By TED SILLANPAA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
People who pay little or no attention to high school baseball couldn’t care less that Casa Grande pounded Campolindo, 9-3, in Moraga the other day. Heck, few real high school baseball fans have any idea of the magnitude of the win the Gauchos registered.
There’s a really big-time baseball hotbed in the East Bay, particularly in the area around Moraga, Lafayette and Orinda. Campolindo’s one of the nation’s top-ranked high school baseball teams. The Cougars are one of the top teams in the United States because they take the game very, very, very seriously from a very early age.
My youngest son played two summers for a tournament team based in that area, largely because his town in Solano County doesn’t take its youth baseball seriously at all. My oldest son coached in the Lafayette-Moraga-Orinda area, in high school and summer baseball. He’s been involved in the prestigious Nor Cal Baseball program that sends players by the dozen to Major League Baseball and big-time college programs. My youngest son hooked up with the Nor Cal Baseball program at age 14, so the bulk of his baseball has been played in the East Bay where there’s just a load of talent.
Casa Grande has big-time catcher Francis Christy, who has spent his summers in high-powered programs and playing on the teams that big-time prospects play for before becoming college stars or MLB draft picks. Campolindo has eight kids who’ve already committed to major colleges. Eight. That’s nearly an entire team of scholarship-quality baseball players.
The left-hander that Casa Grande got the best of Tuesday was in the program with my youngest son, the program where my older kid once coached. Matt Ladrech is already committed to pitch at Cal. When he was 12 years old, he was traveling to tournaments all over the region while most casual baseball fans figured the best players going had to be playing Little League. My son was on a team in the same program that Ladrech played for that featured shortstop Dennis Karas, another current Campo star who has also committed to Cal.
I coached youth baseball for years, played myself and have covered that 11, 12, 13 age group up and down California where, most baseball types agree, one sees the best players in the country. (People in Florida and Texas might disagree.) I’ve never seen a better all-around 12-year-old player than Karas was when he was the shortstop on my youngest son’s tournament team. Man! Karas, who was also a really talented swimmer, could hit, hit for power, run, throw, play defense, everything. While I’ve not seen him play since he was 12, the show the kid put on at a tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y. is burned in my memory.
My oldest son was a coach on a team that included Karas, my youngest son (who was a 6-foot, left-hand pitcher and outfielder) and a current Vacaville High star named Tyler Stover. (His father Scott Stover is the head coach at Solano Community College and an MLB scout.) The team, the Lamorinda Admirals, had played tournaments all summer at softball complexes with fields that had fences 300-plus feet from home plate. The Cooperstown, N.Y. tournament was played on fields with Little League distances, so my kid, Stover and Karas were all of a sudden pitching from 45 feet from home plate after throwing from 50 feet all summer.
One can imagine the advantage pitchers had moving five feet closer to home plate. It was an unfair advantage that folks who follow Little League would find mind-boggling. Stover and my kid were those big, tall kids with fastballs that left batters thinking, “How are we supposed to hit that?” But, it was what Karas did with the bat in ball parks with fences only 200 feet from the plate that blew my mind. He wasn’t one of those 6-footers at 12. He was just athletic and strong and he hit balls off of and over those fences that made it look like he was playing on a field way, way too small for him.
Line drives that went for doubles all summer were suddenly just soaring over fences. People in Cooperstown were used to great big kids hitting balls nine miles over fences, but they weren’t used to seeing a kid built like Karas do it. They were even less accustomed to a kid like Karas lining a ball off the fence and winding up on third base. My son wasn’t the hitter Karas was, but he did hit shots off the way-too-close fences — and typically wound up with a long loud single. The ball bounced off the fence and right back to the outfielder. Karas had the speed to get extra bases.
Karas isn’t even the best player at Campolindo. Ladrech isn’t the best pitcher. So, I promise, Casa Grande’s win the other day was really an important one for region high school baseball. Campolindo’s not just another good high school team. It’s a great one that plays a great schedule.