Here is the official recipe for one of college sports’ most intriguing phenomenon: Take one exceedingly good college baseball coach, Dave Snow, who believes in the theory of Team and applies himself with the force of a Roger Clemens fastball.
Whisk this coach into an existing dirt field that without baselines would be more patch than field.
Sift in large cups of new spices and sweets that quickly eliminate the taste of neglect that had been stuck on the palate for more than a decade.
Bake at high temperature, win 50 games, go to the College World Series and acquire a nickname with attitude.
Voila! Dinner and history are served.
Such are the ingredients that went into the creation of the Dirtbags, Long Beach State’s baseball team that ranks among the most intriguing college sports stories of the last two decades. The Dirtbags aren’t one of those nouveau Division I programs that jumped up from a lower division to play football and now attends bowl games, like Boise State or South Florida, or a women’s sports program that emerged from the shadows thanks to Title IX.
Long Beach State baseball had basically slipped from view in the ’80s and was meaningless when the school chose to resurrect it, and few programs, in any sport, in any state, on any level, can boast of its on-field success and the way it has crept into the consciousness of baseball in general, not just college baseball on this coast.
The Dirtbag season opens Feb. 2, but it gets a major historical and lasting preseason sendoff this week with the announcement today of the school’s All-Time Top 20 Team.
The thought to have fans vote on the best players in school history came from coach Mike Weathers, who thought it was time to honor the school’s history and rise from the shadow by waving a few banners at its fans and baseball in general.
The Top 20 players each will have their own banner flying at Blair Field when the season begins, and there will be a separate banner honoring the school’s coaches and two blank banners reserved for future Long Beach players worthy of being flown in the same air space as Randy Moffitt, Jered Weaver, Jason Giambi and Bobby Crosby.
“We had banners around the park that honored our regional and College World Series appearances,” Weathers said, “but there was nothing that spoke to the history of the players in the park. There were no shrines to Weaver winning the Golden Spike Award or all of our All-Americans, and there have been a lot of great players come through Blair Field and the program.”
So the Dirtbag braintrust – Weathers, marketing director Tim Dickson, baseball publicist Niall Adler – sketched out a plan. Dickson worked out the business end of having the banners made and getting city approval. Adler and Weathers worked out an online voting ballot through the school Web site. Adler designed the banners.
A Dirtbag alum stepped up quietly to provide the money for the banners. He doesn’t really want any recognition for this, so let’s just say he’s very well-known, can be found on the cover of a video game and now plays his baseball at a stadium a short drive east of Blair Field.
“I’m happy with the way things turned out,” Weathers said. “The banners are very colorful and will circle the stadium. The banner for the coaches is above the concession stands as you walk into the park. There isn’t anywhere you can go in Blair now and not get a taste of our history.
“When some of our players saw them this week, they asked questions like `who’s Randy Moffitt?’ It’s nice that we will have something on display that will remind the players and fans of our background. Choosing the Top 20 wasn’t a scientific process, but I’m happy with the results and the guys being honored.”
Moffitt is the most veteran of the Top 20. The younger brother of Billie Jean King was a standout on the 1969 team that won a conference title and he was the first 49er to have an extensive major league career.
Two players from the 40-win 1979 team made the list, pitcher Dan Danielson and outfielder Rob Townley. Chris Gill was a key transition player for John Gonsalves in the years before the school put some money behind the program and was a senior on the seminal 1989 team.
Four players from the 1989 and 1991 CWS teams besides Gill made the list – Kyle Abbott, Don Barbara, Jason Giambi and Steve Trachsel. Two stars of the early ’90s, Gabe Gonzalez and Jeff Liefer, were honored, as were three players off the 1998 CWS team, Mike Gallo, Chuck Lopez and Terrmel Sledge.
Seven players of the 2000s made the list, and six are already in the majors – Abe Alvarez, Bobby Crosby, Jeremy Reed, Troy Tulowitzki, Jason Vargas and Jered Weaver – and the seventh, Evan Longoria, was the third pick in the 2006 draft.
There were notable early players who didn’t earn many votes from today’s electorate with little knowledge of yore. Dick Nen and Rod Gaspar played in the majors, Roger Hull and Don Anderson were stars of the ’50s and ’60s and George Throop was an ace pitcher in the early ’70s. Ed Ratleff got a vote, which probably stuns those who didn’t know the basketball legend also pitched three years.
But there’s also no denying the impact the Dirtbag era has had. There are 22 former Dirtbags who have played in the majors since the era began. Upwards of 10 should make opening day 2007 rosters. There have been 16 first- or second-round draft picks since 1989, and nine since 2001, and a first rounder in each of the last three seasons – Weaver in 2004, Tulowitzki in 2005 and Longoria in 2006.
The Dirtbag era has posted a winning season every year since it began and gone to the postseason 15 of 18 times. The rise has provided the school’s best rivalry, with Fullerton, since the days when Long Beach State and San Diego State were football rivals.
Over the years, the Dirtbags have advanced in the postseason over the bodies of Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma State, Florida State, Notre Dame, Stanford and Alabama. They have College World Series wins in the past against Clemson, Kansas, Texas A&M, LSU and Miami.
Snow, the architect of the Dirtbags, received almost as many votes as any player before it was decided to take the coaches out of the mix.
“To single out individuals is a nice gesture, but the Dirtbags were all about `team,’ not individuals,” Snow said.
“Dirtbag baseball was part of the foundation, something we could identify with in the early years. Most of the players came for the right reasons and wanted to be a part of a special team. So the bar was set pretty high because of our style of play.
“The whole `Dirtbag’ thing isn’t something I thought would take off the way it has. It was something to rally around at the beginning. But eventually, it became a statement on the way we played.”
To the degree that youth teams in the city now wear “Dirtbag” jerseys, and college fans across the country covet Dirtbag memorabilia, and a bar in Omaha, Neb., declared itself ground zero for Dirtbag Nation, and Baseball America considers the program a perennial and has championed its cause, and the NCAA now looks at the Dirtbags and Blair as a good place to hold a regional.
And the worst criticism a particular player or team can receive is for someone to question whether they deserve to be known as Dirtbags.
The actual name came from 1989 assistant coach Dave Malpass, who coined it after so many players came back from infield practice caked in “dirt” from what passed for their practice field. It gained momentum at the 1991 CWS and took off a few years later when the school decided to put the name on school clothing.
Now, it’s not a name as much as a way of life, one now with its own banners.
Bob Keisser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (562) 499-2550.