The Southern Oregon Athletics are establishing a reputation as having one of the premier pitching staffs in professional baseball.
Four 1990 first-round draft picks are on the roster of the Oakland A's affiliate in the Class-A Northwest League. The quartet consists of recently signed high school phenom Todd Van Poppel, former UCLA standout Dave Zancanaro, Texas All-American Kirk Dressendorfer and Don Peters from St. Francis College in New York.
The team markets its monster staff as VanZancanPeterPoppelDorfer, a slogan emblazoned on a limited-edition T-shirt above the phrase "The Biggest Names in Baseball Start in Southern Oregon."
While the pitchers have grabbed most of the attention, former Kennedy High and College of the Canyons standout Bill Picketts has quietly provided the team with offensive punch.
Thursday night against Eugene (Ore.), Picketts lifted the A's to a 1-0 victory by driving in a run in the bottom of the 10th inning. It was his 28th run batted in, tops on the team.
Picketts, batting .268, had 11 RBIs during a five-game series against Bend (Ore.) last week. He is playing second base for the A's, a position he learned last season at Cal State Los Angeles after spending most of his high school and college seasons as an outfielder.
"I never thought I'd be a big enough power hitter to make it in the outfield," said Picketts, who also has started for the A's at third base and shortstop. "I think my future is as a utility guy."
Back to the farm: Jim Vatcher's first major league stint with the Philadelphia Phillies ended Tuesday when the former Cal State Northridge outfielder was sent back to triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre (Pa.) to make room for pitcher Ken Howell, who came off the disabled list.
Vatcher played in 36 games with the Phillies. He batted .261 (12 for 46) with one home run and four runs batted in.
He had batted .260 with five homers and 16 RBIs at Scranton-Wilkes Barre before his promotion in June.
Waiting for a chance: While Vatcher got a taste of the big leagues, fellow Phillie farmhand Steve Sharts is still waiting for his initial opportunity.
Sharts, a 25-year-old left-hander who played at Northridge with Vatcher in 1985, is 2-1 with three saves and a 3.07 earned-run average for Scranton-Wilkes Barre.
Sharts, a reliever in his second season at the triple-A level, started slowly this season and had an earned-run average near 6.00 at the end of April.
Two things helped Sharts turn his season around.
First, his wife Jennifer, a model on the Home Shopping Network, left their home in Clearwater, Fla., and joined Sharts in Pennsylvania.
Next, he abandoned a mechanical adjustment that he made in spring training.
"Our pitching coach tried to get me to throw over the top for more velocity," Sharts said. "I wasn't used to that and I was leaving the ball over the plate. I just went back to a three-quarter delivery and I've been doing great ever since."
Indeed, since April 27, Sharts has made 37 appearances and has a 1.91 ERA in his last 56 innings.
Yankee doodles: Phil Lombardi sat at arm's-length from George Steinbrenner several times during his seven seasons in the New York Yankees organization, but the former Kennedy High standout never struck up a conversation with The Boss.
Lombardi, a catcher who was drafted out of Kennedy in 1981, retired before this season after nine years in professional baseball and three knee operations. He spent his final two seasons with the New York Mets.
He batted .239 in 43 games in the major leagues and had three home runs and nine RBIs.
Earlier this week, Commissioner Fay Vincent ordered Steinbrenner to surrender majority ownership of the Yankees and remove himself from day-to-day operations of the club because of conduct against the best interests of baseball.
"The man means well," Lombardi said of Steinbrenner. "He pays the big bucks and he wants to win. I had admiration for the man because he wants a winner."
Lombardi said he is enjoying working in real estate and does not miss baseball.
"I haven't really picked up a ball," Lombardi said. "But I enjoy sitting back and relaxing and watching a ballgame on TV."
Lombardi might soon be on TV, having recently played a bit part in a commercial for Ford trucks.
Road to recovery: Mike Magnante took a few steps on the comeback trail Thursday when he walked without crutches for the first time since undergoing knee surgery June 28.
Magnante, a 25-year-old left-handed pitcher from Burroughs High and UCLA, ruptured ligaments in his left knee on June 15 while fielding a bunt during a game between the Omaha Royals--Kansas City's Triple-A affiliate--and the Rochester Red Wings.
"I'm shooting for (recovery by) spring training," said Magnante, who was 2-5 at the time of the injury. "I'm not worried about at all. I did the same thing at UCLA with the other knee and I made it back with no problem."