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COLLEGE WORLD SERIES

L.A. Area's Influence Still Strong

June 18, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

OMAHA — Baseball might be the national pastime, especially here in the heartland, but it has been a rite of passage for many who have grown up on the game in Southern California.

It is no surprise that the region has had an effect on the College World Series over its 58 years. As college baseball's national championship begins Friday, the Southern California influence of players and coaches is as strong as ever.

There is Cal State Fullerton, which is making its 13th appearance. There is ex-Fullerton Coach Augie Garrido, who is trying to win his second national title at Texas after a legendary run with the Titans. Arizona Coach Andy Lopez, who won a title at Pepperdine, is back with his third team.

Garrido said the success of USC, which has a record 12 national titles, put college baseball on the map.

"Rod Dedeaux was the driving force for this tournament," Garrido said of the famed Trojan coach. "The West Coast programs built the foundation for this. And it continues to be a major player."

Further evidence of the region's influence lies in the players who dot the rosters of the competing teams. Fullerton naturally has many Southland players, but other squads have key performers with local ties.

Miami has two in center fielder Brian Barton and shortstop Ryan Braun. Barton, from Westchester High, is one of the team's leading batters with a .365 average, and Braun, from Granada Hills High, was an All-American last year as a freshman with 17 home runs and 76 runs batted in.

Arizona junior catcher Richard Mercado, a Santa Ana Mater Dei product, has been one of the Wildcats' top batters in their surprising postseason run. Sophomore third baseman Brad Boyer, a former Camarillo standout, had five hits against Long Beach State in the super-regionals.

Mercado said the quality of baseball from youth leagues to high school, particularly in the hotbed of Orange County, helped prepare him for collegiate competition.

"There's always some kind of game going on with all the parks and leagues," he said. "San Diego. Orange County. L.A. Guys really get a lot of game experience, and it carries over to high school and then college."

Miami Coach Jim Morris says he actively recruits in the Southland whenever he gets the opportunity, crediting the Hurricanes' national appeal and the similar lifestyle of South Florida as an attraction for local players.

"We want to recruit every kid in our backyard first and if there's a need, the first place we'll probably look is Southern California," Morris said. "All of the kids we've had from California have been successful.

"People in Miami are from everywhere. It's a lot like Southern California, so our kids fit in perfectly."

Mercado said the proliferation of high school talent in Southern California motivated players to succeed. This year's most notable example is Long Beach State pitcher Jered Weaver, a Simi Valley graduate who was named player of the year by Baseball America and is favored to win the Golden Spikes award as the nation's top amateur player.

"You're always being challenged by some of the best players in the nation," Mercado said. "Because there's so much talent, you have to play hard or you're going to get left in the dust."

Lopez, who grew up in San Pedro and played at UCLA, laments that the vast population market of Southern California fails to support college baseball compared to other regions of the country despite the high quality of its players and teams.

"The Southeast is phenomenal," said Lopez, who coached for seven seasons at Florida. "The facilities are second to none. The support is second to none. But is the baseball less on the West Coast? No.

"West Coast baseball is still very good baseball. But we don't have the stadiums and we don't have the TV coverage."

Garrido said the limited number of scholarships -- a total of 11.7 for baseball usually spread among 30 to 35 players -- has leveled the playing field for teams across the nation after USC's dominance of the sport in the 1970s.

But the coach who won three championships at Fullerton said the influence of Southern California baseball wasn't on the wane.

"It is a great area for baseball," he said.

*

First-Round Schedule

The College World Series begins today at Rosenblatt Stadium, Omaha, with the best-of-three championship series starting June 26. All games will be televised by ESPN or ESPN2; all times PDT.

TODAY'S GAMES

* Arizona (35-25-1) vs. Georgia (43-21), 11 a.m. (ESPN2)

* Arkansas (45-22) vs. Texas (55-13), 4 p.m. (ESPN2)

SATURDAY'S GAMES

* Cal State Fullerton (42-21) vs. South Carolina (50-15), 11:30 a.m. (ESPN)

* La. State (46-17) vs. Miami (49-11), 4 p.m. (ESPN)

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