Birkins' Stock Most Valuable

In the hospital waiting room after a new son is born, the nervous father always wants to know, "Is he left-handed?"

Left-handed pitchers are more valuable than diamonds. They are a coach's dream and a hitter's nightmare.

Playing at Dodger Stadium, where the greatest left-hander of all, Sandy Koufax, once held court, southpaws Mike Kunes of Chatsworth High and Kurt Birkins of El Camino Real engaged in a historic pitchers' duel that produced the longest game in the 30-season history of the City Section 4-A championship baseball game in Chavez Ravine.

It finally ended when Birkins hit a two-run double in the top of the 10th inning off Kunes, helping El Camino Real win its fourth City 4-A title of the 1990s, an exhausting and exhilarating 5-2 win Thursday night over Chatsworth in 10 innings.

Birkins came in with a 10-0 record against every team other than Chatsworth. He was 0-2 against the Chancellors and didn't make it out of the second inning in his last Chatsworth appearance.

But he proved once again he's the best unsigned college prospect in the region by dominating the most feared hitting team in the City.

He retired 12 consecutive batters from the second to the sixth innings. He finished with a four-hitter, striking out 12 and walking three. His control was magnificent. He had walked 52 in 71 1/3 innings, but with a City title on the line, Birkins rose up like an ace pitcher should. His curveball was breaking sharply, and his fastball was humming.

Kunes lasted until there were two outs in the 10th. He scattered 13 hits and struck out eight in suffering only his second defeat in 14 decisions.

El Camino Real (19-9) lost three times during the regular season to Chatsworth (29-4), but the Conquistadores did exactly what was needed to pull off the upset. The Nos. 3 and 4 hitters in the lineup, Woody Cliffords and Conor Jackson, came through with four and three hits, respectively. The defense held up and Birkins refused to give any ground to Kunes.

"I love Birkins," Cliffords said. "Birkins shut them down."

"We knew it was in him," El Camino Real Coach Mike Maio said of Birkins. "We knew if we didn't make errors, we could do it."

Said Birkins: "I had to throw my best, and I did it. I can't describe it. It's like a dream. I'm waiting for somebody to wake me up."

It was the fourth City title and the sixth time since Maio took over as El Camino Real coach in 1983 that the Conquistadores have made it to Dodger Stadium. He's a 58-year-old Irishman with a special story.

Born in Trinidad, Colo., a small town of 6,000, Maio came to Southern California during the boom of the 1960s. He and another aspiring baseball coach, Darryl Stroh, taught physical education together at Patrick Henry Junior High in Granada Hills in 1966.

Stroh went on to guide Granada Hills High to five City championships. Maio had to spend 16 seasons, from 1967-82, as a junior varsity coach before he was offered a varsity position. "Nobody was really knocking their doors down to get to me," he said.

Maio has outlasted all his coaching buddies from the 1970s. Stroh has retired from coaching baseball, along with the likes of Steve Marden (San Fernando), Jerry Cord (Poly) and Doug MacKenzie (Canoga Park).

He's one of the last coaches who doesn't wear a uniform. His philosophy of teaching the players about discipline, fundamentals and everyday life makes him the last of a vanishing breed.

"I've never been with a coach like him," catcher Mike Leduc said. "He gets the best out of everybody. He allows you to have fun but also wants you to be serious."

Maio's father came out to watch his team play at Dodger Stadium in 1984. The Conquistadores were routed by Granada Hills. A couple months later, his father died. Maio becomes teary-eyed when talking about it.

"He'd seen Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig," Maio said. "He taught me to like sports. He was very happy for me. They [Granada Hills] beat the heck out of us, but he thought it was a big deal."

Maio continues to teach his players "the way I was taught." That's the ultimate tribute to his father.

Here are some final impressions from the '98 season:

Most impressive junior pitchers: 1. Mike Kunes (Chatsworth); 2. Jordan Olson (Crescenta Valley); 3. Tim Leveque (Crespi); 4. Matt Rogers (Thousand Oaks); 5. Ivan Hernandez (Sylmar); 6. Greg Ramirez (Rio Mesa); 7. Michael Jackson (Crespi); 8. Phil Polanco (Notre Dame); 9. Justin Wade (Taft); 10. Jason Brown (Paraclete).

Most impressive sophomores: 1. Third baseman Conor Jackson (El Camino Real); 2. First baseman Matt Cassel (Chatsworth), 3. Shortstop Matt Fisher (Chatsworth), 4. Second baseman Mark McCauley (Crescenta Valley); 5. Pitcher Chris Cordeiro (Thousand Oaks); 6. Catcher Joey Hamer (Newbury Park); 7. Pitcher Michael Marble (Grant); 8. Outfielder Matt Thayer (Harvard-Westlake); 9. Designated hitter Brian Lipman (Royal); 10. Pitcher Jamie Shields (Hart).

Top incoming freshmen for '99: 1. Third baseman Tim Murphy (Burroughs); 2. Shortstop D.J. Milones (Crespi); 3. Pitcher Greg Acheatel (El Camino Real); 4. Catcher Chris Giordano (Hart); 5. Catcher Jesse Michel (Calabasas).

Best pro prospects for '99: 1. Infielder Kevin Howard (Westlake); 2. Infielder John Puccinelli (Notre Dame).

Top five teams for '99: 1. Crescenta Valley, 2. El Camino Real, 3. Chatsworth, 4. Crespi, 5. Sylmar.


Eric Sondheimer is the local columnist. He can be reached at (818) 772- 3422.

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