It’s been reported in the Santa Monica Mirror for the last month that baseball will return to West Los Angeles College next season following a 21-year absence.
It turns out that was only part of the story.
The scope of the decision was revealed by school president Dr. Mark Rocha in an interview conducted last week.
In addition to fielding a team that will play in the Western State Conference Southern Division, and in addition to spending $400,000 to renovate the school’s playing field, stands for 900 spectators are part of phase one and a stadium seating between 1,500 and 3,000 is planned for phase two, most likely in a couple of years.
During construction of the stadium the team will probably play elsewhere for one season.
Although a press conference to announce the return of baseball was postponed and rescheduled for Monday, July 30, Dr. Rocha confirmed the hiring of Bob Grant as head coach.
“It’s a done deal,” he said. “Bob Grant is on the payroll. He’s a West Los Angeles College employee.”
Grant has begun recruiting and reportedly has secured a dozen verbal commitments.
Because Santa Monica College dropped baseball 13 years ago, a quality program at West LA, complete with a first-rate facility, would give the school the only community college team on the Westside and a chance to gain increased media exposure.
Although the first year could be a struggle because Grant got a late start in recruiting, Rocha envisions drawing from all over the Westside in future years, including Santa Monica.
“With Santa Monica not having a team, that was a factor in our decision to bring baseball back,” said Rocha.
Stadiums such as the one Rocha plans exist at USC, Cal State Fullerton, City of Industry, LA Southwest College and Compton College. All have been built in the last 10 years, one benefit being the scheduling of high school playoff games.
High school seniors who might otherwise never see the campus might attend a game, like what they see and consider the school in continuing their education.
“There’s plenty of students for Santa Monica and West LA, but we’re trying to take back the Westside,” said Rocha.
Only a small percentage of community college players go on to become professional ballplayers, but many gain momentum for future success in other pursuits.
“By continuing their education after high school they learn about life and many continue on to four-year schools,” said Rocha.
Art Harris, who came from successful years at Venice High to coach West LA until the program was dropped in 1986, was on the committee that selected Grant. Harris has worked in the Dodgers’ scouting department since his years at West LA.
He believed an academic counselor to monitor the baseball players was mandatory and Rocha agreed.
“We’re in the process of hiring that person for the athletic department, not just baseball,” he said.
Rocha said West LA is likely to have a softball team the following year.
“Bringing back baseball is first, but we’re looking at an expansion of our athletic program,” he said.
While SMC is clearly the school representing Santa Monica, West LA has had difficulty over the years becoming identified with Culver City.
It is located on the Culver City border but has seldom been recognized as part of the community. And an attempt by then-Culver City Mayor Albert Vera to annex West LA College several years ago failed.
“That issue has been laid to rest,” said Rocha.
“But when I came here a year ago I viewed the lack of a connection between the school and Culver City as a gap. We’ve tried to change that.
“A former Culver City mayor, Paul Jacobs, is head of the College Foundation, WLA College’s fundraising arm. I’m a Board member of the Culver City Chamber of Commerce and we’re teaching some classes at Culver City High.”
Rocha has a baseball background. He was a pitcher at St. Andrews School in Delaware, and for one season at Villanova University.
He envisions West LA having a 40-man roster, including 15 pitchers, when it plays its’ first game January 25, 2008.
Grant, a former catcher at Westchester High, played five years in the New York Mets’ farm system and has been a batting practice pitcher for the Dodgers the last seven years.
Rocha is trying for partnerships with various groups, including the Dodgers.
“With everything so expensive these days, external partnerships are necessary,” he said.
It’s possible the Dodgers will put on clinics to benefit the WLA program. The RBI program (Returning Baseball to the Inner City) may contribute funds from its annual golf tournament.
County Supervisor Yvonne Burks is termed “a key partner” by Rocha, and has drawn a public thanks from him for her support.
No West LA College leader took on the project of returning baseball for 20 years, but soon after arriving on campus Rocha had a vision of what a baseball program could mean.
Similarly, no leader at Santa Monica College elevated the return of baseball to priority status. At this time, SMC has no plans to restore baseball. Also a member of the Western State Conference Southern Division, it competes against West LA in football, basketball and other sports.