That’s where professional baseball in Ventura County stands today--not even on the menu. For now, most people seem quite content with the amateur version. And there’s plenty of that.
Take a leisurely drive around the county some Saturday afternoon and try to avoid baseball entirely. It’s not easy.
From one end of the county to the other, children are playing some form of organized baseball. A vast majority of those kids are involved with Little League. Others are involved in Pony League baseball programs, the American Legion program, or baseball camps, like the new peewee league in Port Hueneme for children ages 4 to 7. There’s also an annual Oxnard Sports Festival and an annual Seabee Tournament.
Little League is divided into various age groups, from the T-ball division for 6- to 7-year-olds, to the big-league division for 16- to 18-year-olds. Conejo Valley’s Little League program is the largest in the area with 835 kids, the most allowed under Little League rules.
And Conejo Valley, like elsewhere in the county, is reporting an upsurge in interest over the last few years.
“Generally the leagues have been reporting 2, 3, 4, 5% increases,” said Roy DeFisher, assistant district administrator for the leagues north of the Santa Clara River. “Let’s face it, baseball is a big game.”
Those involved with local Little Leagues say the massive television coverage of baseball is partly responsible for increased interest in the program. But more important to Ventura County, they said, is parent and community participation.
“One of the things that makes our league work so well is the volunteer atmosphere of the parents,” said John Mihalsky, Conejo Valley league president. “It’s an excellent feeling between parents, coaches and board members.”
Little League is certainly a group activity for the Terri and Lorenzo Jimenez family of Oxnard. Both parents are coaching T-ball in the Sunset League this year and two sons and a daughter are playing at other levels.
“As a parent, when I didn’t know anything about baseball, I was nervous watching,” mother Terri Jimenez said. “Now that I know baseball I’m even more nervous.”
Oxnard native Ken McMullen, an ex-major leaguer and a former co-owner of the Gulls, has seen this kind of family involvement at all levels of youth baseball.
“It’s been going on for years here. I continually go to the league openers and the attendance is always there. There’s a genuine interest,” he said. “Maybe baseball isn’t the subject, but obviously their kids are.”
Ask local baseball authority and longtime Coach Jerry White about local high school baseball programs, and he will say that outside the county the programs didn’t always get the credit they deserved from scouts and college recruiters.
“I’ve always thought . . . that the level of play here was never appreciated as much as it was down in the Los Angeles area,” he said. “I think the perception is we’ve had some pretty good athletes and some pretty good support groups.”
White, now a scout for the San Francisco Giants, said that until recently it was a struggle to get scouts and recruiters to make the trip to Ventura County.
Despite the roadblocks, county high schools include among their alumni an impressive list of current major leaguers, including Cleveland Indians first baseman Brooke Jacoby, Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Chuck Crim, Atlanta Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kevin Gross, Cleveland Indians pitcher Eric King and Kansas City Royals shortstop Kurt Stillwell.
“Those were the good old days. I was blossoming as a ballplayer,” Stillwell said of his time at Thousand Oaks High School. “When I think back on high school baseball, I just remember the camaraderie. That’s still there, but now it’s a job. It should be fun all the time, but now it’s a grind. I look back and things were easy, fun, kind of a glorified thing. And I was the guy the team looked upon to carry them.”
Jacoby, who played at Ventura High, remembers his team’s rivalry with Buena High. “We drew about 500 people for those games,” he said. “We all loved playing Buena High because the crowd really got into the game.”
Doug Simons, who this spring made the New York Mets roster as a pitcher, is the most recent Ventura County resident to make it to the major leagues. But it doesn’t appear that he will be the last.
Dmitri Young, a senior third baseman and outfielder at Rio Mesa High in Oxnard, has been picked by Baseball America magazine as the top high school prospect in the country. “My dad said that’s what you get when you work real hard,” Young said. “I practice every day during the summer with my dad when he’s home.”
Then there are the players at Westlake High. Though they’re struggling a bit this season, last year they won 28 games and lost 2 and for a time were ranked No. 1 nationally by USA Today.
Westlake Coach Rich Herrera said the county is loaded with high school baseball talent.
“Somewhere, every year, there’s a good team here. This year Simi Valley, Rio Mesa and Channel Islands are doing well,” he said. “You look at Rio Mesa and they’re in the finals of the Glendale tournament,” competing against Royal High School of Simi Valley. “That’s a pretty good accomplishment,” Herrera said. “Then you’ve got the El Segundo tournament and Simi Valley made the finals out of 32 teams. They’re in the finals of the Arizona tournament, too, and that’s out of state.”
When you can say your team split a two-game series with USC, the second-ranked Division I team in the country, you’re saying a lot. And Cal Lutheran Coach Rich Hill is proud to be the one doing the talking.
In just his fifth year, Hill chalked up his 100th coaching victory earlier this season. Last year the team went 35-16, losing in the regional playoffs to eventual champion Lewis and Clark College, and in 1989 the team finished 31-16.
As impressive as his record is, Hill is quick to share the glory with others in the county. “The youth programs are so strong, the high school programs are excellent,” he said, “and we have three of the best junior college coaches in the state.”
The baseball programs at Oxnard, Moorpark and Ventura colleges have been extremely successful.
“Oxnard pretty much dominated (the Western States Conference) in the early ‘80s, and Ventura had six consecutive 20-win seasons,” conference spokesman Don Adams said. “From 1986 to 1988, Ventura finished second and finally won it in 1989.”
Oxnard College won 52 out of 69 games from 1984 to 1985, for two conference championships, under White’s guidance. White took a year off in 1986 and the team finished at 0-25. He came back the next year, having recruited much of the previous season’s champion Rio Mesa High School team, including his son, and Oxnard finished at 30-10-1.
Now, if all this amateur stuff doesn’t quite suit your fancy, there’s always the Dodgers.
What? Too much of a drive? Cal Lutheran’s Hill said Ventura County baseball fans should consider themselves fortunate.
“I spent a couple of summers in Kansas playing baseball, and people out there drive six or seven hours to get to a ballgame,” he said. “We’re in an ideal location.”
Times staff writer Rodney Bosch contributed to this story.