By Dan Harrington
If you’ve been looking for a sign of change for the downward fortunes of San Francisco diamond sports, San Francisco State is not the place to look.
While the Gators have chomped on little success in baseball and softball through the years, they have had fewer and fewer local players. The Division II recruiting has been looking to improve by gathering players from places other than San Francisco. There are no San Franciscans on this season’s SF State rosters.
Benicia, a former state capital, claims four baseball Gators this season, while one is from Alameda. The closest the softball roster comes to a hometown gal is South San Francisco. As has been the case for several decades, the majority of Gator ballplayers are from the Central Valley and Southern California, with several from the South Bay.
As has been the case for a long time, there is very little outreach if any to the immediate community. Look anywhere in town and you will find extremely little evidence that there are sports of any kind involving SF State. Not a schedule or poster along Ocean Avenue or anywhere else in The City, nor an ad in a neighborhood paper.
That matches the effort placed on fielding any truly homegrown bat-ball-and-glove based athletes.
The SF State motto, Experientia Docet means “Experience Teaches,” but that doesn’t mean they know how to teach spelling.
What might be surprising is the misspelled name of perhaps the best-known Gator ballplayer of all, a Bay Area native from the Niles District of Fremont, Bud Harrelson. He went on to be one of the best major league shortstops of his time, a manager and broadcaster after his playing days for the New York Mets.
Unfortunately, despite having only four all-time players receive the honor of their names posted on the batting cages above right field at SF State’s Maloney Field, his circle of notoriety misspells his name “Harrleson.” Bad enough to err on a lineup card, but egregious on a Wall of Fame that has been up for several seasons.
In baseball, experience teaches that doing the little things right is the key to winning. In life, disrespecting people who came before you and forgetting your neighbors is a good way to be unsuccessful. These lessons might be what SF State is learning now.
Maybe some development support for the city’s youth baseball and softball, recruiting from City College and SF public high schools as well as the closer Bay Area, and reconnecting with nearby fans of baseball and softball will be the new plan for SF State from here on. It might give deeper meaning for the search for a new SF State mascot to replace the Gator, which is on the personal agenda of Dr. Leslie Wong, university president.
An interesting note for City College rooters might be that the SF State softball coach with the best winning percentage is the coach who started the program and coached for two seasons in 1977 and 1978: Coni Staff, a longtime instructor and recent co-coach of the only City College women’s state championship team (in badminton, with former City College baseball head coach Fred Glosser).
Additionally for prep sport watchers, Carrie Wert, a force in coaching at San Francisco’s Washington High, won conference first-team awards as a Gator softballer in 1983.
Several local broadcasting greats came from calling games at SF State, including the Oakland A’s television commentator Glen Kuiper and KTVU-TV’s sports anchor and reporter Fred Inglis.
Interim SF State athletic director Bill Nepfel comes from the winning and locally-connected USF brand. Nepfel is the kind of leader who could make the connection with business and community leaders to get fans back and develop a stream of student-athletes who want to stay near home to play and learn and spell. It is very likely a new circle is being painted for Harrelson now that he is aware of the problem—and perhaps a “Bud Harrelson Day” is being formulated, as well.
Wong and Nepfel must be aware that the chemistry has been lacking: no local connection and little winning, especially on the diamonds for SF State. For them, as well as current Gator head coaches Cristina Byrne and Mike Cummins, it’s time to think locally and act locally.
But at least SF State owns fences to remember its alumni. City College finally moved from its chain-linked views of the diamonds at Balboa Park to borrow time at Fairmount Field in Pacifica four seasons ago, in a move that actually saved some funds and improved upon field conditions and control. But it also made it virtually impossible for the city residents, high school students or fans to see the Rams play.
The progression from observer to player for the city youth that happened naturally is now abstract. The teams play out of the loop.
The movement from public school teams to City College has been wounded by City College not playing home games in the city limits. As importantly, a summer league for a majority of teenagers that followed summer college courses folded in 2010, when City College disappeared from Balboa Park.
The lack of the developmental courses and leagues that followed on summer days at Balboa Park and Crocker-Amazon has not only hurt the Academic Athletic Association, San Francisco’s public school league, but has caromed back to hobble City College’s baseball and softball programs.
Four years after the move out of town, the flow of homegrown players is ebbing at a time the Rams could use more refined talent. Baseball has had the workmanlike effort for almost two decades from head coach John Vanoncini. He and like-minded assistants put a lot of extra time into added instruction and advice for the younger levels. But since the move from San Francisco to Pacifica for baseball, City College’s makeup has dramatically changed, with just six of 35 players currently from San Francisco (one traditional public school player from Lincoln High, one from independent Waldorf, one from public charter Gateway and three from parochial Riordan).
Despite a vivid turnaround for Ram softball under Jack McGuire’s staff in 2013, it’s a simple numbers game for any momentum to be maintained for in the Coast Conference. The team is making an effort to welcome local players. It has seven San Franciscans, but only 12 players total—bare bones.
Baseball fans, softball fans and kids just learning the games would come to Balboa Park to see the Rams an era ago. It’s time to rebuild the connections for City College, too, for the two-way benefit of city youth and Ram programs in the very near future.
The legendary glory days will not return, but a real system to get our youth the practice, innings and community support to go as far as their skill and determination can take them must be our commitment to them and the fabric of society.
Experience teaches. Let’s make baseball and softball a great, local experience again.