This spring marks another anniversary of Fresno City College’s last state baseball championship.
To be more precise, this year is anniversary No. 25. That milestone merits another look at a remarkable season turned in by an impressive team of talented ballplayers.
Ron Scott, now in his 29th season at the Rams’ helm, was starting only his fourth year at City College when the 1992 season began. When the season ended, the Rams were 45-7 (a school record for victories) and state champions.
Kevin Howard’s two-out ninth inning single scored Scott Taglione from third base to provide the winning margin in a 3-2 win over Sacramento City College in the finale.
“I’ve never felt better,” Scott told The Bee after that game on May 25, 1992. “I’m so happy for everybody, the players, the coaches, the fans. The best team won.”
Scott said that to me. I was covering junior college sports for The Bee in 1992. I watched about two-thirds of the Rams’ games that season. What a great bunch those guys were – and I include City College sports information director Woody Wilk as part of the team. Wilk, now retired but still the Rams’ PA announcer at Euless Park, is keeper of the program’s history. Wilk kindly helped with this story.
The state title was City College’s fifth. The first four were in 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1972. Len Bourdet coached all four.
I remember meeting with Scott in the City College cafeteria in early January 1992 to talk about the upcoming season. The Rams were defending conference champions, but (as is usually the case in junior college sports) the 1992 team would feature a lot of new players.
Some were freshmen, one was a transfer from another JC, others were transfers from four-year college programs. Scott told me the Rams would be good – very good. I hoped he was right, but I’d been around coaches long enough to know optimism (at least in front of the press) was standard operating procedure.
The Rams opened the season on Jan. 31 with home victories over Merced (9-2) and Canada (6-2) in a tournament co-hosted by Fresno CC and Kings River Community College (now Reedley College).
The Canada win was Scott’s 100th career victory at City College.
The Rams played their first 15 games at home, going 13-2. They opened Coast Valley Conference play on Feb. 27 at home against Kings River. The Tigers won, 4-2.
City College won its next eight games by a combined score of 72-24.
Then it seemed as if the Rams could do nothing right. In a nine-day span, they lost to visiting Hancock, at Porterville, at Taft and again to visiting Kings River.
Injuries took a toll on the team during that span. But I also remember that the Rams were out of sync. The 2-1 loss at Porterville was especially depressing to watch.
The Rams had dropped to 21-6 after the 6-5 loss to Kings River on March 27. They hosted Sequoias the next day, gutting out a 5-4 victory. It was the start of what has to be the most remarkable run in Fresno City College’s glorious baseball history.
The Rams went on a 16-game winning streak and locked up the conference title. In a six-day stretch in early April, they beat Porterville 19-2, Taft 12-7 and Sequoias 19-2. Pretty hard to top good pitching, good hitting and good defense.
The streak ended when Hancock in the final conference game edged the Rams 5-4 in 11 innings at Santa Maria.
It was a mere bump in the road. The Rams sailed through the two rounds of Northern California playoffs, winning five straight by a combined score of 71-17. That string included payback to Hancock – a 27-7 rout.
The four-team state championship tournament (two schools from the north, two from the south) was at the Riverside Sports Center.
The Rams on May 23 opened with a 10-6 win over Cuesta. Joe Jacobsen picked up his 13th victory, tying the great Dick Selma ‘s school record for most pitching victories in a season.
On May 24 (Sunday in the three-day Memorial Day Weekend), the Rams beat Sacramento 8-3.
Wilk in his history of the season, wrote: “Billy Simas strikes out two Sacramento City power hitters in one-out, based loaded jam in the eighth inning. Pumped up Rams respond with four in the top of the ninth for 8-3 win over the Panthers. FCC advances to championship game.”
Jacobsen and Simas were the team’s top two pitchers. Each had just gone nine tough innings. Scott didn’t have a steady No. 3 starter, but Tony Chavira was one of those players who did whatever the coach asked and almost always did it well. Scott went with this workhorse.
Sacramento starting pitcher Brian Brewer was a stocky lefthander who would go on to play a handful of seasons in the minor leagues. The Rams touched Brewer for two runs in the first. A walk, two singles, a bad throw by the Panthers’ right fielder and a sacrifice fly did the trick.
Brewer faced the minimum 21 batters from the second through eighth innings. His teammates scored a run in the sixth and another in the seventh to make it 2-2.
Chavira settled down to retire seven of the last eight batters he faced. That set the stage for Fresno’s dramatic bottom of the ninth.
As I reported in my Bee story, about 100 Rams fans were on the feet, yelling encouragement as the inning began.
With one out, Taglione, the Rams’ fiery second baseman, walked on five pitches. Chris Saunders, a transfer from Cal and the tournament MVP, reached first when the third baseman booted his grounder. Taglione stopped at second.
That was it for Brewer. Sacramento coach Jerry Weinstein brought in right-hander Kimson Hollibaugh.
Designated hitter Kyle Fjelstad hit a sharp grounder to the second baseman, who bobbled it. Fjelstad was out at first, but Taglione and Saunders advanced.
Howard on a 2-1 count hit Hollibaugh’s fastball up the middle. The ball made it past the second baseman and into center field. Taglione scored.
Needless to say, there was an immediate dog-pile celebration near first base. There’s a film clip of the ninth-inning dramatics and post-game celebration on YouTube.
Judging by my review of Wilk’s season statistics, the 1992 Rams consisted of 30 players. Some were better than others. That’s always the case. I’ll forego a review of individual statistics to simply say that a team won the state title.
Looking back at my Bee story on the game, I was reminded of Chavira’s excellence on the mound and his gracious post-game interview.
“Chavira used an effective slider to keep Sacramento scoreless for five innings,” I wrote. “Josh Kirtlan had an RBI single in the sixth and McDonald tied it with a double in the seventh.
“It was the second straight tournament-clinching victory for Chavira, who pitched a complete game against Hancock in the Northern California regional final. Overshadowed all season by Jacobsen and Simas, Chavira said he relished the opportunity to prove his value as a starter.
“’Maybe some people have been overlooking me,’ said Chavira. ‘Just don’t doubt a 5-foot-8 guy.’”
I also noted that Sacramento finished the season 34-5. That means the Panthers entered the tournament with a 33-3 record and a better winning percentage than Fresno’s. The Rams beat what had been the state’s No. 1 team twice in two days to take the title.
I walked to Euless Park last week to chat with Scott about the 1992 season.
“How old are you now – 84?” he asked with a laugh.
No, I replied, only 67.
Scott isn’t there yet, but he’s close.
I began with a foolish question: Do you think much about the 1992 season?
“There’s a ball on the wall – I see it all the time,” Scott said. He was referring to the five big baseball-shaped signs on Euless Park’s left field fence, each with the year of a City College state title. “We’re still chasing it. I’d like to say it’s like yesterday. But it wasn’t yesterday. It was 25 years ago.”
I got to know Scott fairly well during my handful of years covering Rams baseball. I know he has a great memory.
“Yeah, I can remember everything about it,” Scott said. “Every game. It seems like every batter and every pitch. We had a great team. We were playing the best at the end. No matter what anybody threw, we were hitting it.
“And it was a cast of characters.”
That last comment speaks volumes. The 1992 Rams team had its share of, shall we say, strong and independent personalities.
Scott recalled a practice before the season began.
“We were stretching one day,” Scott said. “Fjelstad said, ‘Coach, if we win it all and never lose, how many games do we win? What would our record be?’ I said, ‘We’d be 52-0.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s what we’re going to do.’”
Fjelstad and his teammates came close.
We chatted for only about 20 minutes, barely enough time to touch on the basics of four months chock full of drama.
Scott said it was “really sweet” to beat Sacramento back-to-back to win the state title. Scott said first baseman David Meng transferred from Taft College to Fresno City College to prove to his former coach that he deserved to play in historic Euless Park. Scott said Howard ranks among the three or four best hitters at City College over the past 29 years.
“We were really good, but he carried us in those playoff games,” Scott said of Howard. “He hit rocket after rocket after rocket. And then he won it. What’s funny is he won it for us with a five-hopper up the middle. It was probably the weakest ball he hit the whole playoffs, and it won the state for us.”
According to the school’s website, Scott had won 890 games at Fresno City College through the 2016 season. Assistant Coach Eric Solberg has been with Scott every step of the way. But only one of those victories delivered a state championship.
“There are a lot of people who think they’re easy to win because we won it in our fourth year,” Scott said. “But state championships are hard to win. The breaks have to go your way.
“We’re Fresno guys. We don’t recruit out of our area. Fresno is a great baseball town, don’t get me wrong. But we’re going up against the best in Los Angeles and other big areas. State championships are harder to win than people think. Otherwise, there would be 10 more balls on the wall.”
There’s only one appropriate way to close this brief celebration of the 1992 Fresno City College baseball team. That is with Bill McEwen.
Today, of course, McEwen is The Bee’s Editorial Page Editor. A quarter-century ago, he was the best sports columnist on the West Coast.
I had been in Riverside by myself since Thursday. McEwen drove down once it was clear that the Rams would be playing for the championship. He got to my hotel room about 1 a.m. on Monday. McEwen has always been a workaholic.
He produced later that day another gem of a column. In a mere 500 words, McEwen captured all the drama and joy of a memorable game. More importantly, he put that ninth inning in historical perspective.
McEwen knew that 2017 would eventually roll around.
“The Fresno City College baseball team has talked the talk and walked the walk of a champion all year long,” McEwen wrote in the May 26, 1992 Fresno Bee.
“Monday, the Rams fulfilled those expectations by winning the state community college championship with a dramatic 3-2 victory against Sacramento City College.
“’’We’re going to Omaha,’ site of the College World Series, fourth-year coach Ron Scott yelled to a pack of happy Fresno CC fans perched along the railing above the Rams’ dugout. ‘They’re giving us an at-large berth.’
“Scott was jesting, of course. But the Rams played like a Division I entry while sweeping three games at the Riverside Sports Complex and claiming their first state title since 1972.”
McEwen quoted Weinstein as favorably comparing the play of this junior college tournament to that found in an NCAA Division I regional. He praised the Rams’ defense.
Scott, too, liked the Rams’ performance in the field.
“We’ve been winning with our bats, but today we did it with defense,” Scott told McEwen.
A great columnist has an eye for the telling detail. McEwen noted that it was Howard, the game’s hero, who got to carry the championship trophy to the Rams dugout in the wake of the award ceremony.
Then McEwen neatly shifted his message.
“Throughout the late 1970s and most of the ‘80s, the Fresno CC athletic program – once one of the best in the state – fell upon hard times,” McEwen wrote. “Often overlooked in a city that fell head over heels in love with Fresno State and Division I sports, the Rams appeared headed for permanent second-class status.
“But there’s a new look and a new attitude on Weldon Avenue. While recognizing that FSU always will be top ‘Dog in Fresno, the Rams are building football, basketball and baseball programs worthy of attention.”
McEwen, however, was headed somewhere more important than just a lesson on the cyclical nature of college sports. The best work of Big Bill has always concerned values.
That was the message he wanted his hometown to take from the events of May 25, 1992.
“More importantly, they’re doing it the right way,” McEwen wrote. “Instead of talking about creating a new tradition, the Rams have emphasized building upon the past accomplishments of great coaches like Len Bourdet, Clare Slaughter and John Toomasian.
“Minutes after the Rams won their fifth state title, Scott paid tribute to Bourdet, the man who guided Fresno CC to the first four. ‘I’m so happy for Len. He’s our biggest fan,’ Scott said.
“The feeling is mutual, I’m sure.”