The year was 1988. Gas prices averaged $1.08 a gallon. And at 2475 Jefferson Street in Napa, there was a high school baseball team that had a finely tuned engine that ran on high-octane fuel.
That Napa High squad was like a vehicle that could navigate rush hour traffic on Highway 29 or win a drag race down Dry Creek Road. The Indians went 26-3 and won the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship, the first section crown for the school in any sport.
Also the first baseball team from the Monticello Empire League to win a section title, the Indians — the school's mascot until they became the Grizzlies in 2019 — would be joined as Napa High SJS champs by the 1992, 1993 and 1996 volleyball squads, the 1991-92 boys basketball team, the 2007 football squad, and the 2017 softball team.
The Indians were ranked No. 7 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports. Scott Ruggiero and Craig Johnston spearheaded the pitching staff, with Mark Lundeen, Joel Gentry, Dennis Ah-Mau and Troy Mott supplying supporting roles. On offense, the Indians averaged 8.2 runs per game with key contributors such as Todd Pridy, Troy Tallman, Dwight Davin, Steve Profitt, Matt Franco, Aaron Agnew and Brennan Jones. Napa got reinforcements with Australian transfer students Glen Kelley, Johnston and Jones.
Head coach Mike Brown and pitching coach Bob Herlocker were fixtures as teachers and coaches at Napa High for more than three decades. Brown stepped down from the helm after the 2001 season, giving way to Pridy for the next 17 years.
“You’re so busy trying to win and then you get the reward and say, ‘I wish I could have relaxed and enjoyed it more,’” Brown said. “We tried to make practice fun for them because it was an intense year with a lot of people watching us.”
While coaching a team with enormous talent may appear to be a dream scenario, it came with potential pitfalls Brown and Herlocker, by their own admission, had to be careful to avoid.
“We as coaches didn’t want to screw them up,” Herlocker quipped. “They were so good that you just let them play their game. We didn’t have to create things. These guys took care of it with their bats and played defense.”
The Indians knew success would come, but there was no way of knowing if it would translate into a section championship.
“I didn’t see it coming that we were going to win it but I knew that we were a special team,” said Lundeen, a 1989 graduate and Napa County Public Works employee who is on Vintage High head coach Billy Smith's staff. “We were competitors and just played the game of baseball.”
Like Pridy, Mott went on to establish a legacy as a head coach for Napa High. He guided the football program for 11 years, 2006-2016, including their aforementioned section title in 2007. Mott and Pridy also graduated in 1989 and though they no longer coach there, remain at Napa High as teachers. Mott teaches physical education. Pridy teaches U.S. History, AP Government and Economics.
“As a player, I did not see the section title coming,” Mott said. “We felt like we were a talented team, but winning our league title was what we were thinking of. I don’t think we ever had thoughts on winning the section going into the season.”
Pridy said he did not see the title coming because he had no frame of reference at the time. But having been the head coach from 2002-2018, his perspective has become different.
“At the time, it was just a group of guys that were playing together or against each other in the summer but always had success,” Pridy said. “I had no concept of the level of talent or the competitive nature of hanging a section banner. I wouldn’t say it was that crazy of a grind. I was kind of oblivious to it. I would think, ‘We’ve got a game, let’s go play.’ We expected to win. That’s just how that team thought.”
Tallman graduated in 1988 and lives in Billings, Montana, where he is a national account manager for J.R. Simplot Company.
“We really didn’t see the section championship coming, but we knew we were going to be pretty good,” he said. “We had quite a few returners and the three that came from Australia. Those guys helped us get over the hump.”
In listening to the coaches and players revisit the 1988 season, here are some common denominators:
Despite the team’s brilliant record, the Indians did not win the MEL title. Napa started the season 14-0, including 5-0 in the MEL, before crosstown rival Vintage handed the Indians their first loss, 8-7. All three of Napa’s losses came in a five-game span — 2-1 against Armijo and 10-3 against Vacaville, which won the MEL title with a 10-2 record over the 9-3 Indians.
But Napa would not lose a game thereafter. Lundeen made the assertion that the MEL season was more stringent than the section playoffs.
Mott felt the Vacaville loss was an underrated defining moment.
“There are teams in the situation that could have packed it in, but our team did not,” Mott said. “We liked playing for each other. We were going into the playoffs to do some damage. Without our strong bond, that loss could have sent our season in a spiral. I have always wondered if we won that game at Vacaville and won the league, would we have been hungry enough? I would hope to think we would have been, but you never know. I felt like that loss was a defining game that got us refocused.”
Fairfield and Armijo each went 6-6 in the MEL, but even a playoff berth looked dicey at the end. Only two teams from the MEL went to the postseason in that era, regardless of records. In today’s format, league champions get an automatic bid with non-champions applying for at-large bids.
“There were some really good teams. Obviously, Vacaville was traditionally very good, and so was Armijo at times,” Tallman said. “Vintage and the Vallejo schools were good, as well. It was a tough road to hoe. I remember Vacaville was really good that year. They had really good players. We had one bad game that cost us a title, but it was tough to come out of the MEL. I also think it prepared us for the playoffs.”
Following the Vacaville loss, Napa delivered a dramatic 4-3 come-from-behind win over Fairfield to clinch a playoff berth. Trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the seventh, Pridy’s bases-loaded walk cut the lead to 3-2. In the bottom of the seventh, after Franco reached on an error, Tallman walked, and Jones singled to load the bases, Agnew delivered a walk-off, 2-run single to send the Indians to the playoffs.
“The fact that we didn’t win the league, it was never really comfortable,” Brown said. “When we got to the playoffs, we took nothing for granted. You could tell the kids were driven. We weren’t happy about not winning the league, but you’ve got to give Vacaville credit, too. They were 10-2 and won nine in a row, including a win over us. They were a good team. We were just concentrating on what we were going to do in the playoffs. Teams peak and I think we peaked at the right time.”
In a sense, the battles with Fairfield and Vacaville were an extension of summer league between any combination of the Napa Yankees, Fairfield Expos and Vacaville Legion.
“It was competitive as all get-out,” Pridy said. “With the confidence we had, we figured if we went about our business, we’d end up on top. We were just guys having fun and playing to our 17-, 18-year-old potential without knowing how unique or special it was. I was oblivious to it; maybe others weren’t. It was just, ‘What time do we stretch, who are we playing, let’s go.’ It was just us being a very good, competitive baseball team and finding a way to beat whoever we were playing.”
The SJS Div. I playoff bracket featured the North and South. Napa won the South while Christian Brothers won the North. The Indians defeated Tokay 12-10, Tracy 24-3, Elk Grove 1-0, and Merced 9-0 before downing Christian Brothers 5-1 and 6-0 to capture the title.
The Indians had to win two high-leverage games to reach the finals. They came from behind to defeat Tokay, rallying from a 9-4 deficit by scoring three runs in each of the fifth and sixth innings and two more in the seventh. Agnew’s two-run single tied the game and Tallman’s sacrifice fly gave Napa the lead.
“I wish I had the memory of some of my teammates who can talk like this happened just the other day,” Pridy quipped. “I remember the Tokay game being stressful but not feeling like we were out of it. It was like, ‘they score, we score, they score, we score.’ It was an ultimate confidence in what that group could accomplish. That may sound incredibly naive or incredibly arrogant, but half the time I was oblivious to how good we were or how good our competition was. We just knew that whenever we took the field, we had a really good chance to win.”
Then there was the win over Elk Grove. Johnston mowed down the Thundering Herd lineup, throwing a three-hit shutout with five strikeouts. Elk Grove’s Bob Fernandez fired a six-hitter with 11 strikeouts.
In the fifth inning, Franco walked, Tallman singled, and both advanced before Profitt delivered an apparent RBI single to score Franco.
Elk Grove head coach Gary Dehre and his coaches then approached the umpire to say there was excess pine tar on Profitt’s bat, conjuring memories of Kansas City Royals Hall of Famer George Brett against the New York Yankees. Another bat was then examined because there was no tape above the handle. The game was delayed for 40 minutes. Though those rules were seldom enforced, they were this time and the run was taken off the board.
In the bottom of the seventh, however, Tallman delivered a walk-off home run to win it anyway.
“I think both were games where we came back to win helped us with our mindset to finish it off the right way,” Tallman said. “The Tokay game had a lot of offense. They were a really good team. Elk Grove came in with some good pedigree and then you get the shenanigans that went on. That was one of the most satisfying games that I played in. They were thought of pretty highly within their own team and I don't think a lot of people were giving us much of a chance.”
At one moment during the controversy, the Elk Grove coaches and umpiring crew wanted Brown to put tape on the bats. Brown put the bats on the field and said, “You do it."
“I had to keep Bob from getting into a fight,” Brown quipped. “They had a big coach that sat on a bucket, and all he did was have his rulebook handy. After we beat them, we went down to scout who was going to pitch that Saturday against Merced. They had to play Elk Grove. We’re watching the game and this guy is scouring the book. That was one of their strategies. (During our game against Elk Grove) they had some pipsqueak coach, he looked at Bob and said, ‘I’ll see you after the game.’ It was scoreless until the seventh inning. Troy hits the walkoff home run. They never shook hands or anything. We ended up being best friends with the Merced people.”
The variety of ways in which Napa could beat teams was very compelling. This team had guys hitting for average and power, speed, pitching and defense. There were only four games in which the Indians scored fewer than five runs.
“Growing up with most of those guys, it just seemed like normal occurrences to us,” Lundeen said. “We had guys that could crush. Our pitching staff was really good. It was not shocking that we could do it. It was fun to watch. Coach Brown and Coach Herlocker just let us play. Tallman was one of our biggest leaders on the team. It was just a bunch of us buddies that got together and played baseball.”
Mott added that the unselfishness of the entire roster manifested the ability to beat teams in any fashion. The selflessness included doing little things like coming out of the bullpen to throw an inning, being a defensive replacement, taking walks and moving runners.
“You can have all of the great attributes, but if you don’t have a bunch of dudes that win for each other or pull for each other, that’s all for naught,” Mott said. “That’s what put us over the edge. We were talented, but we had to beat a bunch of talented clubs. What kept us on top of our game was a willingness to lay it on the line for each other.”
Scoreless innings streak
While the Napa pitching staff was dominant throughout the entire season, the staff finished with a flourish in compiling 23 consecutive scoreless innings and 29 straight innings without allowing an earned run.
“It was great being able to throw strikes and let the guys behind us play the game,” Lundeen said. “That was all the comfort you needed. That is what you need even in today’s game. That’s my biggest philosophy in working with pitchers. You throw strikes, let them put the ball in play and let the guys do their job.”
Tallman recalled the streak and the rapport fondly.
“I played with most of those guys for the better part of my career at Napa High,” Tallman said. “Then you had Craig join us. He seemed to fit right in and he was a typical lefty — just a little bit goofy, but that fit our team pretty well. We were a pretty loose bunch. I think that served us well with Coach Brown and Coach Herlocker. They let us be individuals and let us have a good time, but while we were loose we also had a good understanding of when to focus. It’s hard for kids to know when to knuckle down, but we developed that as the year went on. We had a bunch of competitive guys.”
Herlocker added that the pitchers took advantage of the fact they had superb fielders that could make plays and an offense that could overcome pitching mistakes.
“These guys never got themselves in trouble,” Herlocker said. “We had guys that could get a lot of strikeouts, but at the same time, they had a lot of faith in the guys playing behind them. They pitched accordingly. You get a kid like Ruggiero, who kept the ball down and worked the corners. He wasn’t the most overpowering, but he was always on the corners and knew how to pitch. He had a great curveball.”
Pre social media and internet era
There was no social media, which meant that a coach did not have to worry about a youngster putting out an idiotic post on Twitter. The internet was not on the radar. Video games consisted of Atari, but were not a central figure in a kid’s life. In this era, kids would form games even if there was no governing body.
“There was a group of us that would meet up at a school yard and it was like a sandlot game,” Lundeen said. “We’d get on our bicycles. If we weren’t playing baseball, we were on the basketball court at McPherson (Elementary School) playing a pickup game with tons of people. There was no sitting at home, playing video games or staying on your phone or even talking to your buddies on the phone. You were in person. Life back then seemed so easy. You’d be home by the time the street lights came on.”
Mott went a step further in recalling his mother imploring him to come home for dinner.
“My mom had to scream at me to eat dinner,” Mott quipped. “I was out playing. It was hard for me to come home away from my friends. I would have just stayed out there playing until it got dark. I would scramble home, gorge down my food, and run back in the neighborhood and start playing ball again. That was our life. I’m glad I lived that life as a child.”
Pridy grew up in the Browns Valley section of Napa and remembers fondly a world without Twitter.
“We all have a tendency to wax poetic, but it truly felt like a Country Time Lemonade commercial,” Pridy said. “I had a group of guys I loved playing with in the spring and the summer. I had a batting cage at my disposal. I remember riding my bike to the batting cage even before the time changed. We would also play football until dark. I remember Christmas morning at about 11 o’clock, breaking in the batting cage. The friendships that we had went well beyond the baseball field.”
Tallman was also thankful for growing up in a time when a person’s every move was not on camera or social media.
“When you get to our age, you talk to your friends about the good old days. We were able to focus on the task at hand. We didn’t have people pulling us in different directions like kids have today," he said. "My parents probably looked at our generation and said, ‘I don't know how they do it.’ Every era is different, but we were afforded the opportunity to be on the team and work hard together. We were able to understand being in the moment more so than kids today with all of the distractions.”
The end of Brown’s teaching career was the early stages of social media, but his challenge represented doing more administrative heavy lifting on a different front.
“The bad part was having to do all of the stats and get it to the newspapers,” Brown said. “Now if you want to know a kid’s batting average you can just look it up.”
Camaraderie that still runs strong
It is often said that playing on a team is not necessarily about the success within the athletic arena, but the bond that is formed during the playing days and many years after the fact. With this group, however, the 1988 season is just as likely not to be part of the conversation.
“It’s very rewarding,” Brown said. “We get together with Troy Tallman's family (when he’s in town). We went down to Australia at this time last year, I met up with Glen Kelley. I didn’t get a chance to see Brennan because they had to get us out of the country because of COVID. It’s really nice to see these guys grow up, have families. We’re also proud of the fact that some went into teaching and coaching. It must have been a good experience for them if they wanted to do the same thing.”
Lundeen spent some time as an assistant coach under Pridy.
“We don’t talk much about what happened then,” Lundeen said. “It’s all about now. I still run into Troy Mott a lot. I see Dwight Davin on occasion. We run into each other, but it’s more about seeing our buddies. We were just a bunch of kids playing baseball and loving it.”
The natural pattern of going separate ways and starting families and professions means that crossing paths becomes more limited. Mott added that reconnecting with teammates at graduation parties, anniversaries or weddings throughout the years means revisiting an instant bond.
“I could go a long time without seeing some of those guys, even five or 10 years. But as soon as we get back, we have this amazing bond,” Mott said. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s like we just saw each other the day before. Sports doesn’t care about your race, religion or the background you come from as far as your finances are concerned. Once we get between the lines, we’re on a level playing field.”
Pridy recalled watching tapes of various games, including the dogpile after the final out against Christian Brothers. Pridy added that Ah-Mau’s father had compiled the tape and it conjured up various other memories separate from baseball. Pridy also recalled Franco, who lives in Texas, being his best man and how the two remain in constant contact.
“If all you get out of 1988 hanging a banner in the gym, you’re missing a big part of the story,” Pridy said. “I saw Coach Herlocker in the parking lot at Lucky's the other day and talked for 20 minutes. We talked about anything but 1988. You see Coach Brown on campus subbing for someone and 1988 doesn’t come up. It’s family, have you heard from this guy or that guy? That’s what a team ultimately is. It’s not about the W's, it’s what you build together.
"I remember the dogpile because I've seen it. When I look at that video, it’s more fun to watch the stuff because Dennis just kept the tape rolling. I see myself and my wife (Aine) as a junior in high school. I see friends. I see Les and Marsha Franco. I see us goofing around after the game stealing each other’s hats. I see so many other things that are more important than the championship, but that championship allowed me to preserve that memory longer.”
Tallman is an example of how, for one living out of state, neither time nor distance breaks the bond.
“If I were to come back to Napa and see a group of those guys out and about, it would be a good time,” he said. “They were guys that were fun to be around. Everybody seemed to come together and not have any pettiness. Everyone wanted to play, but I never felt that anyone was secretly rooting against you in the background. I’m still close to my coaches. Whenever I come back to Napa, we all get together. They are family friends. I feel pretty lucky to be part of something like that.”
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