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January 21 , 2008

Legends of the Diamond

Ron Kantowski hangs out with a few Rancho High alums who played during the program’s better times

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Steve Marcus

Rancho High School alumni, from left, Tommy Barrett, Mike Guerra and James Hoodiman celebrate after getting an inning-ending out during Monday’s alumni baseball game at the school.

By Ron Kantowski

Thu, Jan 24, 2008 (2 a.m.)

Rancho's Pros

During a three-year period from 1974-76 Rancho High won two state championships and had nine players selected in the Major League Baseball draft. Four made it all the way to The Bigs (players in bold):

  • Marty Barrett
  • Tommy Barrett
  • Mike Maddux
  • Mike Morgan
  • Mark Bloomfield
  • Mike Guerra
  • John Huntington
  • Perry Swanson
  • Jeff Wolfe

Rancho's State Championships

Year/Coach:

  • 1959: Jack Dailey
  • 1960: John Tartan
  • 1961: John Tartan
  • 1965: Bob Peck
  • 1969: Bob Reed
  • 1973: Bob Reed
  • 1974: Tex Anthony
  • 1976: Tex Anthony

I had a friend, was a big baseball player
back in high school
He could throw that speedball by you
Make you look like a fool boy
— — Bruce Springsteen, “Glory Days”

P-I-I-I-N-G!

For my money, the sound of horsehide meeting composite aluminum will never equal the sound of horsehide meeting northern white ash. But you could tell by the way it resonated from foul pole to foul pole before settling in that place near the top of your spine that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up that Mike Villa, as those old baseball announcers were fond of saying, got all of this one.

The ball rose on a majestic arc and eventually landed beyond the right-field fence on 21st Street, where it caromed around the fourplexes that serve as the batter’s eye at Rancho High’s new baseball field.

No can o’ corn, this. It was a leadoff home run.

What a way to start a ballgame!

After Villa had touched ’em all, somebody from ranchoalumni.org began handing out green buttons with a white ram’s head in the middle. As souvenirs of the inaugural alumni baseball game celebrating Rancho’s proud baseball tradition go, a commemorative button was better than a sore arm or a pulled hamstring.

But it was nowhere near as cool as the baseball somebody was going to find some 400 feet from home plate when he came home from work Monday night.

•••

Villa, who played center field and captained the 1997 Rams, was one of close to 100 former players who turned out for the baseball game and barbecue organized by Tom Pletsch, the current Rancho coach, and Tex Anthony, the affable Amarillo, Texas, native who coached the Rams to state championships in 1974 and 1976.

Those were Rancho’s seventh and eighth baseball titles. They also were the last ones before urban sprawl transformed the inner-city school that practically divides downtown from North Las Vegas from contenders into something less than that.

A new school and new athletic facilities would imply that better days lie ahead for Rancho. But you could tell by the smiles on the faces of these old Rams that although glory days may pass you by, it sure is a lot of fun to recall them.

Everywhere you turned, somebody was shaking hands with an old teammate or elbowing him in the ribs or asking whatever happened to that $20 bill he lent him in ’69.

“It’s been awhile since I’ve seen almost every one of them,” said one of the older guys whose baseball pants still fit. Sort of.

It was Marty Barrett, arguably the most famous of the old Rams, if you don’t count the ones who made up the Fearsome Foursome in Los Angeles.

In 1986, Barrett set a major league record with 24 postseason hits when he played second base for the Boston Red Sox. Trivia buffs will recall that Barrett was standing no more than 15 feet from one of the most famous plays in World Series history, the one that transpired when that little nubber off the bat of Mookie Wilson somehow trickled through Bill Buckner’s legs during Game 6 of the World Series.

On Monday Barrett, 49, stood next to somebody a little less infamous. Between innings, and sometimes during them, he and kid brother Tommy, who had a couple of cups of coffee with the Phillies in the 1980s, tried to put names with familiar faces and expanding waistlines.

The Barretts were two of four players from those celebrated Rancho teams of the 1970s who made it all the way to the big leagues. The others were Mike Maddux, Greg’s big brother, and Mike Morgan, who pitched for 12 major league teams in a career that spanned parts of four decades.

“When those guys were little they used to come over on Christmas Day and want to play baseball,” said Manny Guerra, the former Rancho American Legion coach beginning his 26th year as a St. Louis Cardinals scout.

Guerra’s son, Mike, was one of the Rancho Nine nine players from those Rams teams were drafted by major league clubs in the days when Rancho was to prep baseball what the Mississippi Delta was to slide guitar players.

“All those kids came out of the same neighborhood, which is just amazing,” Guerra said.

So, too, was watching John Tartan’s reaction every time somebody with a rusty soup bone would sidle up to say hello.

Tartan coached Rancho to state baseball titles in 1960 and ’61 and was the winning coach in the first state championship game ever played in Nevada. Norm Craft, who would later coach Rancho and go on to become athletic director of the Clark Country School District during a 33-year career as a coach and educator, hit a grand slam against Fallon to lift Basic to the title in 1955.

John Tartan is 83 years old. Next to that day in 2005 when they named an elementary school after him, he couldn’t remember a better one than Monday.

“Oh boy, this is so good,” he said as his former players lined up like ducks on a pond to greet him.

If you looked close, you could almost see the glory days pass by in the blink of an old coach’s eye.

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