ROBBIE HUDSON: STRANGE PATHWAY TO TEXAS LONGHORNS’ INFIELD

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 and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, 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

I still ask myself how?

How in the world did Redlands’ Robbie Hudson work his way to Riverside City College, the class of California Junior College baseball, to — of all places — the University of Texas.

The 2001 Redlands High graduate, who was part of a nice collection of Terrier ballplayers from that era — outfielder Curt Mendoza taken by Cleveland, infielder Chris Wilson selected by Texas, Chris Hernandez plucked by the Pirates, plus catcher Bret Martinez taken by the Angels — who eventually got drafted by MLB teams.

That Hudson survived seven seasons in minor league baseball after his collegiate years is a testament to how tough this little non-power, 170-pound infielder was over his career.

I remember seeing Hudson’s photo — leaping in the air to snag a throw from his Longhorns’ catcher — appearing on the Associated Press wire.

That’s big!

Robbie Hudson
Redlands’ Robbie Hudson, a College World Series champion.

In the end, Hudson batted nearly 2,000 times in minor league games — a .249 average, 16 total HRs, playing either second base or shortstop. He never was an all-out regular, appearing in a career-high 112 games for the Class A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers in 2006.

That was just one season after helping the Texas Longhorns win the College World Series.

Robbie’s dad, Bob, just laughed at the questions.

Redlands to RCC? RCC to Texas? Texas, it seemed, wasn’t in the habit of picking up junior college recruits, especially from California.

“Texas didn’t have any guys on that team,” said Bob Hudson, “out of California — except Robbie.”

There was one from Colorado. Another from Oklahoma. Virginia and Louisiana each landed one. Hudson was wrong about his son being the only Californian. Thomas Incaviglia came from Monterey. All others were homegrown Texans.

Hitting .287 and .292 in back-to-back seasons on that Longhorns’ team, Hudson played a considerable role in Texas’ championship years.

He was teammates with future No. 1 picks like Drew Stubbs, Huston Street, J.P. Howell, Kyle McCulloch, not to mention highly-regarded catcher Taylor Teagarden.

Hudson had gone from one great coach, RCC’s Dennis Rogers, to another, Texas’ Augie Garrido.

Augie Garrido
Texas coach Augie Garrido, who left Cal State Fullerton to take over at the University of Texas, had Redlands’ Robbie Hudson in the Longhorns’ lineup when they won the 2005 College World Series (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

In 2004, Garrido’s Longhorns reached the College World Series championship finals, but lost to Cal State Fullerton in a two-game sweep, 3-2 and 6-4.

Hudson wasn’t in the lineup in a game saved by Street, an eventual MLB closer.

There had to be some irony involved that Fullerton had once been Garrido’s team, having departed the Titans after the 1996 season for the legendary Longhorns.

Future Dodger slugger Justin Turner was a prime member of Fullerton. Southpaw Ricky Romero (13-5, 2.86 ERA), another MLB-bound player, was its top pitcher. So was Wes Roehmer (7-3, 3.80). Both hurlers were first-round picks.

One season later, Hudson’s senior year, the Longhorns won it all.

Imagine having to get past Baylor. Or Tulane. Or Florida.

Texas (52-16) beat Florida twice, 6-2 and 4-2, to wrap up the CWS.

Truth be told, there weren’t all that many glittering names that would become MLB stars.

Baylor, for instance, had just one No. 1 pick, pitcher Mark McCormack (St. Louis).

Florida had Matt La Porta and pitcher Darren O’Day, who was still toiling on the MLB mound in 2018.

MLB teams must be salivating over a collegiate championship team, looking at each and every player in hopes of landing a future major leaguer.

Hudson, taken in the draft by the Chicago White Sox, had to be a prime example.

He swiped 69 minor league bases, knocked out 88 doubles and 10 triples, hitting only into 29 double plays and fielded .963.

Spending time in the Philadelphia, Seattle and San Diego chains, his minor league stops included Class AA Birmingham, Class AAA Tucson and Lehigh (Pa.), not to mention Class A Winston-Salem in such legendary spots as the Carolina League, Southern League and the International League, among others.

In the minors, Hudson was teammates with plenty of No. 1 MLB picks — John Mayberry, Jr., Jack Cust, Nate Nump, Jason Grilli, Joe Savery, Phillippe Aumont, Aaron Heilman and Gordon Beckham, plus Buster Posey’s current backup catcher Nick Hundley (San Francisco).

There may have been no better spot than Omaha, Neb., however — legendary site of Rosenblatt Stadium, home of the College World Series. Hudson singled in his final collegiate game.

Rosenblatt Stadium, it turns out, was home over a four-year stretch (2002-2005) to former Redlands ballplayers. Hernandez, pitching for University of South Carolina, had been there in back-to-back years with the Gamecocks in 2002 and 2003.

Hudson showed up there in 2004 and 2005.

 

 

 

 

POWER PITCHING CHRIS HERNANDEZ LANDED IN COLLEGE WORLD SERIES

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 and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, 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

In honor of the College World Series, which is getting underway.

Redlands’ Chris Hernandez had a nice fastball, good command.

Chris Hernandez
Redlands’ Chris Hernandez got his shot at the College World Series — twice, in fact, with the University of South Carolina (photo by USC).

He was part of some nice Redlands High School teams which, for some reason, has never reached a CIF Southern Section championship game in well over 100 years of taking the diamond.

Out a fairly impressive list of Redlands High pitchers — Shaun Benzor, Richie Burgess, Ben Washburn, John Herrera, David Quinowski, plus MLB veteran Ed Vande Berg and current RHS pitching coach Gary Pool — Hernandez was one of the best of that Terrier chain, sans Vande Berg.

In one game article describing his pitching, I’d referred to Hernandez as a “non-power” pitcher, noting observations made by three scouts having while observing.

It’s the kind of thing writers long for while watching a prep game. Hearing accounts of scouts is like tossing out meat for a tiger.

That observation drew disapproval from that particular prospect, who definitely had college and a pro career in mind for himself.

A few days later after that article, he got that off his chest, telling me that, indeed, “I AM a power pitcher.”

His years in the minor leagues — six seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ chain while reaching the Triple A level — might overlook some brilliant collegiate campaigns.

Hernandez’s travels took him first to Riverside City College and, eventually, landing at the University of South Carolina.

While watching him work for Redlands — its PONY All-Stars and, eventually, with the high school Terriers — Hernandez was part of a nice crop of ballplayers.

It led him to RCC, which notched back-to-back State junior college championships in 2000 and 2001 under a future Hall of Fame coach, Dennis Rogers.

That was the launching pad that led Hernandez to South Carolina for his junior and senior seasons in 2002 and 2003. The Gamecocks, one of seven teams from the baseball-rich Southeastern Conference to reach the NCAA Division 1 playoffs, made it to the College World Series in both years.

So here was Hernandez, a two-time All-Orange Empire Conference selection at RCC.

In 2002, the Gamecocks (57-18) had to get past Virginia Commonwealth, North Carolina and Miami in the Columbia, N.C. Super Regional.

At the CWS, Georgia Tech took down USC, 13-0, in the opening round.

Wins over Nebraska, a rematch over Georgia Tech, then a sweep over Clemson lifted the Gamecocks into the championship game against Texas.

The Longhorns, coached by the legendary Augie Garrido, beat the Gamecocks, 12-6.

Playing against such future MLB prospects as Huston Street (Texas), Kahlil Greene (Clemson), Nebraska’s Drew Anderson, Todd Sears and Brian Duensing, Aaron Hill (LSU), Stanford’s Ryan Garko, Jed Lowrie and Carlos Quentin, Chris Ianetta (North Carolina) — to name a few.

Hernandez (1-1, 3.27) pitched in 13 games that season.

South Carolina’s talent pool that season? Catcher Landon Powell (Oakland), pitcher Matt Campbell (Kansas City) and shortstop Drew Meyer (Texas Rangers) were eventual first-round round picks.

On a 45-22 squad in 2003, there were no less than 17 Gamecock players targeted by MLB teams. Powell, third baseman Brian Buscher (San Francisco), outfielder Kevin Melillo (Oakland) and infielder Steve Tolleson (Minnesota) were among those that eventually reached the majors.

Hernandez was 5-5 that season (3.32 ERA, 25 games, 84 innings), pitching three complete games though he appeared mostly in relief. Eight teams from the SEC battled their way into the NCAA playoffs.

It was Stanford that ultimately knocked out the Gamecocks in their chase to another CWS championship — twice, in fact, 8-0 and 13-6. In between those losses, USC had stayed alive with 11-10 win over Louisiana State.

LSU couldn’t hold on, despite the presence of future MLB reliever Brian Wilson, who closed down San Francisco’s 2010 World Series championship over Texas.

Rice (Texas) University beat Stanford two out of three to nail down the 2003 title.

As for his opponents, imagine pitching to future major leaguers like Ryan Garko, Jed Lowrie and Carlos Quentin, who were noted Stanford sluggers.

The Cardinal had 23 MLB draftees that year, including four No. 1 picks (Quentin, Lowrie, Danny Putnam and John Mayberry, Jr.), a No. 2 (Donny Lucy) and No. 3 (Garko).

With the Pirates, Hernandez made two all-star teams, chunking out 23 wins, 56 saves and a 3.22 ERA in 230 professional games between 2003 and 2009.

The Pirates?

Hernandez had some good seasons — 24 saves, 1.93 with the Class A Hickory Crawdads in his first full season as a pro, 6-1 record and a 2.86 ERA with Class AA Altoona Croon in 2007. At the Class AAA level, he spent parts of two seasons with the Indianapolis Indians of the International League.

He was 0-4 over 23 games in between a 4-0, 2.61 stint back at Altoona.

Hernandez was teammates with future MVP Andrew McCutchen, plus solid future MLB players like Neil Walker and Steve Pearce, both No. 1 draft picks. So were pitchers Bryan Bullington and Sean Burnett, who never quite made the grade at the MLB level.

Andrew McCutchen (Flickr)
Future MVP Andrew McCutchen was a minor league teammate of Chris Hernandez while the two worked their way up toward a hopeful Major League Baseball career in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ chain (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

In all, Hernandez struck out 353 hitters over 324 1/3 innings as a seven-year minor leaguer — not bad for a power pitcher.

As for the College World Series, consider this: Hernandez first showed up there with the Gamecocks in 2002, repeating the appearance in 2003.

One season later, another ex-Terrier, Robbie Hudson, made the first of two straight trips to Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. — site of the annual CWS.

The Redlands Connection was in full effect at college’s biggest baseball showcase.

 

STEVE SCOTT: RUNNING UNOFFICIALLY THROUGH REDLANDS

This is part of a series of mini-Redlands Connections. This is Part 3 of the series, Quick Visits. Magic Johnson and John Wooden showed up at the University of Redlands as part of a Convocation Series. This piece on Tom Flores was another one. Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, former NBA player John Block, legendary high school coach Willie West showed up. There are others. Cazzie Russell, for instance, came to Redlands with an NCAA Division III basketball team from Savannah, Ga. Russell, out of Michigan, was the NBA’s overall No. 1 draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1966.

Today’s feature: World-class distance runner Steve Scott.

Steve Scott could’ve wiped out the field at the 2001 version of A Run Through Redlands.

Think about it.

There were 136 times in his career that Scott ran the mile in four minutes, or better. He held the American record in that distance for a quarter-century. His place in track & field’s history books are cemented forever.

That he showed up to run in Redlands was incredible. He wasn’t there to compete, though.

“I’ve got friends here,” he said, standing in front of a crowd of local runners. “I ran with them in the 5K … but I didn’t enter the race. This was just a fun run for me.”

SteveScott
Upland’s Steve Scott, who ran a mile under four minutes a world record 136 times, stopped by to run for fun at the 2001 Run Through Redlands (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

It must’ve never occurred to runners on that Sunday morning that they were running next to a legend.

It occurred to me, however, that I had a genuine story on my hands.

I gigged the local newspaper photographer, Lee Calkins, to get Scott’s photo. Scott, charming as he was spectacular, had given me his telephone number for, perhaps, a future feature article. I could hardly wait.

INTERVIEW WITH A LEGEND

Talk centered around that remarkable record of sub-four-minute miles. He was a legitimate superstar on the track – nationally and internationally.

He was just 22 when Britain’s Sebastian Coe set the world mile record (3:48.95) in Oslo, Sweden in 1979. Running second that day was none other than Scott, the miler from Upland. Eventually, his lifetime best over one mile was 3:47.69.

It seems almost sub-human to recognize his lifetime best in the 800 was 1:45.05.

Olympics?

Like many athletes in 1980, ready to erupt at the Games, he was part of a U.S. contingent that wasn’t allowed to attend the Moscow Olympics because America boycotted.

“I won (the 1500) at the Olympic Trials,” he told me. “I was ready for the Olympics, believe me.”

Scott did win the gold medal at the Liberty Games, an event organized to allow boycotting nations to enter their athletes. Held in Philadelphia, Scott held off Sudan’s Omer Khalefa by a fraction of a second in 3:40.19 over 1500 meters.

In the 1984 L.A. Games, Scott ran 10th in the 1500; fifth at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Only one of his lifetime bests – 800, 1000, 1500, mile, 3000 or 5000 – was run on American soil. In the 5000-meter, Scott ran a 13:30.39 at legendary Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.

“Running in Europe is great,” he said. “There’s nothing like it. Track is huge over there. You can really make some money.”

Appearance fees, purses, shoe sponsorships, bonuses for world records – “the big money is overseas,” said Scott. “There’s no big money in American track.”

Holder of the American one-mile record on three different occasions – becoming the first American to crack 3:50, incidentally – Scott set the American record (3:47.69) in July 1982.

When I spoke with Scott in 2001, he still held the American record in the mile (his record was broken in 2007 by Alan Webb, 3:46.91).

“I love road racing,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me whether the race is on the track, indoor, outdoor, on the roads.”

I used to cover the Sunkist Invitational in Los Angeles, a pre-season indoor meet, when Redlands would send athletes. I wasn’t around when Scott ran his first mile under four minutes in 1977.

He raced against the likes of Sydney Maree, Ovett, Coe, Steve Cram – legendary figures over the mile distance.

Then there was the Dream Mile, he called it.

“Three of us,” Scott said, referring to New Zealand’s John Walker and Ireland’s Ray Flynn, “all ran under 3:50.”

It took place in Oslo, Norway in 1982. Scott won in 3:47.69, Walker was next in 3:49.08 and Flynn was third in 3:49.77.

“Whew,” Scott recalled. “I can’t remember a bigger race with that much speed.”

Walker’s run is still a national mark in New Zealand. So is Flynn’s mark in Ireland. Twenty-five years later, Webb cracked Scott’s record.

For Scott, it all started in high school. Who could have foreseen the moment that Scott would race against Walker, who logged 135 races under four minutes?

“I ran cross country at Upland High School,” he said. “There was a coach there who kept after me to run track.”

In the 1972 Olympics, a U.S. runner, Dave Wottle, had won the gold medal in the 800. Scott watched, then developed a strong desire to run track. In college at UC Irvine, Scott was NCAA Division 1 champion in the 1500.

“My times in high school were nothing special,” he said, referring to 1:58 in the 800 and 4:30 in the 1500.

“Running those (record) times in the mile, holding the record,” he said, “was the most special part of my career. Those were great feelings.”

COULD’VE WIPED OUT REDLANDS RACE

As for that 2001 Redlands’ 5K, consider that he once ran 5,000 meters in just over 13 minutes. In 2001, I seem recall the course record at just over 15 minutes – virtually a sprint.

Scott’s background produced a mark that was two minutes quicker.

What shouldn’t go unnoticed here is that A Run Through Redlands organizers, dating back to its origins in the early 1980s, couldn’t conceive they could offer up a significant event that a world figure might show up to run — even if it was a “fun run.”

Could he have wiped out the Redlands field, I asked him?

He smiled.

“Maybe.”

 

 

JULIO CRUZ PART OF CHICAGO WHITE SOX’ TOP TRADE DEADLINE MOVES

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 and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, 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

It was June 15, 1983. In those days, that was Major League Baseball’s trade deadline.

Think of the great deals — Seattle traded Randy Johnson to Houston in 1998 (by then, the deadline had been moved to July 31); C.C. Sabathia had been traded by Cleveland to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008; that same season, it was Manny Ramirez traded to the Dodgers by Boston; when the Mets got Yeonis Cespedes in 2015, the slugging outfielder led New York to the World Series; Philadelphia dealt Curt Schilling to Arizona in 2000.

All of those deals probably outweigh the swap of second basemen in that 1983 trade between Seattle and the Chicago White Sox.

Julio Cruz, the undrafted free agent out of Redlands High/San Bernardino Valley College, had been such a solid player for the Seattle Mariners — a base-stealing dynamo, not to mention a flashy fielding second baseman.

JUlio Cruz
Julio Cruz, who built a steady and sturdy career at second base with the Seattle Mariners, was eventually swapped to the Chicago White Sox in the heat of the 1983 American League Western Division chase (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

A guy named Roland Hemond noticed.

In 1983, Seattle took its sure-handed infielder and all-time leading base-stealer and dealt him to the ChiSox. That deal plucked second baseman Tony Bernazard for the Mariners.

At the time of that mid-season trade, the ChiSox were five games under .500, fifth in the American League Western Division. Hemond pulled off the Bernazard-for-Cruz trade, the only real adjustment he made to an already-strong roster.

Hemond made a trade that everyone would later credit with turning the season around.  Looking to give his team a spark, Hemond traded Bernazard to Seattle for his second base counterpart, Cruz.  The effect was immediate.

I tracked down Hemond for comments on the trade. These were, of course, the days before cell-phone usage, so getting hold of him seemed like a major achievement.

Hemond was back east. That’s three hours’ difference than the west coast. I remember trying for a few days before I connected with him.

Why would I try? Local readership, no doubt. Every local reader might want to hear about their guy. Right? A little insight on those inner workings never hurt.

INTERVIEW WITH WHITE SOX GM

Hemond must’ve been in his office at Comiskey Park., home of the White Sox.

My standard intro … “Hi, Obrey Brown here from Redlands, hometown newspaper of Julio Cruz … wondering if I could pick your brain a little about the trade you made for Julio.”

Hemond, a friendly guy, needed no further prodding.

Roland_Hemond_at_SABR_Convention_2014
In 1983, Chicago White Sox General Manager made a trade for Seattle second baseman Julio Cruz, thus helping lift the ChiSox out of fifth place and onto winning the division by 20 games over the Kansas City Royals (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

“Oh, hi,” he said. There were some pleasant formalities between the two of us. Like this one: “Think you’ll make it out here to see him play?”

Oh, yeah, I lied to him. The tiny budget the Redlands newspaper had barely allowed me to cover a Terrier game in Rialto or Fontana. Send me to Chicago? Said Hemond: “When you get here, look me up.”

If only, I thought.

“I think it’ll turn out to be a real great acquisition for this club,” said Hemond, whose East-coast accent was a nice touch to our conversation. “In fact, it’s already helped us.”

“How long have you had your eye on Julio?”

“Oh … no … wow. I’ve known about Julio for a few years. How can you not notice a guy with his glove and his ability to steal bases? No, he just didn’t jump off the page at us. We need this guy. We’ve known about him.”

Hemond said, “Our clubhouse needed a jolt. Tony (Bernazard) wasn’t all that great of an influence in there. I’ve heard a lot about Julio being a good guy.”

This baseball lifer, Hemond, was very gracious with his time. He asked, “Did you cover him while he was playing in high school out there?”

“No. I got here a few years after he left.”

I tried to stump him, though. “Julio’s coach out here was Joe DeMaggio.”

Hemond either didn’t hear me, or thought I was kidding. No, it wasn’t THE Joe DiMaggio (note the spelling difference).

COVERING THE ‘REDLANDS’ CHISOX

Those summer-time sports pages, though, got a big plug. Cruz, standing on second base, darted for home plate on Harold Baines’ sharp single to right field. Tenth inning. It was against the Angels. Game-winner. Division-clinching run. Celebration. Photos.

Huge splash in the Redlands newspaper.

Cruz was picked up from Seattle when the ChiSox were 28-32, fifth in the American League West. They went 71-31 with Cruz, batting ninth in the lineup with Rudy Law atop a strong White Sox attack.

That year’s White Sox were filled with superb batsmen. Baines, Ron Kittle, Greg Luzinski and Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk, combined to hit 123 home runs. Law stole nearly 80 bases.

The pitching was topped by LaMarr Hoyt and Rich Dotson, who won 24 and 22 games, compiling the greatest number of wins in the entire league by two pitchers. Southpaw Floyd Bannister was nearly unbeatable, finishing off the season with a 13-1 streak.

Second place belonged to Kansas City, which finished a staggering 20 games behind Chicago.

The Daily Facts kept a close watch on the “Redlands” White Sox. Remember, this was A Redlands Connection.

By the All-Star break the Sox had climbed to three games over .500.  Then things really got hot. The Sox climbed into first place on July 18 and never looked back.  Their second half record was 59-26, a .694 winning percentage.

Not everyone was impressed.  One out-of-town writer dismissed the team as no better than fifth best in the A.L. East. Texas manager Doug Rader theorized that the Sox’s bubble had to burst. “They’re not playing that well. They’re winning ugly.”

On September 17 at Comiskey Park, the White Sox clinched Chicago’s first championship in twenty years. Baines’ single brought home Cruz with the winning run.

BIRDS TOOK OUT CHICAGO IN PLAYOFFS

Chicago’s opponents in the playoffs would be Baltimore, the only team to take the season series against the ChiSox, seven games to five. In the playoffs, the Orioles won three out of four.

Even with Julio, that group of White Sox couldn’t shake the Baltimore Orioles in the American League championship series. Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Jr., Eddie Murray and a strong corps of pitchers ousted Chicago in the playoffs and ended up beating the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series.

The ex-Terrier hit .333 in four games, the White Sox winning game one, 2-1, before the Orioles came streaking back to win 4-0, 11-1 and 3-0 behind strong pitching from Mike Boddicker, Tippy Martinez and Mike Flanagan.

As for Hemond, that slick transaction for Julio may have gone a long way in snagging his second Sporting News Executive of the Year honors.

Years later, ’83 White Sox manager Tony La Russa and I were eyeball to eyeball in spring training Arizona. By this point, he had moved on to manage the Oakland A’s. I couldn’t help but try and snag him for some comments – even though it was years later – on Cruz.

Tony La Russa
Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa called Julio Cruz an “igniter” when asked about the former Redlands ballplayer (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

La Russa didn’t have much time. Calling Cruz “an igniter,” La Russa wasn’t in a mood to chat. He said, “The thing I remember from that team was the power we had … Julio and Rudy Law gave us another dimension to score runs with their speed.”

One final, quick comment: “He played a great second base for us.”

Footnote: Seattle lost 102 games in 1983.

Sabathia, Johnson, Ramirez and all the other more famous MLB trade deadline might draw more attention in baseball’s history book. For the Chicago White Sox, however, that deal might be No. 1.

 

 

GARY NELSON: WALTRIP’S WRENCH-TURNING WIZARD

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 and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, 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

For most of his 3 ½ years with 1981 NASCAR Cup Series champion Darrell Waltrip, chief mechanic Gary Nelson had met one challenge after another.

And the 26-year-old former Redlands mechanic can look back on over 20 years of experience working with engines as his credentials for time spent with the circuit’s hottest driver.

436px-GaryNelsonNASCAR1985
NASCAR crew chief Gary Nelson wasn’t born in Redlands, but the eventual wrench-turning wizard spent plenty of time there as he got his racing career started (photo by Wikipidia Commons).

“I like to think I can look at a car and say ‘this area’s weak’ and then spend more time with that,” Nelson told me a couple days before the 1981 Winston Western 500 at the old Riverside International Raceway.

“This race,” he said, “is one of the toughest for mechanics because of the course.”

It’s a course that would cause any race team headaches.

Riverside’s 7-turn course each lap would depend on mechanics’ ability to maintain the clutch and brake systems.

“On a super speedway,” said Nelson, referring to the likes of Talladega or Martinsville or Bristol, “you don’t even use them. That is, until you come to a pit stop.”

Cars that pull into pit area at Riverside, well, it resembles organized mayhem. All that stopping, turning and rotating around that course.

Nelson was well-known around Redlands by all those race-lovers. I was urged by plenty, including newspaper advertising manager Jim Mundy, to produce a story for the locals as the Winston Western 500 beckoned. In fact, we rode out to Riverside Raceway together.

Nelson, born in Illinois before Arnold and Mildred Nelson moved to Redlands, started with engines when he turned five.

Arnold Nelson started teaching his son via motorbikes and race carts.

“My dad’s a real good mechanic,” said Nelson, who eventually got into racing with local legend Ivan Baldwin — “Ivan The Terrible.” When he was in his mid-teens, Nelson started sweeping the floors before working his way in as Baldwin’s lead mechanic.

Said Mildred: “He’s just like his dad. When Gary was 16, his dad gave him the family van. The first thing he did with it was take the engine out and put a bigger one in.”

She said Gary had always been interested in anything with wheels.

“I always worried about him, but I knew he was very careful. He wasn’t a wild driver.”

His early racing experience was local.

ORANGE SHOW SPEEDWAY SPECIAL

NASCAR had to be special, especially since the Ontario Motor Speedway and the Riverside raceway were so close to Redlands. To get there, however, required the paying of dues.

It was Saturday at Orange Show Speedway. Arguably, Baldwin might be the most successful driver that ever came out of OSS. Said Nelson: “We had a lot of fun.”

Baldwin, Nelson at 605 Raceway
At left, West Coast driving megastar Ivan Baldwin, while Gary Nelson checks the engine at Speedway 605 in the San Gabriel Valley (photo by legendsofnascar.com).

A connection to Baldwin was worth plenty in those years. Baldwin, later killed in a 1996 traffic accident, raced all over California’s racing circuit. That Nelson was part of his crew shouldn’t be a surprise.

“Racing was cheap in those days,” Nelson said. “And it wasn’t hard to do. But nowadays with the price of engines and tires, it’s hard to get into.”

All of which is why events led him into NASCAR. “I wouldn’t want to race unless I could go first class,” he said.

Waltrip and Nelson hard went after wins. At a race in College Station, Texas one week, a young driver named Dale Earnhardt., Sr. had a one-lap lead with 20 remaining. Nelson saved 10 seconds by replacing just two tires instead of four on the pit stop.

It saved the day. Waltrip won, leaving the driver praising his crew chief – typical comments. “Gary made the decision to change those tires. Goddammit, the kid is so good.”

Nelson countered by saying it had been a joint decision – crew, driver and chief mechanic each involved.

“We have a good crew,” said Nelson, noting future Hall of Famers Buddy Parrott and Robert Yates, plus Butch Stevens in the pits.

“Over the last three years,” said Waltrip, who won 13 races that season with Nelson as crew chief for DiGard Racing, “we’ve been successful because the good mechanics have stayed and the bad ones have left.”

Nelson’s teams won at Daytona and Riverside, Richmond and Bristol, Darlington and Michigan, Pocono and Martinsville, Wilkesboro and Charlotte, Richmond and Dover Downs – pretty much all the major stops on NASCAR’s fabled schedule.

WALTRIP CALAMITY NEARLY OVERCOME

In the 95-lap Winston Western 500, Waltrip crashed at the sixth turn on lap 65. The car limped into the pits. In 15 seconds, the crew changed two damaged tires and hammered out the dented body so Waltrip could drive his now-disfigured car back into contention.

Two days before that race, Nelson said Bobby Allison and Richard Petty would be the “toughest competition.”

He wasn’t necessarily ignoring the likes of Cale Yarbrough, Joe Millikan, Earnhardt or Benny Parsons.

Wasn’t it ironic that Allison took the race and Petty, with substitute driver Jimmy Insolo, finishing third?

DARRELL_WALTRIP_IMAGE
Darrell Waltrip was a stock car driving legend. Part of that success came with Redlands’ Gary Nelson running the team (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Waltrip, his crew having made the quick-handed changes after the crash, took second.

Six laps were left. Waltrip was down 45 seconds. Crew member Don Sewell, another Redlands-based pit man, said, “It’s too much.”

Only an Allison mishap would cost him the race.

Allison knocked down his fourth win of that season.

Waltrip’s familiar green “88” car sped by some 32.9 seconds later. He was nearly out of gas.

“A few years ago,” said Nelson, “I wouldn’t have predicted I’d be where I am today. It’s hard, but I rely on a lot of luck.”

If that doesn’t leave you chuckling, consider that he was worried that a rebuilt transmission on Friday wouldn’t hold in Sunday’s race.

Tim Williamson, the driver who won the Hodgdon 200 just prior to the Winston Western 500, stood alongside Nelson. It was Nelson who said, “I was worried he’d run out of gas.”

Nelson didn’t last long with Waltrip, who left one year later for Junior Johnson’s racing team.

A portion of Nelson’s resume:

  • Crew chief for Allison, who joined DiGard when Waltrip left.
  • Turned up as Kyle Petty’s crew chief, 1989.
  • In 1988, Nelson was a part-timer with ESPN.
  • A West Coast Stock Car Racing Hall of Famer.
  • Worked for NASCAR in 1991 as its Winston Cup director. During that time, Nelson was credited with safety innovations – particularly after Earnhardt’s driving death.

Since April 2001, when he took on the safety portion of NASCAR, no life-threatening accidents have taken place at any of its speedways.

One final point: Isn’t it interesting that Nelson’s most prized racers, Allison and Waltrip, were tied for fourth place on NASCAR’s all-time victory list at 84?

All that wrench-turning started as a Redlands Connection.

 

CAZZIE RUSSELL: FORMER NO. 1 NBA PICK BROUGHT SCAD TO REDLANDS

This is part of a series of mini-Redlands Connections. This is Part 3 of the series, Quick Visits. Magic Johnson and John Wooden showed up at the University of Redlands as part of a Convocation Series. This piece on Tom Flores was another one. Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, former NBA player John Block, legendary high school coach Willie West showed up. There are others. Cazzie Russell, for instance, came to Redlands with an NCAA Division III basketball team from Savannah, Ga. Russell, out of Michigan, was the NBA’s overall No. 1 draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1966.

Today’s feature: None other than Cazzie Russell.

Truth is, there aren’t many NBA No. 1 draft choices that pass through Redlands.

Not just a No. 1 draft pick. We’re talking No. 1 overall.

Truth be told, Shaquille O’Neal showed up at the University of Redlands to film a commercial. Model Cindy Crawford was on that scene, too. It had been written up in the local press — nothing much to it.

Cazzie Russell comes to mind.

The Chicago native was a three-time All-American at Michigan in the mid-1960s.

At 54 years of age, Russell was coaching Savannah (Ga.) College of Arts & Design (SCAD).

In December 1998, SCAD came out west for a three-game trip to play Westmont College (near Santa Barbara), Univ. La Verne and Univ. Redlands.

“This school was founded in 1979 with 71 students, said Russell, “and a credit card.”

By 1998, it had grown to a campus of 4,000 students.

At the time of his hiring, SCAD’s Chairman of the Board was none other than Dr. Bernie Casey, who had been an NFL All-Pro receiver. Onetime major league pitching hero Luis Tiant was the school’s baseball coach.

As for Russell, hoops fans might recall that 6-foot-5 pure shooter who helped lead the Wolverines to the 1964 and 1965 Final Four, losing in the 1966 Regionals to eventual finalist Kentucky. A short time later, the New York Knicks made Russell the No. 1 pick.

Cazzie Russell

Cazzie Russell, a No. 1 overall draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1966, coached a small college team from the visitor’s bench in 1998 at the University of Redlands (photo by Savannah College of Art & Design).

Thirty years later, including an NBA title in 1970 — Knicks over the Lakers — Russell was sitting in an Ontario hotel, the midway point between La Verne and Redlands.

“I love coaching here,” he says. “Nobody expects anything from us. We’re a bunch of cartoonists, graphic designers, architects. We come into another school’s gym and they’re thinking they’ve got us.

“When the get us on the court, we fool ‘em.”

Someone else could write the connections between Russell had with a variety of NBA legends, including teammates though plenty of opponents that included Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, Nate Thurmond and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and John Havlicek.

“I just saw Oscar two or three weeks ago,” said Russell. “I remember when he came to my high school and tried to get me to go to Cincinnati, his old school.”

Russell was traded by the Knicks to the San Francisco Warriors for legendary rebounder Jerry Lucas in 1971.

Three decades later at SCAD, Russell laid the groundwork for recruiting, basketball, getting his team a chance for an education at an NCAA Division 3 institution.

No one sees us at practice, he says. “We’re working on defense, shooting, fundamentals … just like everyone else, I suppose.”

At SCAD, Russell’s recruits are playing for a former No. 1 draft pick, a onetime NBA champion who played against the best basketball players in the world.

“A lot of kids are in awe of the fact that I was drafted No. 1,” he said.

Teaching those fundamentals at practice, he said, “is like trying to introduce them to a new cereal.”

That list of overall number one picks — O’Neal, Kareem, Robertson, Baylor, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes or Bill Walton — does NOT include Michael Jordan or Chamberlain, Russell or Karl Malone.

Russell’s in rare company.

Joked Russell: “I don’t want to get into the difference in the amount of money we made then and what they make now.”

During his post-playing career, Russell coached at every level — high school, CBA, assistant in the NBA, collegiately in both NAIA and NCAA — before settling in at SCAD.

In its three-game swing out west in 1998, the Bees swept Westmont, La Verne and Redlands.

It seemed strange to see Russell seated on the bench as SCAD warmup up to play the Bulldogs inside Currier Gymnasium on that December 16, 1998 night.

It was a far cry from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum when, playing for the Warriors, the smooth-shooting Russell was swishing shots in a rare win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

Averaging 15 points a game over a 10-year career, Russell not only played in the New York and Golden State, but also the Lakers and Chicago Bulls. When the Lakers signed him away from the Warriors, according to the rules of the day, Russell’s former team received draft compensation.

That pick turned out to be Robert Parrish, the 7-foot center later traded by the Warriors to the Boston Celtics.

As for SCAD basketball, Russell’s coaching career in Savannah lasted 13 seasons. The school cancelled the sport in 2009.

Russell was as well-versed in spiritual necessities as he was setting up a jump shot. He seemed to make as much joy in reporting that God was a huge factor in his life.

“If God is first in your life,” he told me, “then you’re going to be successful. I’m not talking about making money. I’m talking about faith in everything you do.

You can run from God, he said, “but you can’t hide. When I decided I was going to be obedient in 1989, it was the best thing I ever did.”

“I’ve got no plans to leave.”

 

 

GOING FROM A REV LADY WILDCAT TO AN ARIZONA LADY ’CAT

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

In honor of the NCAA College Softball World Series, which are unfolding …

Those telephone calls to the sports desk from Pam Martin, softball coach at Redlands East Valley High School when that campus opened in 1997, were quite a ritual. There was often cheer in her voice.

In all cases, she had something newsworthy to report.

One of Martin’s top players, Allyson Von Liechtenstein, probably played in as many big games as any Redlands-based product at the collegiate level during her post-REV years.

It’s simple. Von Liechtenstein, the twin sister of Elizabeth (Lizzie) and younger sister of Sarah, was part of a trio of Highland-based players who were raised under the softball thumb of their dad, Dave.

Ally Von L, a left-handed, slap-hitting, fleet-footed outfielder played four sensational seasons at REV. It was nothing for Martin to report a 3-hit game for Ally Von L. Or maybe a couple of stolen bases to go along with her two singles and, maybe, a triple. At the time, she patrolled center field.

Von Liechtenstein
Ally Von L, a Redlands East Valley product who played big-time NCAA softball at powerhouse University of Arizona (Photo by UA).

It should’ve been no surprise, then, that she committed to play collegiately at the University of Arizona from 2002-2005. She was a 5-foot-5-inch slash hitter heading off to Tucson.

Arizona’s Lady Wildcats’ softball program should be considered among the finest in the land. Ally Von L found herself playing four straight seasons at the College World Series.

Mike Candrea, coach, might’ve been USA’s best go-getter for UA. He went and “got” Ally Von L.

Ally Von L was a nice catch for her new Wildcats’ team. At that time, anyone caught playing for UA should’ve been considered quite a player.

Candrea, who led Team USA to the 2004 Olympic gold medal, was a fun interview. Make that a professional interview. He knew how to take control. He knew the questions before I’d even launched them at him.

At least when you could get hold of him. Schools this big have Sports Information Directors. Got to get through them to get to guys like Candrea. The man’s got coaching to do.

By the 2018 season, incredibly, Candrea was within a couple hundred wins away from 2,000.

Mike Candrea
Univ. Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea is closing fast on 2,000 victories – 211 of which came when he coached Ally Von Liechtenstein from 2002-2005 (Photo credit, University of Arizona).

This is the guy who landed Ally Von L. Not to mention Jennie Finch. Not to mention Alicia Hollowell. And Caitlin Lowe. And Autumn Champion. And Kristie Fox. Each of whom were teammates with Ally Von L.

Lowe hit .510 one year, swiping 27 out of 30 bases. Hollowell won 40 games in a single season. Finch went 32-0 in another. Lovie Jung hit .481 one season, stroking 25 bombs. Champion hit .489 with 26 steals one season. That same year, 2004, Lowe hit .437 with 46 steals.

These were the players Candrea landed.

On Ally Von L, he said, “Listen … (pausing for a few seconds to collect some thoughts) this is a kid with speed. She can hit. She’ll run the bases. She can catch anything hit out there. She’ll help us here.”

Remember, he was taking a player right out of the area from UCLA should’ve been grabbing from (USC doesn’t have intercollegiate softball). At Arizona, Ally Von L had a solid career – .321, .381, .384 and .265 as a senior.

She started 105 games, playing in 172. Often used as a pinch-runner. Swiped 28-of-35 bases over four seasons. Ninety-four hits, 283 at-bats. Scored a batch of runs.

Said Candrea: “There was a time when if UCLA wanted a kid, they got the kid. We got a few breaks. We got some key kids.”

ALLY VON L AGAINST THE GREATS

Along the way, there were remarkable games played against the likes of Cat Osterman.

Tennessee’s Monica Abbott.

Michigan’s Jennie Ritter.

UCLA’s Keira Goerl.

Louisiana’s Brooke Mitchell.

Fresno State’s Jamie Southern was named to the ESPN Rise All-Decade team in 2009.

LSU’s Kristin Schmidt.

Georgia Tech’s Jessica Sallinger.

Alabama’s Stephanie VanBrakle.

These were the kids Ally Von L was playing against – the USA’s most decorated pitchers.

Von Liechtenstein hit against most of them. As close to being a starting player without actually starting every game, Ally Von L was part of a team that included All-Americans almost everywhere on the diamond during her four-year stint from 2002-2005.

On Saturday, June 5, 2005: It was a Von Liechtenstein single in the 12th inning at the NCAA Women’s College World Series that knocked home the winning run in a 3-2 win over Cal-Berkeley – a game played in Oklahoma City.

Ally Von L’s heroics were only short-lived.

One day later, the fabulous Texas southpaw, Osterman, knocked off the Lady Wildcats, 1-0, to leave Arizona without a 50-win season for the first time in years. Arizona ended its season with a record of 45-12, having reached its 17th Women’s College World Series over an 18-year span.

Ally Von L and I connected a few times on articles about her collegiate experiences, which were vast. She wasn’t hamming it up, probably preferring to lay low. After all, this kid was one of REV’s finest athletes.

You always got the feeling she was battling. Aggressive. Not in awe of her surroundings, but highly respectful.

In 2005, the Lady Wildcats were co-Pacific-10 Champions. Playing against the likes of UCLA, Stanford, Cal, you name it, UA was a force in NCAA softball.

Wouldn’t you know it: Von Liechtenstein became a group of four Lady Wildcat players to play all four seasons without a national championship since 1987. It was quite a streak, especially when Von Liechtenstein had played behind such stalwart pitchers as Hollowell and the sensational Finch.

Jennie_Finch_vs._China
Jennie Finch was a University of Arizona teammate of Ally Von Liechtenstein during a prime time of Lady Wildcats’ softball in Tucson (Photo by Team USA).

Finch was a senior during Von Liechtenstein’s freshman season.

A year after Ally Von L’s departure, Arizona – which had copped five NCAA titles over a seven-year span in the 1990s – won the NCAA World Series title again.

Who knows? Maybe it set the stage for a future NCAA Division 1 softball great. About a decade after Ally Von L, Sahvanna Jaquish, also from Highland, showed up at REV. Off she went to Louisiana State University, where she became an All-American.