First things first: There is almost no place I'd rather be on a warm Friday night or sunny Saturday or Sunday afternoon than watching the Bruins play baseball. I've attended more UCLA baseball games over the past few years than I have football games or basketball games, never having failed to have a good time.
Baseball at The Jack is baseball the way it is supposed to be. On the field are a group of gritty, hard-nosed players who sprint out to their positions, run out ground balls and aren't afraid to get dirty. The bleachers are a great family atmosphere, where the ball player's moms still work the snack bar, the sound system pipes in the fight song and any kid who wants one will go home with a foul ball.
Not only that, but there must be something about diamonds because some of the prettiest girls in Westwood make it a point to be at every game.
The biggest change for UCLA this season will be in the dugout, where new manager John Savage succeeds Gary Adams who coached the team for 30 years. Savage was most recently the head baseball coach at UC Irvine where, with the help of Dan Guerrerro, he resurrected a moribund program. Prior to that - no pun intended - he was the pitching coach at USC, where Barry Zito and Mark Prior were just two of the outstanding pitchers he coached.
Coach Savage was gracious enough to give this interview to Bruin Report Online more than a month ago, but due to the vagaries of publishing (whatever that means) we're just now getting ready to run it. Since the time of the interview, Savage and his staff signed a bumper crop of new recruits - 12 in all - and are already on the way to building a championship level team at UCLA.
Q. Coach, as a newcomer to the UCLA baseball program, how would you describe where it is and what it's potential is?
The potential at UCLA is outstanding. It's a major university in a great conference, the Pac-10 conference, with an unbelievable tradition. We have the ability to attract top players and the ability to compete both for Pac-10 titles and the national championship.
The combination of all these advantages - the university, the Pac-10 and the school's tradition create a tremendous upside for the UCLA baseball program.
Q. As a coach, what do you bring to the table?
My strength as a coach is creating an atmosphere that is positive. It's a teaching environment and it is a high-energy environment. It's a situation that players want to be a part of and that facilitates their ability to come together as a team. After that, my strength is getting people on the same page and getting them to commit to being the best player they can be.
As a staff, we'd like to create an environment that focuses on character, energy, commitment, enthusiasm and togetherness.
Q. Okay, but I was sort of thinking about pitching, hitting - what area of the game will you be concentrating on?
I'll be concentrating on pitching. I was the pitching coach at USC when they won a national championship At that time we had All-Americans like Barry Zito (a Cy Young Award winner with the Oakland A's) and Mark Prior (ace pitcher for the Chicago Cubs). I'll handle all aspects of the pitching from handling the staff to their throwing progress and pitching mechanics.
Q. What type of team would you like to see on the field at Jackie Robinson Stadium?
The components of a good, sound baseball team are very straightforward. You need very good pitching and sound defense. You want an offense that creates runs and puts pressure on the defense. You don't want to make easy outs, you want to be able to run, hit the ball in the gap and produce runs that way.
In terms of personnel, you hope to have some power in your line up, you want speed. Mostly you want tough outs, that's a big key. You want to be the type of hitter where there is not one specific way to pitch to you, you don't want the other guys saying, "He's a breaking ball out."
Q. Your predecessor Gary Adams coached many great players and had many good teams. But some fans still believe that the team didn't make enough appearances in the College World Series, that the potential for the program is somewhat unfulfilled maybe when compared to other Southern California programs that have won the Series. Could you comment on that?
I think we have to look forward and you have to have a vision. We now have a vision that is rooted in the development of players and we hope to establish something that will be in place for years to come.
The teams that make it to Omaha, they have pitching and defense and those tough outs I was talking about. To get that type of chemistry here will take time to develop. That's what you need to do to get to Omaha.
I'm honored to succeed Gary Adams. I learned a lot observing him. He was and is an unbelievable teacher and I've already incorporated a lot of his teaching methods.
We do have aspirations of going to Omaha for the College World Series or at least to have the ingredients in place to get there. It's important for the program and we are working towards it.
Q. Who else is on your staff at UCLA and what are their roles?
Pat Shine is our recruiting coordinator and our hitting coach. Brian Green will be working with the infield, helping with the offensive organization and he'll assist with the hitting. Matt Jones will work with the catchers and first basemen and also work with the hitters. I'll coach the pitchers.
Q What is your recruiting philosophy (editor's note: this interview was conducted before the staff signed 12 new players)?
That's simple. We want guys who are motivated, who have ability and have great academic ability. We want guys who can compete on the national level. We want to recruit enough of those guys to compete year in and year out. We don't really stress pitching or hitting, when we talk about recruiting we talk about recruiting for the whole team.
Q. What is it like to have an office in Jackie Robinson Stadium?
Well, humble is the right word. Jackie Robinson is one of the most prominent athletes, one of the biggest sports figures in the history of our country. For me to come to work in and for our players to play in Jackie Robinson Stadium is a huge compliment to our players. They understand the importance of what he did and accomplished and we all take great pride in the facility.
Below is the press release on the 12 baseball recruits signed earlier this month. The season opens in January. Look for a preview in time for the opener.
UCLA Baseball Signs Twelve New Players For 2006
Recruiting class, biggest in school history, being hailed as possibly the best in the country
Nov. 11, 2004
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - UCLA's first-year baseball head coach John Savage has signed a record 12 new players on the first day of the 2006 early signing period (National Letters of Intent) for the 2006 season. Recruiting experts Student Sports Magazine and Baseball America are considering the overall signing group as possibly the best in school history and perhaps the best in the nation for the early signing period.
"We are very excited about the players that will be arriving in the fall of 2005," Savage said. "This group of players will build the foundation and be the nucleus of Bruin baseball for years to come. We believe that this class has exceptional ability and the potential to give UCLA the opportunity to compete at the national level."
The signings provide necessary talent across the diamond. The commitments
include three infielders, three outfielders, a catcher and six pitchers (three
left-handers). Several players play multiple positions. Perhaps the two biggest
names among the 12 signees are national prospects shortstop Brandon Crawford and
outfielder Johnny Drennen III. Three members of the class, Drennen (#22), Tim Murphy (#53) and Brian Kirwan (#79) have been listed as top-100 high school
recruits by Baseball America and Perfect Game USA, a national recruiting agency.
Ten of the players have been nationally ranked in the top 50 by TeamOne Baseball
"The future of UCLA baseball with this group of players is very bright," Savage continued.
The complete 2006 signing class includes Corey Ashner, Ryan Babineau, Tyson Brummett, Crawford, Robert Dickmann, Drennen, Blair Dunlap, Brian Kirwan, Tim Murphy, Eddie Murray, Jason Novak and Andy Suiter.
Corey Ashner, a middle infielder out of Blue Valley North High School in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, was the number six ranked prospect in his state. A member of the All-Kansas team, the All-Kansas pre-season team, the All-Eastern Kansas League first team and an Eastern Kansas League Scholar Athlete, Ashner's quality bat and arm will provide the Bruins with valuable depth up the middle. The infielder batted .486 and posted an impressive .984 fielding percentage during the 2004 high school season and was a member of the Kansas City White Sox, the 2004 USSSA World Series Champions. During that series, Ashner was named MVP after hitting .625 and was named to the All-Tournament Team for the third consecutive year.
"Ashner is very good defensive infielder who has a chance to be an offensive player," Savage said. "Corey will add depth to our middle infield," Savage said.
Tyson Brummett, a right-handed pitcher out of Central Arizona Community College, will enter UCLA as a junior in the fall of 2006. Brummett has been drafted twice by the San Francisco Giants.
"We're looking for Tyson to be a frontline starting pitcher in our program," Savage said. "He's going to bring experience and we look for him to step in immediately because of his ability to throw three pitches for strikes."
Regarded as perhaps the best catcher in the West, Ryan Babineau comes to UCLA from Etiwanda High School in Alta Loma, California. During the summer of 2004 Babineau was a standout at the annual Area Code Games and was ultimately named to the Area Code all-star team after a summer of displaying his strong arm and defensive skills. Babineau is a four-year starter at Etiwanda HS and in 2004 earned Team MVP honors along with being named All-Baseline League, an All-Inland Valley, All-San Bernadino County and a Los Angeles Times all-region selection. TeamOne and Rivals.com rated Babineau the ninth best catcher in the nation.
"Ryan is very advanced for a high school catcher in that he can really throw and has the ability to drive the ball," Savage said. "He will bring the total package in as a freshman."
Brandon Crawford, one of the most highly sought after recruits in the nation, is a left-handed hitting middle infielder and a three-year varsity letterwinner from Foothill High School in Pleasanton, California. As a sophomore in 2003, Crawford earned All-East Bay Athletic League honorable mention accolades while establishing a new school record for stolen bases. In 2004 as a junior, he was a first team all-league selection after leading the league in hits, doubles, stolen bases and runs scored. He was also tabbed as a first team All-North Coast Section infielder after hitting .452 (.524 in league) with three home runs, 36 RBI and 17 stolen bases. His performance at this summer's Area Code Games earned him the distinction as one of the top ten infielders in the nation. Crawford has also displayed exceptional abilities on the football field. As his team's starting quarterback, he led the school to a 10-2 record in 2003 and was named first team all-league and second team All-North Coast Section. During the summer of 2004, while balancing his schedule with the Area Code Games, Crawford also participated in the Nike Football Camp at Stanford University and later took part in the EA Sports Elite 11 Quarterback Showcase. So far this season, he has led his school to an impressive 8-1 record and has already thrown for over 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns. On the diamond, his tremendous hitting abilities have reminded the UCLA coaching staff of former Bruin All-American and current major leaguer Chase Utley. He was rated as the 11th best infielder in the nation by TeamOne and Rivals.com
"Brandon is a very high profile middle infielder, we think he is one of the best in the country," Savage said. "He's a left-handed hitting shortstop and we're looking for him to be a great player here at UCLA. We think Brandon has a chance to be a very special offensive player here in Westwood."
Robert Dickmann is a left-handed pitcher from Notre Dame High School in nearby Woodland Hills, California. On the mound he has been regarded as one of the best in the state with his solid fastball and excellent curveball, which at times has dominated high school hitters. TeamOne and Rivals.com have tabbed him as the 37th best left-handed pitcher in the country.
"Robert is an exceptional athlete who has chance to be a two-way guy at UCLA," Savage said. "As a left-handed pitcher he's 86 to 89 [miles per hour] with his fastball and has plus command."
Rated as one of the top at his position in the nation and a likely high major league draft pick, John Drennen is a left-handed hitting outfielder. While at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, California, he was twice named an Area Code all-star and was selected last summer for the National High School all-star game. He has been named an AFLAC All-American, All-CIF and all-state selection and was rated by Perfect Game USA and Baseball America as the number 22 prospect in the country. Meanwhile, TeamOne and Rivals.com noted Drennen as the seventh best outfield prospect in the nation. Also while at Rancho Bernardo HS, Drennen helped lead his team to the Pioneer League championship. He also was a member of the AABC team that went on to win USA Baseball's Tournament of the Stars last summer.
"We feel Drennen is one of the top players in the country," Savage said. "He's a left-handed hitting outfielder with five tools. We look for John to hit in the middle of our lineup during his entire career here at UCLA. In our opinion John is one of the top five hitters in the country."
Blair Dunlap, also an All-CIF selection, is a right-handed hitting outfielder from Santa Margarita High School. The multi-faceted Dunlap was one of the fastest players at the Area Code workouts and has also shown strength at the plate and in the field. He was ranked by TeamOne and Rivals.com as the 36th best infield prospect in the nation.
"Blair Dunlap is a great athlete and can do a lot of different things," Savage said. "He's a very versatile guy, he can really run and he's also very competitive at the plate. We're looking for him to be a very exciting player at UCLA."
Brian Kirwan, a right-handed pitcher from Sante Fe Christian High School, was one of the hardest throwing hurlers at the Area Code Games, where he was selected as one of the top 25 players. TeamOne and Rivals.com have listed him as the 17th best right-handed high school pitcher in the nation. His fastball, which has been clocked upwards of 91 miles per hour, has earned him the distinction of the 79th best prospect by Perfect Game and Baseball America. Kirwan was named the Athlete of the Week by the San Diego Union Tribune and the North County Times during 2003 while leading all of San Diego County in strikeouts. In 2004 he was again named Athlete of the Week, but this time for his accomplishments in football. He was honored as his team's MVP in both sports in 2002 and 2003. Despite receiving accolades in both sports while in high school, Kirwan will only play baseball at UCLA; meanwhile his brother is a quarterback at Oregon State.
"We think Brian is one of the best right-handers in the country," Savage said. "He's a very good athlete and he's another guy that has a chance to be a weekend guy. He's 88-92 [miles per hour] with good command and we look for him to be a frontline starter."
Perhaps the best two-way player in the region, Tim Murphy is a left-handed pitcher/outfielder with tremendous power at the plate and 90 mile per hour fastball. Another All-CIF pick, Murphy also is a likely future major league draft pick and was rated as the 53rd best high school prospect in the country by Baseball America and Perfect Game USA. TeamOne and Rivals.com ranked Murphy as the second best left-handed pitching prospect in the entire country.
"We think Tim Murphy is the best two-way guy in the country," Savage said. "He has a chance to hit in the middle of our lineup as well as be a weekend starter for us."
Eddie Murray, a right-handed hitting middle infielder from Gahr High School, is another All-CIF selection. As a junior, Murray hit .579 with six home runs and 25 RBI while only striking out three times in 76 at bats. He was named all-league and all-area in 2002, '03 and '04 and was an All-CIF pick and Los Angeles Times All-Region selection in 2004. Murray was also named to the Long Beach Press-Telegram's Dream Team in 2004 as well as carrying team captain responsibilities in 2003, 2004 and 2005. The strong defensive shortstop, who can also play second base, has no relation the former major league Hall-of-Famer with the same name.
"We think Eddie is the sleeper of the entire class," Savage said. "He's a guy that can play second, shortstop and third and he's a very tough player who hit over .570 last year. He's one of the most versatile players in this class and could be compared to former Bruin and ex-major leaguer Mike Gallego."
Jason Novak, another local player from Agoura High School in nearby Agoura Hills, is a right-handed, all-league pitcher. Novak was a gold medal winner four years in a row from 2001 to 2004 at the National JCC Maccabi Games and was honored as the Most Outstanding Athlete for baseball in 2002. His high school coach Mike Magnante is a former UCLA baseball standout and recent major leaguer.
"He's a guy with a very good fastball and a quick arm," Savage said of Novak. "Last year he struck out 71 guys while walking just 11. He has very good command and a sharp, hard breaking ball."
Finally, Andy Suiter, a left-handed pitcher out of Menlo High School is another four-year varsity letterwinner. In 2003, he went 12-0 and struck out a school record 146 batters in 88 innings while leading his team to the Central Coast Section Division III championship. He also established a school record for strikeouts in a game with 18 and tied the record for wins a season. As a junior in 2004, Suitor was named all-state, All-Central Coast, all-county and was selected as the Peninsula Athletic League Player of the Year by the San Jose Mercury News. He has been noted as the 14th best left-handed pitcher in the country by Perfect Game USA and TeamOne Baseball. In addition to his baseball accolades, Suiter is also a water polo standout and has been honored by the Mercury News and the Central Coast Section. At UCLA, however, the four-year honor student, will focus solely on baseball.
"Suiter is a guy that can really pitch - he throws three pitches for strikes," Savage said. "He has a plus fastball along with a great changeup. He's a great competitor and is another guy that will add tremendous depth to our left-handed pitching."
Along with the announcement of UCLA's 12 National Letters of Intent, Savage also announced that former North Carolina State third baseman Eric Taylor, Jr. has transferred to UCLA and has been enrolled in classes since September. Taylor will be eligible to play for the Bruins in 2005 and is expected to be their starting third baseman. For the Wolfpack in 2004, the Laguna Niguel native, batted .274 with five home runs and 16 RBI while only committing four errors at the hot corner.
"We're looking for Eric to step in and be a guy who has a chance to help us right away," Savage said. "Eric brings plenty of experience from the ACC and last year's NCAA regionals. We expect him to come right in and hit in the middle of our lineup."