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Season of Hope : One of Every Twelve Class-A Players Reaches the Majors, but Each Could Be the Next Reggie, Fernando or George

THE CALIFORNIA LEAGUE: The third of a four-part series. Tomorrow: A look at strange and special moments in California League history.

August 23, 1985|MIKE HISERMAN, Times Staff Writer

The slogan of the California League: "See the stars of tomorrow where they play today." Has a nice ring, doesn't it? In some cases, it's even true.

Get used to the motto. If plans to bring one of the league's franchises to Ventura County next year are successful, it will be heard often.

Fernando Valenzuela, George Brett and Reggie Jackson all played in the Class-A league before becoming perennial all-stars in the major leagues.

For them, the California League was simply a short stop on a quick flight to the top. Valenzuela pitched in Lodi, Brett played third base in San Jose and Jackson roamed the outfield in Modesto. Someday, they might all end up under the same roof in Cooperstown, N.Y., at baseball's Hall of Fame.

And isn't that the dream of every player who has ever worn sliding pads and stirrups?

Making the dream a reality, however, is not easy. For each player from the California League who makes a major league roster, at least 12 fail.

Those aren't the best of odds, something that the league's 225 players know only too well.

Said Todd Oakes, a pitcher for the Fresno Giants: "At this level, everyone is a long shot, but you always think you're going to make it. You have to. That's what has to keep you going."

To the winners go the spoils: A fat major league contract and the memories of a successful minor league career.

Reggie Jackson recalled his California League days in "Reggie," his best-selling autobiography.

"We were the Modesto Reds, and we could play ," he wrote. "One day we were losing, 11-0, and we all just sort of grinned in the dugout and said, 'Let's get 'em.' We got 'em. (Joe) Rudi hit three home runs over the rest of the game. I hit two. (Dave) Duncan hit two. We ended up winning, 15-13. It was like that in Modesto. A party every game.

"A bunch of us lived in this place called the Carvel Hotel for $6 a day. We traveled around California in buses and laughed a lot. . . . I would wake up every morning and think, 'This ain't a bad way to make a living, now is it, Reggie?' "

Unfortunately, not every player is as talented as Jackson, who hit 21 homers and drove in 60 runs in only 56 games for Modesto during the 1966 season.

The minor leagues can give a rude awakening to players who have starred throughout their baseball careers. Suddenly, they are thrust into the unfamiliar position of having to prove their worth daily. Some experience failure for the first time.

"When you coach on this level," said Redwood Pioneers Manager Tom Kotchman, "you're a father, mother, psychologist to each one of your players. Sometimes, teaching the physical aspects of the game come secondary to putting your players back together mentally. Some of them have a tough time adjusting, whether their problem is being away from home, the travel, or simply the tougher competition."

Bob Grandstaff, third baseman for the Reno Padres, said illusions about the level of competition in Class-A are quickly dispelled.

"Some guys think they can start right out in Double-A, but it's just not that easy," said Grandstaff, who was drafted out of Arizona State. "They find out, and soon. It's a better brand of baseball than in college."

Will Clark, the San Francisco Giants' first draft choice this year, said that pitchers in Class A "throw harder, hit better spots and make fewer mistakes" than ones he saw while playing for Mississippi State.

"We played against some good teams in college, but the quality wasn't as high day after day like it is here," Clark said. "Those pitchers with great forkballs or wicked curves that you saw once a week in college are all here. Sometimes, you see more than one a night. It's like one big, continuous all-star game."

Of the nine teams in the California League this season, eight have player-development contracts with major league organizations. San Jose is the exception.

As big league ballclubs sign players, they send them to minor league affiliates. Major league teams usually have at least two rookie teams, two Class-A teams (high and low), a Class-AA team and a Class-AAA team.

The California League is considered by most organizations to be a high-A league, or the third rung of the ladder.

Steve Boros, coordinator of instruction for the San Diego Padres, said that a player ideally moves up a level a year.

"The progess from 'A' or rookie ball to the majors should take about 3 1/2 years," he said. "An exceptional player may make it quicker, but we try to establish with the players that skipping a level is the exception rather than the rule.

"Some players just need extra polishing and have to stay at the same level for a couple of years. It's not that they're necessarily any less of a prospect. Maybe they were a designated hitter in college and they need extra work on their defense. We try and wait until we can make sure a player will be comfortable where we send him."

As long as they don't send him out.

The threat of being released is the constant companion of a minor league ballplayer.

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