California produces the most Big Leaguers and All-Stars in the country
By Chris Smith
Special to MLB.com |
On an early May afternoon, Evan Longoria and Andrew Friedman were standing on the artificial turf in the comfort of the carefully regulated 72-degree atmosphere under Tropicana Field's dome. Yet their minds were thousands of miles away in California.
Longoria, the Tampa Bay Rays' star third baseman, grew up in Downey, a suburb just south of Los Angeles, and played college ball at Long Beach State. Friedman, a Houston native, spent a decade as a Rays front office executive before being hired as the Dodgers' president of baseball operations at the end of 2014. As the two men reconnected during batting practice before an Interleague game, they talked -- nostalgic native to zealous recent convert -- about the beauties of baseball in the Golden State.
"It's funny," Longoria says, remembering the conversation, "Andrew worked in New York before he worked here in Florida. He was saying that during those years he'd heard so much about how great the weather was in California, but it wasn't until he lived there full-time that he really understood. He actually used the words 'mood altering.' He said if there were a master thermostat, and he could live at one temperature for the rest of his life, he wouldn't change what he gets in California.
"That's why so many people want to go live there, and why so many people that are from California never leave. It's the reason so many great baseball players come out of California as well: You have year-round beautiful weather to play baseball in."
For nearly 40 years, California has been the nursery of the Big League population. As of Opening Day 2016, the state had produced 2,157 MLB players, the most all time by a wide margin. Pennsylvania and Texas have gained ground in recent years, but still rank a distant second (1,383) and third (888), respectively. And although MLB is increasingly an international game -- a fact that was evident in the 2015 All-Star Game rosters, which featured players born in five countries and one American territory, Puerto Rico -- California easily remained the top spawning ground, as 15 All-Stars, including Nolan Arenado, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Troy Tulowitzki, hailed from there.
This year, the Midsummer Classic comes to San Diego, the city that has produced Ted Williams, Cole Hamels, Stephen Strasburg, Adrian Gonzalez and three generations of Big League Boones. And while America's Finest City may be perched on a U.S. border, it's at the heart of Major League Baseball.
"Great players come from everywhere now," Longoria says. "[Mike Trout], one of our game's best, if not the best player, is from an obscure town in New Jersey where he probably played baseball [just a few] months of the year. But in California we're lucky to play year round, because it does give kids a better chance to make it."
The weather is indeed a huge factor. Just like oranges, ballplayers grow better in abundant sunshine and open space. But the reasons for California's continued dominance of MLB rosters go far deeper than the friendly forecasts or the sheer size of the state. Because while the Dominican Republic, Florida and Venezuela also yield large numbers of quality Big Leaguers, California combines its blue skies with an intricately layered baseball infrastructure.
Consider Ryan Madson. California is where Madson developed the change-up that proved to be an invaluable tool in his ascent to the Big Leagues. His home state also saved his career when it seemed all but dead and buried after elbow surgery. Madson grew up near Riverside, the hot and dry capital of the Inland Empire, about an hour east of L.A. At age 8, he joined a Little League team. The grandfather of one of his teammates worked with the pitchers.
"His name was Fletch Jernigan," Madson says, "and he taught me the circle change-up grip that I still use today."
Drafted out of high school by Philadelphia in 1998, Madson went on to save 32 games for the Phillies in 2011. But he tore a ligament in his right elbow in the offseason and, after rehabbing for nearly three years, retired in 2014.
"Jim Fregosi Jr. lived one town up from me [in Temecula, Calif.]," says Madson. "He was the one who'd drafted me, and he asked if I'd work with this high school kid who was throwing 90. By the end of the summer, the kid and his dad were saying, 'Man, you should play again.'"
Madson agreed to give pitching one more shot, and Fregosi, who by then was working for the Royals, got him an invite to Spring Training. The right-hander earned a spot in the Kansas City bullpen, won a 2015 World Series ring, then signed a free-agent deal to join Oakland's bullpen this past offseason.
"I'm sure that kind of thing could happen in New York, Oklahoma, or Florida," Madson says. "But the California baseball culture is so strong, it gives you opportunities from when you're young and the competition is strong to when you're older and need some help."
Mike Moustakas, a teammate of Madson's on the 2015 world champion Royals, remembers being motivated as a young ballplayer in Los Angeles by the opportunity to play in the high school championship game at Dodger Stadium. And the sight of Moustakas in the opposing dugout inspired Westlake High School product Christian Yelich, who's now the Marlins' left fielder.
"We went up against his school, Chatsworth, in a preseason tournament. Everybody was talking about Moustakas and Matt Dominguez being first-round picks. I was just a 14-year-old, a freshman. I had Cutter Dykstra on my high school team, who was drafted in the second round by the Brewers. I played with Nolan Arenado and Tyler Skaggs on summer teams. So you're surrounded by guys like that and you think, 'Maybe I can do that, too.' When there are 40 or 50 scouts at a high school game, you think that's just how it is. You don't realize it's not like that anywhere except California."
El Toro High School grad Arenado won a state title at Chavez Ravine. Five years later, he hit his first MLB home run there with the Rockies. "Dodger Stadium is my backyard, basically," he says. "It was a crazy thing. But in California, whether it's high school, club ball or travel ball, you're constantly playing some of the best young players in the country. It has a huge impact."
Pirates ace Gerrit Cole, who grew up in Newport Beach, points to some subtler advantages of the California baseball network. There are so many good players and teams, he says, so good coaches gravitate there and stick around. Former MLB pitcher Mark Langston, for instance, coached at Cole's high school. "There's a lot of information accessible for you to craft your game and your skills," says the right-hander and UCLA product. "Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, UCLA, they exemplify the idea of small ball," Cole says. "California has the most complete, well-rounded baseball."
Royals pitcher Ian Kennedy, too, relies on lessons he learned as a high school player in Westminster, Calif. He has gained experience pitching for the Yankees, D-backs and Padres, but still appreciates his upbringing. "When I got to USC and heard Coach [Mike] Gillespie, I realized [that in high school] we'd already been doing stuff college teams do. Some of my teammates from other states hadn't."
Certainly, such a level of competition carries some drawbacks. Tim Corcoran, a former Major Leaguer who now scouts Southern California talent for the Angels, says the concentration of young talent speeds development, but can also hasten physical and mental burnout because of the pressure to play year-round.
And, as proven by Friedman's infatuation with the weather, people can become spoiled by the California climes. "As soon as you get off the plane in California, you notice the difference," says perennial All-Star and San Diego native Adam Jones. "Baltimore has been great, so accepting of me. But [when I] get off the plane, especially in San Diego, I feel like I'm at my mom's house already.
"With Interleague, we've played in San Diego in 2010 and 2013, and I went deep both times."
It takes a newcomer, though, to enjoy some of the ancillary perks of a California baseball life. Joe Smith grew up near Cincinnati, played five seasons in Cleveland and married an Ohio girl. But the reliever signed with the Angels in 2014 and particularly appreciates how the marine air rolls in after dark and deadens fly balls.
"I try to keep balls on the ground most of the time," he says, "but when they put a charge into it, it's nice to see the air just kill it."
Mornings aren't so bad, either. "I wake up and go to the beach and let my dog run around, and then go play a Big League baseball game," Smith says. "It doesn't get much better than that."
This article appears in the MLB Official All-Star Game Program. Click here to purchase a copy, and read more features on allstargame.com.
Chris Smith is a contributing editor for New York magazine. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.