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Working His Way Back Again

May 17, 2000|Eric Sondheimer

When Jarrod Penwarden turned 21 last July, he asked himself, "What am I doing with my life?"

He had quit playing baseball two years ago, overwhelmed by the college experience. He didn't have a car or driver's license. He got a job at Target, sleeping by day and working the graveyard shift at night. From midnight to 8 a.m., he'd carry dozens of cardboard boxes, sometimes working as many as 50 hours a week.

"It's tough," he said. "You need a lot of caffeine. I had about three bottles of Coke a night. I'd come home full of dirt from head to toe. My hands had calluses. It was definitely a sobering experience."

Penwarden was starting shortstop at Granada Hills High in Darryl Stroh's final season as coach in 1996. He went to Moorpark College and started every inning of every game as a freshman.

Then he disappeared.

"I fell off the earth," he said. "I just figured this is how it is. It was kind of like being in the real world, earning a living, paying bills."

Shortly after his 21st birthday, fate intervened. Penwarden was visiting a sporting goods store in Reseda and one of the employees was Wes Crown, a Pierce College pitcher and an acquaintance from Little League.

Penwarden asked if Pierce needed a shortstop for the 2000 season. Crown said there was no returning starter. Penwarden wrote his name and phone number on the back of a business card and asked Crown to give it to Coach Bob Lofrano.

A few days later, during a summer workout, Crown handed Lofrano the card. Lofrano tried to recruit Penwarden out of high school three years earlier.

"I saw the name and immediately walked into the baseball office and made the phone call," Lofrano said.

Said Penwarden: "I guess he remembered me."

Penwarden ended his two-year, self-imposed retirement, and what a shortstop he has become.

He has made only six errors in 39 games for Pierce (26-13), the Western State Conference Southern Division champion. He's batting .304 and went seven for 15 in the regional playoff series last weekend against Cerro Cosa. On Friday, he'll face Santa Ana, ranked No. 1 in the state, in an opening game of the Southern California Regional finals at Santa Ana.

Lofrano considers Penwarden the team's most valuable player. No shortstop in his 11 years at Pierce has committed fewer errors.

"He's been a huge, integral part of our team's success," Lofrano said.

Penwarden is just grateful to have the chance to play baseball again.

"This is the most fun I've had playing ball in my life," he said.

Penwarden is quiet and shy. He avoids attention.

"I don't say much," he said. "I like to lead by example. I keep my mouth shut and do my work. That's the way I've always been."

Imagine the laid-back Penwarden last weekend in Ridgecrest, sliding into second base when a commotion erupted on the field. A snake was spotted near the bag.

"I'm scared of snakes," he said.

The game was halted while the trainer went out with a rake to grab the snake by its tail.

Penwarden credits his girlfriend, Wendy Bair, for helping rekindle his passion for baseball. They met when he was a senior at Granada Hills and she was the baseball team's scorekeeper. They've been together ever since.

"When they marry, are they going to name their first baby after me?" Stroh said.

"[Jarrod] always came to play every day. He was a pleasure to have. I always thought he was the best around. He had an excellent arm and was almost flawless as a fielder."

Penwarden finally got his driver's license when he was 19. He drives the way he plays shortstop--quietly and with great efficiency.

"I never tailgate, never speed," he said. "I'm real safe, two hands on the wheel. That's the way I go through life."

Penwarden wishes what he learned in retirement could have been put to better use three years ago when he left the game.

"I think that time off made me realize how good I had it," he said. "I thought it was so hard in college. I'd trade everything to go back to '97. I would never make that decision again."


Another controversy involving transfer students is about to erupt in the Mission League.

Two years ago, Alemany was the target of strong criticism within the league for accepting four boys' basketball transfers after the hiring of Darryl McDonald as coach.

Harvard-Westlake could be on the verge of subjecting itself to similar criticism.

Alemany's top returning girls' players, juniors Karina Siam and Nyasha Bralock, plus Karina's sister, Kayla, a freshman, have applied to transfer to Harvard-Westlake, which recently hired Coach Melissa Hearlihy away from Alemany.

All have grade-point averages above 4.0.

Murad Siam, father of Karina and Kayla, said his daughters want to transfer for academic and athletic reasons.

But clearly, the hiring of Hearlihy triggered Siam's attempt to have his daughters transfer to Harvard-Westlake. It's an identical scenario to 1998, when boys transferred to Alemany to play for their club coach, McDonald.

"I hope they don't do it," said Principal Gary Murphy of Chaminade, who announced last September he would no longer accept transfers to his campus for purely athletic reasons. "I hope students aren't just transferring to follow a coach. High school education is more important than that."

Murphy has been trying to convince Mission League principals to devise a plan to halt transfers for athletic reasons. He has received lukewarm support.

The amusing part is how coaches complain when they lose players but suddenly become silent when they get transfers. That's why the revolving door keeps turning.


Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or

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