Recently I spoke with the best pitcher in baseball, this year's American League Cy Young award winner Shane Bieber, who was in town visiting his girlfriend's family. He is a nice-looking kid but blends in without an overpowering look. As a college walk-on, he just kept getting better and produced an extensive repertoire of great pitches. Chatting with him made me think about pitchers and why it is such a special position, especially in local lore.
I made my foray into organized baseball late when I was 12 years old. The Fortuna Little League Association accepted two Ferndale teams to join their league. I was drafted by the Red Sox and in our first game against the Fortuna Yankees we faced a pitcher we had all heard about, a big lefthander. Batting leadoff, my coach wanted me to drag bunt to get on and run.
The ball came off his left-hand straight at my head. I hit the dirt, got up and heard the ump call, "STEEERIKE!" I threw my cap on the ground in mutiny and looked over at Coach Griggs. He shook his head and yelled back, "It was a strike." I was terrified the next time I came to the plate.
The Yankees pitcher I faced in Little League was Randy Neimann, who progressed to the major leagues out of Fortuna High School and College of the Redwoods. He had a long career with the White Sox, Astros, Pirates and Mets, mostly as a relief pitcher, and stayed on as the bullpen coach for the Mets.
Gary Wilson played for Arcata High School and CR in the 1990s, and pitched in the minor leagues for years before a successful short stint in the major leagues with the Pittsburg Pirates. He stayed in baseball as a scout. Greg Shanahan, out of St. Bernard's Academy, pitched for the Dodgers for a couple of years in the 1960s, also mostly in relief. Both Shanahan and Neimann have World Series rings, though neither were activated during the series.
It has been said that the best of them all was Billy Olsen, who went straight from Eureka High School as the flame-throwing star of the Humboldt Crabs in the 1960s. When he was 18, he got drafted by the Yankees and lost his major league career due to injuries.
The most famous of the Humboldt County professional pitchers was a century ago. Joe Oeschger came from Ferndale and went to St. Mary's to pitch and earn a teaching credential. He pitched from 1914-1925 for the Philadelphia Phillies, the New York Giants and the Boston Braves in the days when clubs only carried one or two pitchers. He is best known for dueling Leon Cadore of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1920 for what's still the longest game in major league history, lasting 26 innings and called for darkness in a 1-1 tie. Oeschger only gave up nine hits in 26 innings that night. He finished his career with 545 strikeouts and was only the fifth pitcher in history to serve an immaculate inning of just nine pitches for three strikeouts. He later became an educator in the Bay Area before moving back to Oeschger Lane in Ferndale in his twilight years.
But just maybe the best is yet to come, maybe very soon. Last year, as the high school season was beginning, locals were anticipating a pitching match-up between sophomore Nick Dugan of St. Bernard's Academy and senior Merek Sears from Arcata High School. The season ended suddenly due to COVID-19.
Both athletes have the perfect physical abilities and temperament. Sears, after leading AHS to the sectional title his junior season and some legion ball, is off to Washington State University as a scholarship student and athlete.
Dugan was a freshman phenom with 63 strikeouts in 30 innings of work in his first high school season. The 14 year old moved straight up into the Legion 19 and Under Summer League and struck out 17 batters in one game. He started to receive national looks and early offers from many Division 1 colleges.
Since the seasons were on hold, Dugan started attending baseball showcases with the support of his parents, his coach Matt Tomlin and his pitching coach, the aforementioned Shanahan. His pitching speed went from 85 miles per hour to a top speed of 95 mph as he grew and matured this past year, faster than many professionals.
At a showcase event in Florida for top underclassmen recruits in October, Dugan threw a seven-inning complete game one-hitter for Pac 12 recruits against SEC league underclass recruits from around the nation. He struck out 12 and walked two, lifting his exposure and status. The 6-foot-1-inch, 190–pound Dugan has become the No. 1 overall 11th grade prospect in California, according to Perfect Profile/Perfect Game USA, the largest scouting organization in the nation. He is also deemed the No. 2 right-handed underclass pitcher nationally as well as the No. 10 overall underclass prospect in the U.S.
Dugan has committed to Stanford University but he could go pro as soon as he graduates in 2022, as he should be a top draft pick. I expect the talent pool of athletes will drop off this year due to the lack of competition and intensity from COVID-19 restrictions. To see Dugan perform locally this year, we must be in the state's red "substantial" risk tier for COVID-19. Our county just regressed back up to the purple "widespread" risk tier. We shall see.
It is remarkable that in these times we have athletes whose parents and coaches give them the time and opportunity to grow, and athletes themselves who will not give up. The percentage of kids who make it to the professional level is miniscule but with work ethic, skill and support there is a chance. Perfect Profile referred to Dugan's seven-inning game as "legendary." Cheers to this next generation of future legends working through these tough times. Cheers as well to all in the younger generation who continue to learn and survive one day at a time in all walks of academics and life regardless of background and support. Salut.