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Starting Over

Former Catcher Brett Ermilio, 23, Revives Career as Pitcher at Oxnard College

April 01, 1999|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — Brett Ermilio rattles off the names like a kid peering into the evening sky pointing out distant stars.

Gabe Kapler, Brad Fullmer, Stacy Kleiner, Dan Cey, Randy Wolf, Jon Schaeffer.

They are former teammates or playmates of Ermilio who are professional baseball players with shining futures.

Ermilio is a bit wistful as he talks about them from the Oxnard College bullpen, but he too wears a uniform. He is an important part of an improving team. And most of his coaches are former pros.

That's where the similarities end with, say, Kapler, Ermilio's youth league teammate and high school nemesis who is tearing up the Grapefruit League with the Detroit Tigers.

Ermilio plays for a team that last summer nearly became extinct.

Pat Woods abruptly quit as coach a few weeks before school started and every returning starter but one transferred.

Ermilio, 23, knew none of this. He lived in Woodland Hills and played for an adult team on Sundays as a break from struggling to launch a career as a screenwriter.

He was pitching for the first time and enjoying it. No pressure from his dad, no unrealistic expectations to match more talented neighbor kids.

Ermilio's career highlight was batting .400 as a junior all-league catcher at Birmingham High in 1992 and upsetting Taft, with Kapler, in the City Section playoffs.

He was injured as a senior, failed in tryouts at Pierce College and UC Santa Barbara, and grudgingly began to accept that, for him, baseball would be a diversion, not a vocation.

Then, last November, a friend told him about Oxnard, a team desperate for pitching.

Now it's midseason, and Ermilio can hardly believe all that's transpired. Relying primarily on a hard-breaking curveball, he won his first five decisions and provides leadership to a patched-together Oxnard club that is 11-10, 5-5 in the Western State Conference.

"In my mind, my baseball career was over," Ermilio said. "But there was always that part of me that loved to compete.

"I'm the old man on this team, the grandpa, and I don't know if this will lead to anything else. But I couldn't pass up the opportunity."

The dire straits the Condors were in last fall also created opportunity for Coach Jon Larson, a former Oxnard assistant who played in the same infield with future major leaguer Terry Pendleton when Oxnard won the WSC championship in 1979.

Under Woods, Oxnard was an above-average program with a reputation for sending players to four-year colleges and the pros. Larson shares those goals, but his immediate concern was fielding a team.

He coaxed Jerry Willard and Roger Frash, two of his former Hueneme High and Oxnard teammates who had gone on to pro careers, into joining another former pro, Charles Staniland, as assistants.

Willard, a catcher who played seven years in the major leagues, is the pitching coach. He took a liking to Ermilio right away.

"He is a very competitive person," Willard said. "He's no pro prospect but he's an educated person and he will go on to be an educated man. He has a great breaking ball and handles himself well on the mound."

Ermilio's maturity was apparent in Oxnard's opener against Citrus, ranked No. 11 in the state.

The Condors trailed, 3-1, when Ermilio came on in relief to begin the seventh inning. He shut out Citrus the rest of the way and first baseman Robert Avila hit a three-run homer in the eighth to give Oxnard a 4-3 victory.

"Going in, I didn't know what to expect," Larson said. "He shut them down. I was very pleased."

And so began his winning streak, which included an 8 2/3-inning, 145-pitch effort against Cerro Coso.

Although he lost to Pierce and Cuesta in his most recent starts and is showing signs of a tired arm, Ermilio leads the team with 45 innings pitched. He has a 4.74 earned-run average, significantly better than the staff ERA of 6.34.

"I haven't had a game where I've pitched that well," he said. "I'm disappointed in my personal performance."

His teammates are less harsh with their assessments. Along with fellow right-handers Brody Reyes and Rick Garcia, Ermilio has provided enough solid innings for hard-hitting Oxnard to stay in games.

The Condors are batting .327.

"When the season started I didn't think we had a guy whose shoulders we could jump on and ride to victory," said shortstop Jess Sanchez, the Condors' only returning starter. "Ermilio has been close to that."

Ermilio also offers younger teammates perspective. He has failed, rebounded and proven the power of resiliency.

When Ermilio tried out at Pierce in 1994 and quit one day after making the team by the skin of his teeth, he shuddered at the prospect of telling his father, Joe, a former minor leaguer who coached his son in youth leagues.

"He pushed me real hard, that's where I get my drive," Ermilio said.

"The toughest thing I ever did was tell him I wasn't going to play at Pierce. I was very much afraid of what his reaction would be. He was upset at first, but he came to accept it.

"Now he comes to games and can just enjoy them. He's thankful I didn't totally give up."

Ermilio possesses a similar passion for screenwriting. He wrote his first script in high school and last year studied film at UC Santa Barbara, where he won an award for a screenplay titled "Jacob."

He continues to write and is producing songs by his sister, Shere, with whom he lives in Woodland Hills.

The baseball season is providing him with decent writing material. Six years after graduating from high school, a banged-up former catcher takes the mound for the first time and helps a plucky band of ballplayers taste glory.

"The ending hasn't been written yet," Ermilio said with a smile. "We'll see how it plays out."

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