Ozzie Smith’s commencement speech at Cal Poly in 2003

I was a sophomore at Cal Poly in 2003 when the university announced Ozzie Smith would be speaking at commencement that June.

From a school known for producing architects and engineers, Smith was the most-famous athletic alumnus, easily, with his Hall of Fame career at shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres.  As an avid baseball fan, I sprung into action when I heard the news.  First, I got an assignment to preview the commencement ceremonies for the campus newspaper, the Mustang Daily, where I was a staff writer at the time.  I then spun that story into a longer series, detailing Smith’s connection with the university.

I did extensive research, interviewing the university administration, plus Smith’s former teammates and coaches.  I interviewed the coach for a summer league team Smith had played for in Iowa and learned he still came back every year for a Thanksgiving-time meal.  I was told Smith even remembered the names of people in town.  In the course of my research, I also learned that Smith had mentioned his Cal Poly coach, Berdy Harr, who died in 1987, in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2002.  It gave me an idea.

The day before Smith was due to speak at commencement, the university unveiled a $65,000 statue of him at the campus ballpark.  While I sat in the press area prior to the unveiling, waiting for Smith to show, a member of the Cal Poly media relations department tapped my shoulder.  I was led to the locker room, where Smith sat being interviewed for a local television station.  I had been unable to reach Smith thus far and was thrilled to meet him.  I even got an autograph, which is generally frowned upon in journalism.  When Smith was done with the TV interview, I was told I could ask one question.  I knew exactly what to ask.

“If you could have one person here, who would it be?” I asked Smith.

He appeared confused and asked if it could be anyone.  I said yes, anyone, living or dead.  He swallowed hard and the room was dead silent.

“Berdy Harr,” he said, his voice breaking.  “You needed people like him.”

I returned to my seat outside, and a little while later, Smith came out.  He opened his thank you speech for the statue by saying he had just been asked a “very good question.”  He proceeded to recognize Harr once more and greet his widow, who was seated among the crowd.  It remains one of the high points of my journalistic career.

The next day Smith delivered two fine commencement speeches, the student body president did a back flip at one of the ceremonies, and I got to walk with Smith and interview him after the event.  It’s worth noting that he delivered two different speeches, one for the morning and one for the afternoon, while most of the university brass recycled their pitches.  In fact, when I graduated two years later, I heard the university president use the same cheesy line about how the school would “keep the porch light on” for alumni.

For the record, the commencement speaker wasn’t half as cool my year.

Jerry Weinstein: The Best Baseball Coach I Ever Knew

When I was a kid, growing up in Sacramento, I went a couple of summers to a baseball day camp hosted at Sacramento City College. Designed for elementary school-aged children and led by the City College players, the camp let us focus on fundamentals, filming our batting stances, having us hit against pitching machines, and then showing us fine documentaries on baseball history at lunch. I was never a very good player (I look like I have my feet inside two buckets in the black-and-white photos we got of our batting stances) but I have positive memories from the camps. I also got to meet City College’s legendary coach, Jerry Weinstein.

At the time, Weinstein was in the midst of a remarkable 23-season run as City College’s coach. He guided his teams to an 831-208 record, 16 conference championships and one national title over the course of his tenure. He also helped develop a veritable assembly line of future Major Leaguers, including four-time All Star outfielder Greg Vaughn and former Atlanta Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser. Weinstein capped his career in Sacramento with the national title, in 1998, then left to take a job working with catchers in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

Our paths crossed again in 2003. I was a sophomore at Cal Poly and had just started covering the school’s baseball team when I learned that Weinstein coached the squad’s catchers and pitchers (he didn’t last long with the Dodgers.) We talked extensively on a feature story I did about Garrett Olson, a true freshman who had just cracked the starting rotation for Cal Poly and now pitches for the Seattle Mariners. Weinstein didn’t remember me from the camps, not that I blame him, though we hit it off. I told him how I had worked at an ice cream store in our neighborhood in Sacramento, and we talked at length about Bill Conlin, a sportswriter who spent over half a century at the Sacramento Bee. Weinstein chided me once for scribbling notes during an interview, telling me Conlin never wrote anything down.

Weinstein became my preferred quote among the Mustang coaching staff, much more talkative certainly than head coach Larry Lee, who was a fine manager but may as well have been deaf-mute. I even later advised a fellow writer to seek out Weinstein rather than Lee for a quote. The writer later came back laughing, saying that he and Weinstein had talked at length about Jewish ballplayers before getting to their interview. His story turned out great if I remember correctly.

Weinstein and I have both since moved on from Cal Poly. I graduated in 2005 and Weinstein now coaches the Class A team for the Colorado Rockies, the Modesto Nuts. I saw a story a few years ago that when the Rockies signed former All Star catcher Javy Lopez, who was attempting a comeback at the time, they “encouraged Lopez to visit Jerry Weinstein in San Luis Obispo, Calif.” The story made me smile, even if Lopez’s comeback didn’t work out.

A Ricky Romero story you haven’t heard

I’ve mentioned on here before that I saw current Toronto Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero pitch a couple times in college, when he was with Cal State Fullerton.  Here’s a story about him that I doubt too many people know.

I saw Romero pitch for the first time his freshman year six years ago, when visiting Fullerton faced Cal Poly, a Big West Conference rival.  A prep product from Los Angeles, Romero started off torridly that day, hurling first-pitch strikes to the initial ten-or-so batters he faced, throwing shut-out ball.  His fortunes changed around the forth inning when a Cal Poly batter leaned too closely into a pitch and took a pitch directly in the groin.  To make matters worse, he wasn’t wearing a protective cup.

The batter collapsed into a writhing fetal ball and had to leave the game.  He then spent 45 minutes in the locker room, before going to the hospital to deal with the excessive swelling that occurred.  He  later told me his doctor was a former Cal State Fullerton pitcher, ironically.  I had just started writing a column called “Golden Graham” for the Cal Poly student newspaper the Mustang Daily at the time, and the batter made sure I wrote a disclaimer for any ladies that he was fine.

I approached Romero after the game, while Fullerton was preparing to leave, and the baby-faced 18-year-old expressed genuine concern for the fallen batter.  It had been apparent Romero was affected on the mound, as well.  After throwing first-pitch strikes to those first ten hitters, Romero struggled with his control after felling the Cal Poly hitter.  Fullerton held on for the win, but the perennial College World Series contenders looked mortal that day.

Eventually, Romero became a top pitcher for Fullerton and was picked sixth overall in the 2005 Major League Baseball draft.  He stayed in the minors for a couple of years, earning criticism for Toronto’s brass who passed on Troy Tulowitzki, Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Garza, among others, to make the pick.  However, Romero debuted this season for the Blue Jays and has done well.  He recently got a positive mention in Sports Illustrated and is currently 4-3 with a 3.59 ERA after nine starts.  Far as I know, he hasn’t hit any more guys in the balls.

Before they were famous: Garrett Olson

I started covering baseball my sophomore year of college at Cal Poly and the first series I attended, a freshman southpaw making his debut drew my attention.  Pitching long relief against Loyola Marymount, the hurler was a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable game.  Before long, he earned a spot in the starting rotation and eventually, he became a compensatory first-round major league draft pick following his junior season.

The pitcher’s name?  Garrett Olson.

Now don’t get me wrong, my alma mater is no USC or LSU, producing assembly lines of pro athletes.  But every so often, Cal Poly has sent someone to the pros, from former All Star baseball players Ozzie Smith and Mike Krukow to current Philadelphia Eagles starting linebacker Chris Gocong.   Olson is one of the more recent Cal Poly alums to reach the ranks.

He’s no All Star yet, already on his third team in three years, having gone from the Baltimore Orioles to the Chicago Cubs (for whom he never played) to the Seattle Mariners.  Still, he’s showing signs of improvement.  Olson’s earned run average has gone from a “Horrific, don’t tell anyone” 7.79 in his rookie year to a “We’ll just keep this between you and me” 6.65 last season to an “Almost there, buddy” 4.68 in the current campaign.  He started the season in Triple-A Tacoma but has forged his way into the Mariners’ starting rotation, going five innings against the Angels in a loss on Sunday (he got lit up.)  I hope he stays.

My vested interest is that I knew Olson before he was famous.  Besides covering him in the home series against LMU, I wrote a feature on Olson later that year.  He struck me as a nice, shy kid as we sat outside his red brick engineering dorm, talking about how he’d trained with a former pro pitcher growing up in Fresno.  I spoke to his catcher and one of his coaches, who both raved about him.  “He’s the same if he surrenders a three-run bomb or strikes out the side,” the catcher told me in essence.  The coach likened Olson, with his pinpoint control, to another major league pitcher he’d coached in college, former Orioles pitcher Matt Riley.

Early on, talk like this is cheap.  Every athlete seems to think they’re a solid prospect and their agents are even worse bullshitters.  But Olson legitimized the hype, at least by the end of his time at Cal Poly.  His final season, I watched him against visiting top dog Cal State Fullerton, dueling with another potential first round pick that year, Ricky Romero, who now pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays.  Former major leaguers Carney Lansford and Robin Ventura were both onhand at Baggett Stadium that night and both gave me their approval about the pitchers.

Olson still has a long way to go before he’s entrenched as a major leaguer.  I’ll be watching, though.