Paving a field of dreams
Three La Verne coaches champion for a new field
by Grady Lee Thomas
photography by Christopher Guzman
The marquee baseball program at the University of La Verne has seen its share of success, winning two national championships, 19 conference championships and, as the La Verne Athletic Department website says, “has arguably the most tradition of all Leopard sports.” Yet, this spring marked the team’s final season at Ben Hines Field, as the historic field was demolished to construct a parking lot to accommodate the commuter needs of a growing University.
A temporary field of play at the Fairplex is set for practices next year, but plans are still in flux for a promised new facility on scrubland the University owns south of Arrow Highway, about one-half mile from the main campus. The loss of the historic field may have its repercussions on team spirit, including possible recruiting challenges in attracting quality student-athletes. “This era of La Verne baseball is different from previous years,” head baseball coach Scott Winterburn says. “I’m extremely saddened by the loss of the field here. La Verne needs to break ground on a new facility. Doing so shows a commitment to providing a quality baseball experience for the students who decide to come play here at La Verne.”
The on-campus field loss will be felt by other programs. During previous falls, the field doubled as an NCAA men’s and women’s soccer field. Its expansive grass outfield was in play for many Movement and Sports Science Department activity classes. The field acreage loss represents accelerating change for campus sports. In the past 10 years, both the women’s softball team and the women’s tennis program lost their historic playing areas and were moved off campus. The men’s tennis program was terminated as was the men’s volleyball program. At present, the track is unusable because of delamination damage to its running surface. Additionally, the old gym, prized for intramural contests, was razed. The disappearance of the on-campus Ben Hines Field is a cultural issue as well. “The most important thing we can do is provide an opportunity for our kids to practice and not have it interfere with their academics,” Winterburn says. “We cannot be too far away from campus. Our kids have classes before and after practice. Without a [permanent] field to practice and play games, it is going to be awfully difficult to out-recruit our competition.”
Ben Hines builds a legacy
The field named after Ben Hines is literally one he built—with his hands and his reputation. Stepping foot into Hines’ La Verne home is like walking into the Coopers-town West Coast annex. The only thing the Hall of Fame has on Ben’s collection is size. The coach has a seven foot tall glass display case containing a who’s who of baseball players, 54 of whom are members of the pro baseball Hall of Fame. Says Winterburn, “For many years, our program experienced its golden years under Ben Hines. I grew up in the area, and as a kid I knew who Ben Hines was. It was well known in those days that if you were a guy who wanted to go pro and stay in the Southern California area, you went to La Verne. Hine’s legacy will most certainly be carried on to the program’s new location. He is known as one of the best hitting coaches the game has seen.” Ben Hines’ humble beginnings at La Verne forged him into a championship caliber coach. His college teams won the NAIA College World Series and NCAA College World Series; as a pro hitting coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he won the Major League Baseball World Series in 1988.
After graduating from La Verne College in 1958, Hines (married to wife Wanda,‘63), played three years in the minor leagues before returning to La Verne. With a hearty laugh, he remembers, “My first year at La Verne was terrible. I had been playing for the Baltimore Orioles single-A affiliate club, the Stockton Ports, when I received a call from La Verne College asking whether I was interested in being the head baseball coach. Our baseball field was in no condition to host practices, let alone baseball games. We didn’t have dugouts or a fence set up marking homeruns. Needless to say, we went 3-25 my first year, 19-16 my second season and after that we were always pretty close to 40-20 overall. One of the best things about me is that I always had a good idea of what a player could do.” With his budding success, Hines renovated the field and seemingly invented the adage, “If you build it, they will come.”
Frank Johnson, then La Verne mayor, was his good friend; in 1968, the two coordinated fundraising toward the construction of a new baseball facility on Second Street. La Verne College President Leland Newcomer funded the backstop construction with its memorable high beam poles. The season opened with a new field spring of 1969. Ben and Frank later organized a fund to build the bleachers and install lights so the club could play night games. “Frank Johnson, Milan Rupel and I installed the field’s lights. We worked on the wiring while the poles were on the ground; we lifted the giant light poles up, then Milan went up on a cherry picker and finished the wiring. After that, we had lights,” Hines says.
This was 1973. La Verne already had the heady reputation as being a direct link to the pros. Many talented players enrolled at La Verne for visibility. Transferring to La Verne was not only a way to play right away but also meant possibly catching the attention of a major league scout. Ben says he sent more than 60 players from La Verne to the big leagues. Many made an impact with their big league club, including All-Star relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry, outfielder Willie Norwood and infielder Nick Leyva, who is currently the third base coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates major league team.
Hines opted to leave La Verne following the 1980 season to join the Arizona State University coaching staff. “ASU’s coach Jim Brock had been after me for a long time to work with him [as a batting coach], so after my last two children [Bruce (‘80) and Kristi (‘80)] graduated from La Verne, I decided it was time to move on.” After two seasons at ASU, which harvested a national championship, two Pac-10 championships and personal accolades for spurring team records in every batting category, Hines joined the big leagues as the minor league coordinator of instruction for the California Angels. One year later, he accepted the batting coach position for the Seattle Mariners major league team. With one season in the books, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Hines to a contract that would not only bring him back to Southern California but see him rise to the pinnacle of baseball in helping win the World Series. Hines coached in the Dodgers organization as a batting and first base coach from 1985-’93, before spending one season with the Houston Astros. Today, he is still in the game as a scout for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Owen Wright’s imprint
Owen Wright coached La Verne’s baseball team for 15 years, from 1983-98, winning the NCAA Division III Championship in 1995. Prior, he coached soccer and baseball for 21 years at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. Dwight Hanawalt, department head of health, physical education and recreation, first invited him in 1979, but Wright says it took four years “to pick up my roots and move my family away from Pennsylvania.” The coach recalls “fantastic memories from La Verne. If you were a Leo then, you will never forget those days. The memories of what was accomplished before us and during my tenure are precious. I would hope that the Board of Trustees would recognize the problem and do whatever it takes to get some plan developed. Hearing the news about Ben Hines Field and the state of the baseball program bothers me greatly because I still bleed green and orange.”
Regarding his coaching style: “I was not the players’ good friend, but my office door was always open to them, and a lot of on and off-field problems came to me on a regular basis. I became a good listener. I still follow the team as closely as I can and still feel I am a part of the team; La Verne is in my heart.” He cites another giving individual: Milan Rupel, who termed himself “the oldest bat boy in America.” From 1972 until his death in 1997, Rupel was a steadfast supporter of La Verne baseball. “He travelled with me any time the team took a road trip. He loved baseball and loved La Verne. We were like brothers. He was with us when we won the national championship, and we flew back with the trophies.”
Two student-led events, one a rally, the second a petition garnering more than 300 signatures, called for the saving of Ben Hines Field April 2011. Says Hines, “I don’t think the administrators care that they are taking away student involvement with soccer and baseball. I understand parking problems, but there are better solutions than tearing down the baseball field. People have tried to get me involved with finding a new place to play, but it is hard for me because I have so much of my life invested into the old ballpark on Second Street. I could not tell you how many hours my players and coaches spent picking up rocks and fixing up our field. My family would even come down with me on Sundays to clean up the field.”
“When I took over the program in 2000, I knew what La Verne baseball was all about,” says Winterburn. “I spoke to the coaches who served at La Verne before me: Bobby Lee, Owen Wright and Ben Hines. I asked them numerous questions and got their insight in terms of building a program here. At that moment I realized how much La Verne had impacted them. Even though they had left La Verne, they still love La Verne.”
A famous Ben Hines coaching moment
One of professional baseball’s more memorable moments came in game one of the 1988 World Series when the Los Angeles Dodgers, down 4-3, sent injured pinch-hitter Kirk Gibson to the plate. Ben Hines, Dodgers batting coach, set up the historical moment in what many believe gave the Dodgers the momentum to win the World Series that season. “Kirk had tore up his right knee sliding into second base in the National League Championship Series against the Mets,” Hines says. “During game one of the World Series, he was out. Vin Scully even kept saying, ‘You will not see Kirk Gibson at all in the game,’ but what we all knew was no one could tell Kirk anything. He would decide what he would do.”
“About the seventh inning, Kirk told me he thought he had one at-bat in him, so we went to the batting cages in the clubhouse to work some soft toss, and I knew things were bad because with every swing, Kirk grimaced in pain. I went to talk to Tommy Lasorda and informed him Kirk had one solid at bat in him. Then Tommy asked whether I would have Kirk ready to go by the 9th inning. We were down by a score of 4-3 with a runner on first base and two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning when Tommy decided to put Kirk in the game as a pinch hitter. Kirk limped his way to the plate and, in no time, fell behind in the count, 0-2. After some good plate discipline, Kirk was able to work his way back to a full count. Our scouting reports for the Oakland A’s showed us that when their pitcher Dennis Eckersley was in a full count, he would throw a back-door slider for the punch-out. Well, Gibby remembered the scouting tips, but from the moment the ball left Eckersley’s hand, Kirk was out in front. But the barrel of his bat was back, and he caught it all and hit it hard to right field—hard enough to leave the park. That gave us the walk off victory and is without a doubt my most memorable time in the big leagues,” Ben says. “It was an unbelievable battle. Later on when Gibby retired, he said he never learned to hit until he got to L.A. and worked with our coaching staff. We spent many hours working to refine his swing and technique. It was great to see his hard work pay off.”