Full speed ahead: Sacramento City shows signs of a revived powerhouse baseball program

City College pitcher Colby Harrison (7) and second baseman Daniel Walsh (15) celebrates after the win against Ohlone College in game three of the NorCal Finals at Union Stadium at City College on Monday. (Photo by Sara Nevis)
City College pitcher Colby Harrison (7) and second baseman Daniel Walsh (15) celebrates after the win against Ohlone College in game three of the NorCal Finals at Union Stadium at City College on Monday. (Photo by Sara Nevis)

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By Joe Davidson (@SacBee_JoeD)
Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO - The players in cardinal and gold wear black spikes to go with their high socks, and these Sacramento City College guys do not do idle.

They hustle from the dugout to their infield and outfield posts. After a third out, they warp-speed it right back into the dugout, pitcher included, as if their hair is on fire or it's last call at the all-you-can-eat buffet on campus.

This is no gimmick playing out. This is tradition in real time for a program as reliable and sure as the trees that dot the city landscape. When one declares that, "This is a baseball town!" the proof includes the Sac City logo.

Traditionalists would appreciate the hustle, and the current players dig it as they dig in across the infield.

"We call it 'best speed,'" said Panthers coach Derek Sullivan of his team's hustle-always mantra. "That's a Jerry Weinstein tradition, when he coached here, and we'll always wear black shoes and those socks. It's what we do. It's who we are. It's not just running hard on and off the field. It's giving your best effort.

"That's our brand, and besides, it looks good."

On Monday at Union Stadium on the Sac City campus, the "best speed" drill included some championship joy. Players and coaches celebrated a 6-2 victory over Oholone College to win a California Community College Northern California Sectional Tournament, thus sealing a ticket to this weekend's State Final Four in Fresno.

Winning this time of year is old hat for Sac City, the oldest place of higher education in town, and where baseball has been a staple for nearly 100 years. But the joy of victory, and just how difficult it is at this level, is never lost on Sullivan, a Sac City guy to the core.

Never mind any notion that this is "just junior college ball." For generations of players and coaches, the JC life on Freeport Boulevard has offered a slice and glimpse of the big time.

Students don't throw their hands up and sprint for the chance to compete at the community college level. They all aspire to four-year programs, or pro ball, but there's something called reality and competition, and it can be sobering. The best coaches, like Sullivan and his staff – which includes longtime assistants Deskaheh "Bomber" Bomberry and Pete Pryor – revel at the chance to recruit the area, to sell players on what they have to offer: an opportunity.

"Realistically," Sullivan said of player expectations as 17- and 18-year-olds, "kids don't know everything, and sometimes they learn tough lessons. Some kids are humbled coming to this level. It's not failure coming to a JC, and it can be a trampoline to better things. Look in the mirror and know what you can do and where you may want to go, because if you don't know, you'll be lost."

If the Sac City baseball walls could talk, they would boast. Forty-two one-time Panthers landed on Major League Baseball rosters.

The first was John "Spider" Jorgenson, who went on to become the Dodgers' third baseman in Jackie Robinson's first game, in 1947. Other notables who played at Sac City include Chris Bosio and Ken Forsch; both threw a no-hitter on MLB diamonds. Larry Bowa and Jeff Blauser went on to win World Series rings. F.P. Santangelo, Greg Vaughn and Fernando Vina were all one-time Panthers who enjoyed varying degrees of MLB success.

Sullivan soaked in the tradition here when he played for in 2001 and 2002. He grew up in Roseville and dreamed of becoming a Major League Baseball player before his sobering realization hit with the force of a 98-mph heater.

Sullivan transferred from Sac City to St. John's, where he played and excelled as a student, earning advanced degrees. And then he got hooked on coaching, lured back home by his mentor and predecessor, Andy McKay, now the director of player development for the Seattle Mariners.

McKay replaced coaching legends Weinstein and Paul Carmazzi, winning championships, and then came Sullivan. Sac City suffered its first losing season in 42 years in 2012, going 19-20, Then it went 18-20 in 2013 and 17-19 in 2015.

Two of those taxing seasons were under Sullivan. Welcome aboard, mate. But Sullivan didn't flinch. He sprinted to the next phase of learning, of coaching, of leading, and the players kept on coming. Sullivan has now led back-to-back teams in the State Final Four. He does so with the blessing of wife Nicole, who regularly brings young children Abigail, Kellen and McKenna to games.

"Derek's done a tremendous job, just a great person and coach," said Carmazzi, now a Sac City athletic administrator. "It's not easy here. It's not easy to win at this level."

Sac City won its first state championships in 1951 and '53, and then won three more, with nine runner-up finishes since 1984. That's a remarkable run, given how cutthroat competitive JC recruiting can be without any binding letters of intent and all the options available across Northern California. Sac City's rivals rooted for a Panthers program burial. It didn't happen.

The program's baseball's excellence forced other area programs to get better. Sierra won a state title in 2008 and Cosumnes River in 2012.

"It was no big deal, part of the process, of those early years with me here, and we needed that to get going again," Sullivan said. "I know what success looks like, what the coaches did before me. Andy was such a great mentor. He believed in me and brought me back. I could have gotten a job in Manhattan and been living in Times Square the rest of my life.

"We have the advantage of history here. I'm aware that we're standing on the shoulders of giants, and the coaches before me are truly baseball giants. It's challenging doing what we do, and it's fun."

Sac City doesn't just churn out pro prospects. It sends boat loads of players to the four-year levels, a feeder to all levels. More are on their way.

Watching with pride from afar has been McKay. He said Tuesday by phone from Seattle, "Being the head coach at Sac City is a tremendous responsibility with the weight of the world of a program approaching 100 years of tradition. I used to tell players and coaches there that Sac City was doing this before the Giants arrived in San Francisco (in 1958) or the A's to Oakland (1968). That's how far back this goes.

"I have a stressful job now, but it's no more stressful than what I was doing at Sac City because of the expectations."

McKay added, "Derek has continued the tradition and legacy and has found ways to enhance it, to add to it. Very proud of him. I think the world of him."

Sac City has star players this season and guys who became star players through sheer pride and will. Two unsung performers are outfielder Anthony Galati, batting .347 with five home runs and 37 RBI, and infielder Daniel Walsh. He is batting .316 with 44 RBI, a far cry from when he hit .125 at Chico High. His prep coach was Joe Bitker, a former Sac City player who pitched in the majors and steered him to Sullivan.

"I was a below-average high school player who just wanted to keep playing," Walsh said. "You can see and feel the tradition here, and you know you have to work for everything. It's really competitive."

About that "best speed" mantra? Does Walsh do this exercise on the way to class?

"Sometimes," he said with a laugh, "if I'm late."