Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown
Rich Dauer sat beside me on the first base bench just after the San Bernardino Spirit finished playing under the dimly-lit field at Redlands Community Field.
It was April 1987. Thirty-one years later, he would be taking part in a pre-game ceremony at the newly-crowned world champion Houston Astros. Back then, they were playing in the Astrodome.
But on this date in 1987, something new was taking place. The California League had just expanded to, of all places, San Bernardino.
Less than two decades earlier, his high school team came to play at Redlands.
“I remember playing here,” he said, referring to Community Field, “in high school.”
Here was Dauer who, only a few years earlier, had played second base on the 1983 Baltimore Orioles’ World Series championship.
He was homegrown.
Colton High School, a 1970 graduate.
San Bernardino Valley College, then known as the Indians.
Then it was onto USC, where he was a two-time All-American third baseman, helping lead the Trojans to win the College World Series in both 1973 and 1974. He’s now a Baltimore Orioles’ Hall of Famer, having been the team’s No. 1 draft pick (1974), playing in two World Series.
The Spirit knew where many of their fans might show up at Fiscalini Field – located on Highland Ave. in San Bernardino – and that was Redlands.
Showing up at Community Field was the perfect public relations move. The Spirit could sell a lot of tickets to these folks.
With his hitting coach, Jay Johnstone, sitting nearby, Dauer reflected on minor league ball players.
“These guys,” he said, motioning out to those Class A players, “aren’t that far away from the major leagues.”
It was quite a proclamation. These were minor leaguers, Rich, I’d told him.
He shook his head in disagreement.
“All these guys are,” he said, “just young. They need experience. They can throw just as hard, hit it just as far … as any major leaguers. They just need to get consistent.
“That’s what will keep them out of the majors,” he said. “If they’re not consistent.”
There were some future major leaguers on that Spirit roster.
Todd Cruz and Rudy Law, plus Terry Whitfield, pitchers Andy Rincon and Craig Chamberlain – all of whom showed up
Cruz, in fact, was an infield teammate of Dauer’s on that 1983 Orioles team.
Law played against the O’s in the 1983 American League playoffs when Baltimore knocked off the Chicago White Sox.
All those ex-MLB players were playing out the string.
Another Spirit, infielder Mike Brocki, had torn apart Redlands High in a CIF soccer playoff a few years earlier – scoring three times in a 6-0 win. For the Spirit in 1987, he hit two HRs and batted .233.
Let’s not forget another Spirit infielder, Leon Baham, who would eventually become one of Redlands’ top youth baseball coaches in years ahead. Baham hit .279 with 8 HRs that season.
And Ronnie Carter, a Fontana product who was an NCAA Division 3 All-American at the University of Redlands a couple years earlier, got 164 at-bats (4 HRs, .213) for a squad that was filled by plenty of guys that had no shot at a major league career.
Dauer sat over all of them, perhaps lining himself up for a lengthy future in MLB. Curiously, he never drew a manager’s assignment at the MLB level, coaching at Kansas City, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Colorado and, finally, Houston.
Dauer spent as much time as I needed on that Community Field bench that night. Plenty of local youths showed up to watch this split-squad game.
Pitchers fired seeds.
Hitters took big cuts.
Baserunners seemed quick, fast.
Fielders made it look easy.
Dauer, working for the Seattle Mariners, had the task of sitting over these guys.
Three decades later, Dauer was pulling himself to the mound at Minute Maid Park. It was April 2, 2018 – today’s date, in fact. He threw out the first pitch.
For the previous three seasons, he had coached first base as the Astros made a dramatic move toward becoming contenders. When Houston beat the Dodgers in a thrilling 7-game series the previous fall, Dauer was back in familiar territory.
Tragedy struck at the World Series parade. Dauer suffered a head injury, resulting in emergency brain surgery. It brought his coaching career – 19 years strong – to a pre-mature conclusion.
He was the perfect selection to throw out the first pitch.
That 1987 season in San Bernardino was his first as a coach. His playing career concluded in 1985. He had been teammates with the likes of Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Jr., Eddie Murray and Jim Palmer.
None of that trio ever played California League ball. Dauer cut his teeth as a coach in that historical assemblage of minor league cities.
It no way resembled the California League that would eventually surface in various Southern California cities.
San Bernardino had joined the Bakersfield Dodgers, Fresno Giants, Modesto A’s, Palm Springs Angels, Reno Padres, Salinas Spurs, San Jose Bees, Stockton Ports and the Visalia Oaks. Truth is, the Salinas Spurs had moved to San Bernardino, adopting the Spirit name.
Here he was, back in Redlands after a well-traveled baseball career. Only a few hundred had bothered to show.
Dauer seemed to be the perfect pick to lead the Spirit.
After all, he had been a local product.
“It never occurred to me,” said Dauer on that April 1987 night, “that there’d ever be a minor league team in San Bernardino.”